adding description without narrative infodump
My problem with descriptions is a lack of them. I tend to have naked, faceless mannequins that stand on air. So I have to go back and add scenery and put flesh and clothes on characters.
Every writer has their own method of doing this. I’m going to show you some examples of what I do – at least at this stage in my writing. Instead of saying there was this, she saw that, I try to bring descriptions alive. Use active verbs. Give action in the midst, or put my character in the action to draw the reader in more.
Let’s take a simple description. I want to have my character see tall towers, turrets, balconies, and alcoves. I also want a small, circular courtyard with a water fountain and flowers. And yes, this may sound familiar, I used the towers and courtyard example in an earlier column. But let’s use it anyway:
We have lots of towers and turrets and they’re tall and high up. So instead of just saying they were there, let’s have them do something. They rise up in the air. Like guards – which helps describe their function as well.
Balconies. What could be happening on these balconies? Perhaps women are on them, shaking out rugs or gossiping. Might there be a decorative touch on the balconies? Perhaps some flowering vines on the rails?
Alcoves. Ooh, nice and dark – cool on a hot day.
That courtyard. Let’s bring it alive. It has a fountain, so how about someone fetching water. What sound does the water make?
And also consider, what is the weather like? It’s the end of summer so it’s still hot. And it’s mid to late afternoon.
So let’s put it together:
Glittering white towers and turrets rose as sentinels, and she squinted as she tried to see their tops in the blazing sun. She brushed the damp hair from her forehead as alcoves beckoned, tempting her with cool darkness.
Shouts drew her attention above. Women on balconies shook out rugs while they chatted to each other over rails overhung with blooming vines.
Several girls shrieked as they raced down stairs that curved descended into a small, circular courtyard filled with baskets of bright flowers. Water tinkled musically into a fountain and the girls dipped their ewers in it as they laughed.
Yeah, yeah. I could add so much more. The texture of stone used, a breeze cooling her sweating face or that she wishes she could splash some of that cool water from the fountain on her face, the sweet scent of the flowers wafting to her, what those women on the balconies look like as well as the girls in courtyard. But I’m not trying to do a complete job, just give some examples.
Besides, for a passing impression as she walks by, how much more is needed? If she were to stop in the courtyard to talk to the girls perhaps we’d go into more detail then. But a column on how much description is enough will have to wait. I’m still learning that as well.
originally published in The Sword Review 2005-09-19