Monday, May 9, 2011

Beef Up This Common Writing Mistake

Common mistake: Writing generic, vague, or mediocre descriptions.

Whether we use one revealing word or a more complete description depends on the scene we're writing. Obviously, we aim to maintain correct pacing and tension--a lengthy depiction of scenery would slow down a tense scene and should be avoided--but wherever possible we should develop the details to create a powerful picture.

Let's take a character and name her Linda. She's walking up a street, trying to find a house her brother John may be hiding out in, and she's distracted yet taking in her surroundings. The scene isn't high-paced but a general mood of uneasiness persists.

The basic description might be this:

Linda treaded up the sidewalk, checking the address on the paper in her hand. Weeds towered in the grass, and a lone beer bottle rested at the lawn's edge.

The two sentences are adequate but aren't pulling their full weight.

Let's beef them up.

Take a few minutes to think about a series of questions related to the scenery. My main question would be:

How can I use the scenery to further the story either by enhancing the mood, developing the character, helping the pace, or all of the above?  

What kind of beer bottle does Linda see?
What types of weeds grace the yard? Pretty flowery ones like dandelions or clover? Brambles?
Is the grass overgrown, green, brown?
What about the paper--anything special about it?
Does the beer bottle or neighborhood evoke any feelings in Linda?
How far away is the address from where she parks her car?
Does she even notice the neighborhood or is she too preoccupied with the task at hand?
What's the weather like?
Here's another version.

Linda treaded up the sidewalk and checked the address scrawled on the torn paper in her hand. Her sandal caught on a raised crack. Frowning, she steadied herself. Dandelions gone to seed towered in the crispy, sunburned grass, and a lone Corona bottle rested against stalks of dead thistle. Abandoned, forgotten, just like John.

Notice this gives the reader the impression of time passing. It also hints at Linda's mood and relates her assessment of the scenery back to her brother. Why is this good for the reader? It heightens the tension and gives more clues about what to expect when Linda finds the house.

Another way to beef the description up is to include a thought or physical reaction to her surroundings. Is she scared? Frustrated? Excited?

Linda treaded up the sidewalk and checked the address scrawled on the torn paper in her hand. Her sandal caught on a raised crack. Frowning, she steadied herself. Why would John stay here?  Dandelions gone to seed towered in the crispy, sunburned grass, and a lone Corona bottle rested against stalks of dead thistle. Abandoned, forgotten, just like her brother. She kicked the bottle into the road, wincing as it shattered.

In this version, we get the earlier bonus of time passing but we also get more of Linda's mood--anger, disappointment, and maybe even guilt.

If our scene does not call for a blown-out description, we can still work at using potent words. That's what synonyms are for, right?

What are your secrets to avoiding vague descriptions?

Have a wonderful Monday!


  1. Great tips, Jill. I'm not one to be bogged down with overboard description. I think you packed a powerful punch into a simple paragraph.

  2. Great tips. The best one for me has been specificity. Using specific verbs and nouns. This has made my descriptions much better.

    Hope you had a GREAT Mother's Day, Jill!

  3. Being specific to the characters and using strong words that create a mental image and reveal character. But of course, use too many of them and it's overdone! But well placed they can make a huge difference! gReat post!

  4. Yummy...Corona! :D

    I like specifics and exuding feeling as well.

    ~ Wendy

  5. Jessica P: Neither am I. I flesh out scenery and descriptions while revising.

    Katie: Excellent advice. The more specific we can be, the clearer the visuals for the reader.

    Laura: True. We don't want to go overboard with descriptions to the point it takes away from the story.

    Wendy: You're awesome at specifics. :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  6. Great example, Jill! I sometimes have to remind myself to use the five senses more...especially smell. I always forget that one...

  7. I love description. My challenge is to use less of it than I might like. I'm a visual person, so I sometimes get carried away painting a scene and have to make judicious use of my delete key.

  8. I think the other thing that makes the new versions great is that the details aren't static description. They're all props in some way to the character, making the description active. Great post!

  9. I esp. liked the addition of the thought/question. Great example, Jill. Thanks for the reminder lesson.

  10. Great tips.

    I like to close my eyes, picture the scene, and describe it out loud, as if I'm the MC and someone else is in the room with me--giving specifics like I'm describing a painting. It helps me decide what to include or what is excessive and unnecessary.

    I don't do this when I'm writing in the coffee shop, mind you. Hee hee.

  11. awesome! You nailed that with a perfect paragraph!

  12. Melissa: Same here. Description does not come effortlessly to me. :)

    Keli: I'm the opposite! I always, always have to add details in.

    Jami: Right--every detail should relate to the character in some way. Great reminder!

    Patrice: I needed the reminder lesson--that's why I wrote it! :)

    C.E.: What a great idea. I'm going to have to try it--not in Starbucks, though. :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  13. I think it's important to filter everything through the perception of the character, which the last paragraph did so well. Word choice depicted mood and perception, but gave us a vivid picture as well.

  14. Great examples. I tend to write the actions first then go back and add the details. I like how you conveyed different moods with your examples.

  15. Exceptional analysis and great detailed examples. Heh, I'm a detail monger. My problem has been cutting the details to increase pace.

    The taste of wet concrete made me roll onto my back with a throbbing headache and open my eyes to a dark mass overhead. It was too dark to make out anything more than vague shapes without a flashlight....

  16. Pk: Welcome--and thank you!

    Ralene: Yes. If the description would read the same through any of our characters' eyes, we need to tweak it.

    Kelly: I'm the same way. Action/dialogue first--details later.

    P.W.: Not me! Ooo, creepy mood-love it!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  17. Great points :)
    It didn't slow down the pace. And it provided info about the main character, her relationship with the other character, the feelings she was experiencing, and the scenery. Actually, the scenery was the auxiliary tool for the above.

    Thank you for the interesting post :)

  18. Love these examples, Jill. Thanks for sharing! I love to fuse setting with emotions, like the dandelions in your scene. Or if you'd made them pretty flowers, you could contrast that with the character's downer mood. :)

  19. Jill:
    A good lesson in adding descriptive words to a scene. Thank you for the reminder.

  20. I always have to make certain that my description on page actually matches w/ the one in my head. It's so clear in my head that I mistakenly think it's clear on paper. I love what you've done w/ the description and adding in the emotion as well. Good stuff.

  21. I love this post, Jill. You teach by great example.

  22. Em: Me too. I think I'm the editing queen!

    Jacqvern: Welcome! And thank you!

    Sarah: Definitely. Sometimes it's more interesting to have the details clash with the character's emotions.

    Quiet Spirit: Thank you!

    Jill: I have the same problem. I never add enough description in my first drafts!

    Constance: Thanks!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  23. I like the progression of comments. I hadn't thought of doing it this way.

  24. Thanks thias could be useful today as I'm editing.

  25. Nancy: Oh, thanks!

    Comingalive: Welcome! Good luck editing. :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  26. Jill, this was such an excellent example. I struggle with balancing too much vs. too little description. But you're right, well-placed, potent words make a huge difference.


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