descriptive writing

The Power of Contrast in Description

Description: A Busy Writer's GuideBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Readers need description to help them imagine the story world and to keep them grounded in the story, but often it’s considered the slow, boring part.

It doesn’t have to be.

Done right, description keeps the pace moving and brings out our point-of-view character’s emotions, backstory, and conflicts. It can also add subtext, foreshadow, and build on the theme.

One of my favorite ways to bring description to life and make sure it serves a bigger purpose in the story is to use contrast. I’m excited Jami Gold has welcomed me back to her blog today to share how to make this work.

I hope you’ll join me there to find out about the power of contrast in description.

Want to know more about writing description? Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide is available from Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. You can grab a copy in print or as an ebook.

Description in Fiction Shouldn’t Be Boring

Description: A Busy Writer's GuideBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Description is often the unloved step-child of the writing craft. It’s undervalued and almost feared because writers tend to believe that things like dialogue and action are inherently better. We start to believe this because we associate dialogue and action with being active and interesting and we associate description with being static and boring.

Those are false dichotomies.

As a freelance fiction editor, I’ve more often seen people whose books lacked depth and emotion because they were dialogue heavy than I’ve seen people whose books were too slow due to excess description.

Dialogue doesn’t necessarily make our stories better. Good dialogue does. Bad dialogue makes our writing slow and boring.

Now here’s the fact we need to understand—the exact same thing is true about description. (And about every other element of the fiction writing craft.)

Good description is vibrant, interesting, and active. Bad description is slow and boring. Bad description is what readers skip over.

So what makes for boring description?

(1) A Flat Laundry List

Description should never be a simple list of objective facts. As long as we’re writing in first-person point of view or in a limited third-person point of view, description should be subjective, colored by our viewpoint character’s history, personality, and emotions.

(2) Description Whose Sole Reason to Exist Is to Show the Setting

Every passage of description should do two or more of the following things:

  • ground the reader in the setting (time, place, and/or culture) so that they know when and where they are
  • symbolize or foreshadow something important to the story
  • enhance the theme
  • add subtext
  • show something about the viewpoint character’s personality
  • show the viewpoint character’s emotions
  • add conflict or complications
  • hint at backstory

When we make our description serve multiple purposes, it becomes valuable to the story as a whole. If readers skip it, they’ll be missing something important.

(3) Purple Prose

Purple prose is writing that’s too self-aware. It uses fancy words when a simple one would do, it’s filled with flowery phrases, it’s laden with cliches and clumsy figures of speech, and it relies on adverbs and adjectives when a strong verb or noun would be better.

Purple prose can also be writing that’s there because the writer likes the sound of their own voice rather than because it serves one of the purposes I mentioned above.

(4) Description That’s in the Wrong Place

Description should happen only when the viewpoint character would naturally notice those things.

So, for example, if our character is running through the woods to escape a gunman, he’s not going to notice the nest of baby birds or the squirrels hopping from tree to tree. He’s only going to notice things that could either help him hide or help him take down his pursuer.

Much of the time, the feeling that prose is overwritten or boring comes from the writer describing things in detail that don’t need to be described at this particular point in time or which should have been described differently based on the situation.

Context matters.

(5) Description That’s Generic or Tells Rather than Shows

Showing is essential to strong description because it helps us be specific and bring the experience to life on the page.

I’ll give you a quick example.

Telling: He was ugly and deformed.

Showing: The skin on the right side of his face seemed to melt down like candle wax, and as he limped toward her, one leg dragged behind.

Just remember that telling isn’t always a bad thing. It’s a tool like showing and we need to know how to use it strategically. Description, though, usually isn’t the place for it.

Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide is now available!

Are you looking for a way to add new depth and re-readability to your writing?

Are you tired of description being “the boring part that people skip”?

Are you a writer who’s struggled with making their story world feel believable and three-dimensional?

Description in fiction shouldn’t be boring for the reader or for the writer.

Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide will help you take your writing to the next level by exchanging ho-hum description for description that’s compelling and will bring your story to life, regardless of the genre you write.

In Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you will

  • find the answer to the age-old question of how much description is too much;
  • learn how to use point of view to keep description fresh;
  • recognize the red flags for boring description in fiction;
  • explore how to use all five senses to bring your descriptions to life for the reader;
  • discover the ways metaphors and similes can add power to your descriptive writing;
  • gain the tools needed to describe setting, characters, and action in engaging ways;
  • learn how descriptions can add conflict, enhance the theme, and amp up emotion; and
  • much more!

Grab a copy of Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide at Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble. It’s available in print and ebook versions.