Writing description for a story – either you love it or you hate it. Either way, as writers, description is something we all have to do.
Description is often tricky because it straddles the line between telling and showing. In this post, we look at one single (and perhaps surprising) trick that can make your descriptive passages become instantly memorable while both showing and telling at the same time.
Another description trick you need to already know
To use the writing trick that you will learn from this post, you need to know another secret of descriptive text. The trick of letting your readers do most of the work for you.
You can use your understanding of your readers to write less text for the same effect. As long as you have a good idea what your readers are familiar with, you can use just a few words to create a picture in the reader’s mind of the scene.
For example, if I wrote this:
Jack sat alone in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea.
Without telling you anything about the kitchen, the cup, or Jack, you already are starting to create a picture of the scene. this is because we all know what a kitchen looks like, we know what a cup of tea is, and we have all been alone at some point in our lives. As these are common elements that readers should be familiar with, I was able to get away without saying much about the scene.
As readers, we learn something about Jack (he likes tea), we wonder why he is alone, and we have made a whole bunch of assumptions about the kind of kitchen he is in.
Unless there are plot-relevant details that our reader needs to know, we can move right on to the next thing that happens (in my story, a kitten walks in and chaos ensues).
By picking commonly understood trigger words (kitchen in this case) we can make our readers do the describing to themselves.
Now, let us get to that secret
I am aware of maybe one writer that admits they use this trick. Which is strange because it is the most effective descriptive method I know.
Following on from letting your reader’s minds doing the work for you, you have freed up space for other story elements. However, the setting is still largely unremarkable. Which is where this secret comes in.
Here is the secret:
Identify or invent one surprising detail.
For example, a snow-covered winter woods with a single victorian era lamp post in it. From that description alone, you probably already guessed that I was talking about The Lion, The Witch, and Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. That one detail is all we needed to make the setting stick in our memory.
For example, if I describe a ratty run-down office, you could probably picture it. If I described a ratty run-down office with a pristine bright red shiny filing cabinet, well, now you want to know what is so special about the cabinet. Moreover, that one detail should be enough to anchor you in the setting and cause you to remember it.
All it takes is one unusual, unexpected, or remarkable feature of a setting to hang a fully memorable yet short description upon.
Give it a try and let me know how you get on.
For more tips on writing be sure to check out our writing advice archives.