Recording what we see is one of the least challenging tasks in writing; any competent writer can write competent description.
But writing good description, creating pictures with words — ah, that’s another matter. Mere competence won’t give us the necessary command to select exactly the right image and dress it in exactly the right words. Description’s goal is to replicate something clearly, briefly and suggestively, so the reader sees and senses what the writer saw and sensed.
Good description is fast, spare, specific and showing. Poor description is slow, wordy, vague and telling. That distinction between showing and telling is particularly important. Telling fails to create an immediate and vivid mental image; rather, it offers a conclusion, which readers may not accept because it’s not their conclusion. Telling interprets, while showing creates a convincing picture.
The worst description I ever read was this, by a best-selling novelist: “The war was just terrible.”
Why is that breathless sentence so bad, aside from being idiotically simplistic? First, it’s bad because it tells rather than shows, and second, it’s bad because, in fact, it doesn’t even tell. What was the war like? Terrible. How terrible? JUST terrible. The statement is empty, without information.
The sunset was beautiful. The concert was noisy. The new furniture was comfortable. The food was delicious. His new cologne smelled good. What do you see, hear, feel, taste, smell?
The weather was awful. The puppy was cute. The speaker was pompous. That kind of telling but empty writing reminds me of an amusing sentence from a student writer: “His vocabulary was so small it was like . . . whatever.”
Consider: “The impressive structure, with its white paint and red onion-domes, stands out in a little valley in the mountains.”
“White paint” and “red onion-domes” create a picture, but “impressive structure” does not — rather, it tells. Showing and finding stronger verbs will help: The Byzantine cathedral, its fresh white paint punctuated by red onion-domes, gleams in the mountain valley.
Showing writing is often sense-based. Evoking the senses helps the reader see, hear, feel, taste and smell what the writer saw, heard, felt, tasted and smelled. Here’s a sense-based passage from my own work:
“He jerked awake, mouth dry as chalk, to an unfamiliar slurry sound and muted footsteps in the carpeted corridor. Without rising, he pulled his hand from the warm blankets and touched the cold steel of the Glock, its holster hanging from a drawer pull, and squinted at the strange room’s murky shadows. That gray rectangle, a doorway, yes. He sat up and sniffed the air like a woods animal. Coffee — strong, hot, dark. He could almost taste it.”
What if I told instead of showed? “He awoke to strange sounds in the hall and, reaching for the Glock, looked around room. Someone was brewing coffee, and it smelled good.”
Here, from my work, are three versions of another descriptive passage. The revisions try for less telling and more showing, especially through active rather than static verbs. (Static verbs are all forms of be and linking verbs such as seem, become, appear, etc.):
Original: He was outside clipping his hedges. I hadn’t seen him for several months and was shocked and saddened by his sudden frailty. We shook hands — his was bony in mine, the flesh dry and cool. His trousers and sweater were loose on his frame and emphasized how much weight he’d lost.
First revision: He was out front clipping his hedges. He was frailer than when I had seen him in November and looked gaunt in baggy gray cords and an old black cardigan. He extended a bony hand, and I took it, eyes stinging. His grip was dry and cool.
Second revision: He waved his hedge-clippers at me, and I paused, jolted by his new frailty. His ancient gray trousers hung on his hipbones, and the old cardigan loosely draped his hollow chest. When he extended a cool, dry hand, I clutched it, eyes stinging. It was like gripping a bird’s claw.
That last revision, by showing, brings readers into the scene and helps them feel what the narrator felt. Telling, however, usually keeps readers at arm’s length.
Here’s a wonderful descriptive lead (author unknown): “Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon.”
Again, good description strives to recreate reality by showing in vivid detail. We’ll be better at recalling those details if we take pictures at our scenes. Cell phone cameras make that easy.
And we can record a sensory inventory in our notebooks while we’re on the scene so that later, through our writing, we can help readers see, hear and feel.