The Purpose of Quality Description in Creative Writing
In order to understand the purpose of description in creative writing, you have to understand why people love stories – why they read. People read to escape, for entertainment, and to learn. A major part of transporting your readers to the world of your story, bringing the events to life, and building compelling characters is by describing them. Without description, your readers can’t picture or truly understand your story. That’s why you need quality description.
Setting the Scene
When you describe your story’s setting, you ground the reader in a specific place. Your characters aren’t floating in a space vacuum: They are interacting in a physical place. Describing the fine sand of desert dunes, smell of pine in a Christmas store, or crystal blue of a mountain lake allows the reader to experience your setting along with your characters. It makes the place real for them.
The era of your story is another component of the setting you need to make clear through description. A stifling Victorian dress can reveal when your story is taking place, hints about the society, and how your character feels about the clothes they have to wear. Quality description often does more than one thing at a time. Grounding your reader in time is especially important for stories that don’t take place in modern day. Whether you’re writing is historical, memoir, or futuristic, your reader will need to understand the time period in order to understand what’s happening and why your characters react to the events of your story in the way they do.
One key component of description that is often harped on in writing groups is the use of the five senses. Describing more than the way your setting looks is key to immersing your reader in your story, but not every scene needs every sense. Choose taste when your characters are eating and smell to invoke a memory. Focus on what matters to the characters and plot.
When you use quality description to set the scene, you make it possible for your readers to imagine the place and time of your story without bogging them down with unnecessary or tedious details.
Description is one of the ways your readers get to know and understand your characters. When you say a character’s shoulders slumped as their gaze sank to their shoes, you let the reader know they are disappointed and how they react to disappointment. Describing your character’s actions and feelings reveals what motivates them and makes them active participants in the story instead of people-objects that things happen to but who don’t impact the story themselves.
In order for your reader to know what your characters look like, you have to describe them. This is vital to the reader experience. If they can’t picture your characters, they won’t be as likely to relate to them, believe in them, or feel immersed in your story. Quality character description goes beyond the color of their eyes to the laugh lines permanently etched at the corners, betraying a past filled with joy or the pinpoint pupils revealing they are under the influence of their drug of choice. Describe the aspects of your characters that make them unique, reveal their past, and/or impact the story.
Bring Events to Life
When you describe the events of your story in detail, you make them real for your readers. The painstaking description of the moment a bullet passes through a brain allows the reader to feel the pain of the injury, loss of life, and betrayal of a friend. Without a description of the events, readers can’t experience them.
One place event description is needed is choreography. Choreography in creative writing is where your characters and objects are positioned. When a character lifts their coffee cup, that is choreography. When a character lifts their coffee cup for a drink then is suddenly cleaning that cup, you have a choreography issue. You’re missing how the character went from drinking to cleaning. Describing the choreography of a scene is a great way to add movement and break up dialogue. It also makes the setting feel more real because the characters are moving in and interacting with it.
Action also needs to be described. When something important happens in your story, your readers want details. They want to understand what is happening, how, and why. Saying characters exchange blows isn’t nearly as interesting, picturable, or impactful as a punch-by-punch account of the fight. Action doesn’t necessarily mean violence. Quality description of your main character finally giving into lust or solving a puzzle in the nick of time are action. You must go beyond a list of events and dive into description if you want your reader to immerse themselves in the plot of your story.
Why a Professional Editor Believes Every Story Needs Quality Description
Description is meant to show your story. It is the opposite of telling. It is what sets the scene, paints a portrait of your characters, and brings events to life for your readers. However, description for the sake of description is not quality description. If your character is never in their kitchen and the state of that room doesn’t reveal something about them or their story, your reader doesn’t need or want a description of the kitchen. Focus on describing the aspects of your setting, characters, and events that affect the story, reveal your characters’ motivations, or raise the stakes. Don’t spend your words on minor, inconsequential details.
Quality description matters. When it is missing, your reader’s experience is impaired. They can’t fully escape into your tale because they can’t complete their mental picture of the setting, characters, and events. Non-quality description can be cut without impacting the story and is often the passages readers skim or skip altogether. If you want to capture your readers’ attention, so they can escape, learn, or be entertained, you have to use quality description to Ignite Your Ink.
When do you need description as a reader? Share you preferences in the comments below. For more articles on description and other aspects of writing and advice from an editor, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.