How To Strengthen Descriptions That Aren’t Holding Their Weight #1

Heyo everybody! Hope you all had a nice restful weekend, but it’s Monday again which means more writing content!

Today we’re going to cover a topic that I know I’m going to have to break into smaller parts because it’s just way too huge to shove into one post. And that topic, if for some reason you missed the title of this post, is description.

Hands down, setting and descriptions are one of my favorite topics, but it’s not an easy one to master. And especially when we’re getting caught up in trying to write our drafts, it’s easy to think that we’re being clear with the settings in our head when we’re actually not. And we tend to find this out after we’ve gotten some feedback.

So before we get into the meat of this, the first tip I’d like to say is:

Make sure your description/setting is actually describing something.

Sounds like a no-brainer, I know, but you’d be surprised. I’ve read descriptions that where authors dance around the actual thing that’s supposed to be described rather than just tell you straightforwardly what’s there. This is common when a writer is trying to describe something with the “Not Approach” aka trying to describe what something is by saying what it’s not. It goes something like…

It’s not quite a cat, but not quite a dog. It’s not bird one hundred percent, feathers or no feathers. And certainly not a lizard.

In the above example, you probably find yourself asking, well what the hell is it? And you’re perfectly right to ask that, because that example doesn’t tell you anything about what the thing is, and as a reader it’s incredibly frustrating to read stuff like this because a) it wastes words, b) it doesn’t move the story forward, c) it doesn’t do what you probably think it’s supposed to do anyway.

Now does that mean you can’t use the “Not Approach”? Of course not, just don’t use it the way it’s used in the example with just a bunch of nots in a row that don’t have any sustenance. That approach only works when you have an expectation or something to base your contrasts on. If the example above went something like…

It’s not quite a cat, the claws are dull and round as if they can’t retract, but it’s not quite a dog either, the muzzle is too short and the ears are bearish-round. The gray mottled cockatiel-like crest on it’s head seem to suggest some kind of mixed bird, but it looks more fur than anything.

Here a reader has a little more to work with in the imagination department because there are details that actually describe the thing and that the reader can grab on to as they try to figure out what this thing looks like.

But enough of that, let’s talk about 3 important fundamentals.

  • Noun-verb distance
  • Noun strength
  • Verb strength

1.The Distance Between Your Nouns And Verbs Is Bigger Than You Think

When I was a beginner in writing novels and what-not, I devoured so many books on writing, but I was astonished that not a single one actually spoke about this. In fact, I never actually saw this until my last year in an Advanced Poetry class. Yes, that’s right. Not even in a novel writing class! Which is really a shame because this actually important, especially if you’ve ever been told that your sentences are not clear. But this is all you have to remember on this.

The closer your main noun is to your main verb, the clearer and stronger your description becomes.

Compare:

The brown tabby purrs on the windowsill.

To:

The cat, a brown striped tabby, fluffy, tail sweeping back and forth, ears twitching, purrs on the windowsill.

If you’re debating on which to throw in your novel, you don’t want to throw in sentences like the second one because 1) the reader has to juggle a lot of information in their head, 2)the verb is so far away from the main subject that it’s easy to get confused and have to read it over to make sense of it (is the tabby’s stripes brown and the cat is a different color or is it a brown tabby with different color stripes altogether?), 3) the description is bloated (do I really need to know that the cat is fluffy or that its ears are twitching, or that its tail is moving if all the cat does is purr on the windowsill?)

Now this doesn’t mean go back and change every sentence where the noun and the verb aren’t next-door neighbors attached by the hip. Your sentence is fine if it’s clear to you and the reader. Or if you’re going for a specific effect in writing.

2. Make Sure You’re Using The Most Precise Nouns You Can Find

This topic and the next one are fixes that you can make right away no matter what the sentence is.

The way I like to put this is that the strength of your description comes from two power places in any sentence, the noun and the verb. But let’s focus on the noun right now.

The strength of the noun you use is important to make any description because precise nouns make readers recall vivid. But also the brain tends to attach more to things that are super specific because specificity stands out like a sore thumb and the mind has to slow down and process it. This is why we’re told to not use cliches, because the mind is so comfortable with them that it barely notices them. Think about it, if you live on a street with a bunch of white BMWs parked on the street, you won’t notice if another white BMW shows up. But you would notice if a bright red Porsche showed up because it stands out immediately, and that’s what a good noun does for a description: stand out immediately. 

Now finding what precise noun to use can be hard because you have to be specific, but you have to watch out for connotations and even more so, you don’t want one that undermines your description either. But the general rule of thumb is this…

If the noun you have already needs a lot of adjectives, or modifying phrases to justify itself, then it’s not strong enough. For those of you who need specific numbers, one or two adjectives is the okay zone I use. Three is the warning zone; I might leave this alone for a variety of reasons, but I’m likely to change it to something to make the sentence leaner. And four is absolutely where I say, okay, if this isn’t for a specific point it’s got to go.

Being too general can easily slide into being misleading. For example, don’t say bird when you want the reader to imagine an ostrich or a peacock because we tend to think of the tinier variety when you say bird and different people imagine different birds. Don’t say car if you’re imagining a hummer. Don’t say pig when you mean boar.

Always check if the word you’re using has any connotations. It’s okay to fall back on the next best choice, if the most specific term just isn’t appropriate to the tone or to the characters that you’re writing.

3. Always Look For Fresh, Strong Verbs

Ah, verbs. The other powerhouse of a good descriptions. Weak verb, weak sentence. ‘Nuff said.

But verbs are like nouns in that there are very easy tells to see if the one you’re using is too weak You only need to check for adverbs. Unlike nouns though, a strong verb doesn’t need even a single adverb around it. Some people may try to argue that, “hey, adverbs aren’t that bad, I like to use it like, blah, blah, blah,” and thats cool and what-not, but here’s the thing.

I’m not saying that you can’t use them. You can. But I’ve never seen an adverb in fiction that was “necessary”. The problem with adverbs as modifiers is that, unlike a noun, 99% of the time when you fix a verb to be the strongest possible verb, that verb that you’re using now has all the information that the description needs to do it’s thing. The adverb doesn’t add any additional information that a verb can’t do itself whereas modifiers like adjectives are almost necessary because a noun can’t carry 100% of the necessary information to form the correct picture.

Sure I can tell you that I have a BMW but don’t know if it’s blue or silver. You don’t know if I have the right color tag on it. You don’t know if my windows are tinted or busted from a car accident. Whereas if I’m striding, you don’t need to be told I’m doing it “confidently” because no one strides unconfidently. If you’re unconfident you take short hesitant steps, you shuffle forward, you tip-toe in the attempt to not make sudden movements.

So as a result, I find that in writing, if I change the verb, I can’t justify the adverb anymore. And if I can justify an adverb, I’m probably not using the right verb in the first place. Though one thing that they are somewhat useful for is adding some varied rhythm to your sentences with the extra syllables. But that’s starting to get into a whole different topic and there’s just no time to get into that now.

Also! Don’t be afraid to use nouns and adjectives as new verbs. I’ve found that adapting parts of speech around is a great way to come up with fresh and amazing descriptions! Imagine egg yolks yellowing up the bottom of your skillet, or a slimy tapeworm sidewinding in the dirt, ousted from its wolf spider host (bleh gross I know, but it’s vivid enough!) Because it’s not common either, you don’t have to worry too much about cliches.

But this post is starting to get long so I’m going to cut it here. Let me know if this was helpful, or if there’s a writing topic that you want to see covered on this site, then drop it in the comments below. 🙂 See you all next post!

 

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