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One of the problem areas that I face while writing my novel is that I often get stuck when writing descriptions. I do well when writing action sequences, when writing dialogues, when showing character interactions but when it comes to describing the surroundings, I simply am not able to do it. I mean, I can paint a picture in my head but it just does not translate the same to the paper. It misses the richness, the vividness that I want. And even when I force myself, the end product comes out looking visibly bad. I find myself using the same phrases again and again.

For e.g., If I'm trying to describe a palace, in my head I can see its white walls, how it shines in the moonlight, its entire awe inspiring structure but when I put it to paper, it just does not evoke the same reaction. It just feels as if it is missing something.

I am looking to make my descriptions more rich and vivid and immersive to the reader. So what can I do to improve my ability to write descriptions ? Maybe any online resources or some recommended books ?

I have had a look at these questions -

Improving techniques independently: Description

Any helpful tips on how to, better use description in my writing?

and also taken a look at Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. While they deal with theories to use (5 senses approach, etc.), what I am looking for is a more practical approach with practical tips and examples reflecting them.

Update: I'm clarifying my question in response to Laurem Ipsum's question -

First of all, when I say "a practical approach", I mean it in the sense of an example oriented approach and not in the sense of feasibility (I should have said practical-oriented)...for e.g. starting with a scenario and making it better with each tip so that I can actually see the tip in action, something like that (I know it might be a tall order, but doesn't hurt to ask :))

Second, The issue I've is not with the visualisation (as is in the five senses approach), In any scene - I can observe the scene with all my senses but when i try to put it in on paper, I am not able to make it as immersive as it is in my head. My beta readers do not walk away with the same impression that I've in my mind. I understand that people interpret differently and I do not want to force every scene but in certain scenes, I want to create an experience the readers want to be immersed in.

Take a look at the below excerpt from an Ashok Banker book:

Rama.

Through a shroud of torrential rain, glimpsed darkly. Upon a grassy, green mound in the centre of a clearing in the heart of a jungle named Janasthana. Motionless as a redstone statue, rain sluicing off the hardened planes of his body, he stood, one dark shadow amidst many. The sinuous curve of a longbow was welded to his silhouette; rain ran down the length of a longsword hanging by a thongbelt at his slender waist.

The clearing was a rough oval some five hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide: broadest in the north, narrowing in the centre and tapering into thorny undergrowth at the southern end. It broke the dense continuity of the ancient jungle with shocking abruptness, like a footprint left by a giant in millennia past—or a deva. The treeline sheered off raggedly at its periphery, trees leaning inwards drunkenly like a ragged ring of bhang-sodden revellers on a feast day.

... (Some Text Removed)

Whether you believed the legend or not, it was a good spot to make a stand against a horde of rakshasas. A desperate, outnumbered, outmatched, last stand.

Rama.

The rain fell steadily, speaking a thousand tongues. It shirred like an angry cobra upon the large fronds of plantain and papaya trees, rattled like hailstones on the hollow worm-corrupted length of a rotten trunk. At the northernmost edge of the clearing, atop a very tall oak tree, concealed from the eyes of the mortals below, a simian creature squatted on a sturdy branch. From time to time, he shifted slightly, always keeping the mortal warrior below clearly in view. He hugged the trunk beside him with spindly yet strong arms. Even had the rain not cloaked the upper branches in a fine mist-like haze, the canopy of newly-grown spring foliage was dense enough to mask his presence from those below.

The text maybe a bit purple for some but it allows me to visualise the whole thing exactly as it is described. I'm completely immersed in this. This is what I want for my readers. I want my text to extract an image out of the reader.

  • What's impractical or inapplicable about what you've looked at? Why is "describe things using five senses" not practical? Is this question writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4982/… practical? Or this one? writers.stackexchange.com/questions/3637/how-to-create-space – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Dec 16 '16 at 20:04
  • @LaurenIpsum: I have updated the question in response to your question...hope it helps understand my point of view... – user96551 Dec 17 '16 at 10:23
  • On reading the title the first idea that came to my mind was to reread your own work. I'll edit it now so that others reading this comment won't know what I'm talking about. – user6035379 Dec 17 '16 at 10:53
  • Purple indeed! If that's a style you want to emulate at least try and make things consistent. In describing a single moment, he has the rain simultaneously like hailstones and fine mist. The simian form has its arms wrapped round a tree but still has a perfect view to the ground? With his face buried in the trunk? How does that work? How does an oval get to be narrower in the middle and taper at one end? Do you get oak trees in jungles? The more detail you try and pack in, the more some readers, like me, get so annoyed at inaccuracy that we close the book. For me? less is more. – Spagirl Dec 17 '16 at 18:45
  • @Spagirl: 1.The rain is not like hailstones or mist, it is making that noise based on what it hits (fronds or trunks), speaking a thousand tongues 2.[something like this] (google.co.in/…), 3.It can if it is a [tri-oval] (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tri-oval) (or so I imagine) 4.oaks in jungles, [why not] (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak#Genus_Cyclobalanopsys) ? The point being, the above text helps me easily visualise something that I already know and as a result, sets the mood for me. – user96551 Dec 18 '16 at 11:26
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The problem with description is that description is the wrong word for it. The right word is evocation. You are looking to evoke a response in the reader which brings a sense of place flooding into their minds. You can't build it for them; you don't have the materials. You have to pull it out out of them.

Consider:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

"The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples" is not exactly a passage rich in detail, but it powerfully evokes an image. "cloud-capped" towers is a particularly economical way of suggesting not only great height but a kind of misty insubstantiality. But the words don't work as well when quoted in isolation from the larger passage. The preceding lines are not themselves description, but they set the mood in which the descriptive passage evokes images from the reader. As in so much of writing, it is mostly about the set up. Do the setup right, and the effect itself can be summoned with a few quite ordinary words.

The passage you quote is quite lurid and overwritten, though that may be a deliberate attempt to summon the ghost of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But much of its effect it achieved by evocative rather than descriptive language. It is weakest when it is being descriptive:

The clearing was a rough oval some five hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide: broadest in the north, narrowing in the centre and tapering into thorny undergrowth at the southern end.

It is strongest when it is being evocative:

rain ran down the length of a longsword hanging by a thongbelt at his slender waist.

Here the focus on a particular detail immediately evokes the wider picture in the reader's mind.

So, you are right on the money when you say, "I want my text to extract an image out of the reader." It is always about building an image by evoking images that are already in the reader's mind. To do that, you have to focus on two things: the evocative detail, and the setup that allows the evocative detail to work as it should.

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As a reader, I prefer novels with very little description.

If the protagonist is on a spaceship, just say "spaceship", and my mind will imagine what it looks like. If your protagonist meets a beautiful woman, just say "beautiful woman", and my mind will imagine a woman that I find beautiful.

This freedom to imagine the fictional world is what makes reading fun for me. If you describe the spaceship in detail, I will get bored and may even abandon your book.

Your own frustrating experience with trying to write good descriptions is already telling you what to do: don't write descriptions. Provide the minimum detail that is necessary for your story, and leave out all the rest.

Look at my answer here for some ideas on how to smoothly incorporate description into the action instead of breaking the rhythm of your narrative and boring your readers with purely descriptive passages.


Some comments:

  1. "My beta readers do not walk away with the same impression that I've in my mind."

    This is something you cannot overcome. Different people experience the same reality in different ways. So certainly your writing will always mean different things to different readers.

    If your aim is to create the same image in the minds of all your readers, your life will hold nothing but disappointment for you.

  2. "The rain fell steadily, speaking a thousand tongues. It shirred like an angry cobra upon the large fronds of plantain and papaya trees, rattled like hailstones on the hollow worm-corrupted length of a rotten trunk."

    If that is how you want to write, then write like that.

    Maybe the difficulty for you here is that you think of that passage as description, while the author wrote it as action. The weather, or more specifically the rain, is the protagonist in the first part of that last paragraph, and the writer wrote what the rain does like he would write what a human protagonist does.

    Think of description as action. What happens? What is the chronology of the "descriptive events"? If it is weather you describe, how does the weather move and develop? If you describe a room, how does the gaze move over the objects in it (scanning left to right, following the protagonist from the door to the window, zooming in on some object from a general wide view, zooming out from some limited awareness to understanding where you are, ...)? What does the description build up to, what follows from it, how does it affect the human protagonist(s) or other elements in the story? Thinking of description as action will give you an outline or structure for your description that you can then flesh out.

    In your example, the description moves from the rain, to how the rain interacts with the trees, to a specific tree, to a creature on that tree, to the relation of that creature to "those below" (who do not see it, because the rain and tree hide it). The rain gives mood (violence, nature) to the scene and to the creature. Because the creature is undescribed, the mood and character of the weather "rubs off" or "bleeds into" the creature, making it appear as a personification of the rain and the forest. The description here has the purpose of making the creature appear as some powerful natural force, like the weather.

  3. If your description has no narrative purpose other than to show what something looks like, delete it. Everything in your story must serve that story.

  • Yes, I understand that and I do not want to hinder you imagining it but I want to provide some more details to make it vivid for you....I could just say spaceship or I could describe that it looks a bit like a flat saucer, has a surface which keeps varying its texture, has lights which twinkle in a myriad of ways...doesn't this help make the imagination better ? (True, it is opinion based) – user96551 Dec 17 '16 at 10:30
  • @user96551 I phrased the spaceship example in such an extreme way to bring my point accross. See the edit to my answer. – user5645 Dec 17 '16 at 11:38
  • Yes...the second point..what you elaborate on...that's good...It certainly helps with a part of the problem but If you look at the first part of the ashok banker text, there is no action there, it is plain setting...that's part of what I want to improve... – user96551 Dec 17 '16 at 15:02
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    @user96551 I really have a hard time focussing on that part. It bores me to tears. – user5645 Dec 17 '16 at 16:28

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