Lesson Three: Description

Lesson Three: Description

A Lesson by The Perfectionist

A guest lecture on Description


The following guest lecture is brought to you by Katie:

In the past few days I have been helping someone out with their story, I am not sure why I am determined to help him make it better, possibly because I have nothing to do while waiting to hear back from school, or possibly because I am tired of reading good ideas not told as well as they could be.


So first problem I chose to address is the problem with descriptive language. For now we are going to stick to talking about settings. Personally I think the setting makes the book just as much as the characters or the plot. Consider for a second, how much setting makes a movie. Imagine Lord of the Rings being shot in your back yard. The plot would still be amazing, the acting fantastic and the story would be no worse. But would anyone be interested in seeing it?


 There are a few things to keep in mind when describing the setting of your story. The first thing to consider is whether the area you are describing is an existing area, or whether it is one that is made up. And if it is existing how well known it is. The key to good description is just as much knowing what to leave out as it is knowing what to leave in.  So here are just a few things to keep in mind when creating your perfect setting


If the setting is a recognisable area, describe what makes it unique or unusaual.

If your setting is a city there is no sense in telling us that there are a lot of buildings, that’s kind of a given. What you should tell us about is what makes this particular city unique. What makes it different from every other city in the world? It is a well kept city? Is it dark an dingy? What area of the city are we in? Are we in the slums? Or maybe we are downtown? You get the idea.


If you are introducing a whole new imaginary world...

You really have your work cut out for you as far as settings go. However much I know some of us would like, we can’t normally just give entire chapters on describing what our world looks like, how it came to be, and exactly how this world exists. I say normally because there are of course people who make it work wonderfully with their story, but not all of us have the ability to do this. So to start we need to decide what is important for the reader to know right away. And have them continue to learn about the world throughout the book. The key to this is, learning about it has to feel natural, it can’t feel like you are manipulating this new world to do what you want as you want it to. Everything you add needs to make sense in your universe, so it’s generally a bad idea to make it up as you go.

My advice to you, is to have the entire universe written out somewhere so you know how everything works, and know where everything is. Depending on how elaborate your world is, draw yourself a map of it, and reference it as you go. Make sure you know this universe inside and out before you start trying to describe it. Because you know so much about this universe it becomes a real place to you, and that means you can picture your characters there every step of the way, and if you can, we can.


If you are introducing something new, compare it to a familiar concept.

Not much explanation needed, but basically, if your universe has a large structure that many people live in and pay rent to do so. If it’s not called an apartment in your universe don’t describe it by saying it is a large structure that many people live in. Compare it to an apartment, and then refer to rule one.


Description is all about the language you choose.

We need to get the feel for that location so make sure to watch your word choice, harsher sounding letters at the start or at the end of words are great for describing less then appealing setting. Words like, Dark, Dank, Musky, Stench. When describing a nicer one, it’s normally better to use words with soft sounds, because we relate them to nicer things subconsciously. So words like wondrous, amazing gentle, etc.  This does not always hold true, obviously, but it is something to be aware of.


And the Golden Rule of description in general...

It’s not all about what you see. Good description has to appeal to all of your senses. So here are five questions to ask yourself when describing anything:

Can I touch it, if so how does it feel?
Can I taste it, if so, how does it taste?
Can I smell it, if so, how does it smell?
Can I hear it, if so, what does it sound like?
Can I see it, if so, what does it look like?

Don’t forget to add feeling.

Feeling is what separates great description from good description. The setting always makes your character feel something, whether it’s the comfortable feeling of his own bed, or the terror that comes from being in a cave the setting evokes some kind of emotion. It is particularly important to highlight this when moving in to a new location. If the character leaves a bright field in to a dark cave, tell us that being in the dark cave makes him uncomfortable.


Your homework? Go enter the new Serious Business contest!


And a big thank you to TP for letting me take over his course for a week

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Posted 8 Years Ago

I'm miserable at settings, most of my stories and books happen on an empty stage. Thanks for this one, it's really helpful. :)
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The Perfectionist
The Perfectionist


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