Description Checklist

To properly set a scene for your readers, you’ll need three key ingredients:

1. Unity
2. Emphasis
3. Coherence

To demonstrate, I will borrow a scene from a random novel from my bookshelf:

“Yonder, bluely spread with the splendor of the distance, lay all the vast country of the Superstitions, land of lost trails and tumbledown shanties, land of black malpais and memories. There, too, lay Thief River and all that remained of an outlaws’ rendezvous, reduced through the years to a handful of shacks that, like gray ghosts, stood scabrously creaking eerily along the dark street. These, and a ramshackle pole corral, still stood as a monument to past greed and perfidy. The rest was gone, scoured away by the desert winds.” Thief River, Nelson Nye, 1951

Notice how all the description blends together to evoke a single sense–and that is desolation. “Lost trails”, “tumbledown shanties”, “memories”, “gray ghosts”, “creaking eerily”, “ramshackle”, “past greed and perfidy,” “scoured away”. We the readers only see those objects that cultivate that sense. Nothing is added that would spoil the impression the writer hopes to make. For example, would there be any place in this description for flowers, sunshine, or laughing children?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged “coherence” is “systematic or methodical connectedness and interrelatedness especially when governed by logical principles: consistency, congruity”. Notice how well linked each part of the description is to the other parts. We the readers are standing some distance from the scene the writer is describing. This allows us to drink in the scene without forcing us to focus too closely on any one detail. The shacks are gray ghosts–mere outlines–without windows, doors, gutters, shutters, etc. Petty details are largely unimportant. What’s more, taking the time to limn them out would spoil the general effect. This is a mere relict of days gone by, “scoured away by the desert winds”.

Notice below how one incoherent dependent clause can ruin the symmetry of the scene.

“Yonder, bluely spread with the splendor of the distance, lay all the vast country of the Superstitions, land of lost trails and tumbledown shanties, land of black malpais and memories. There, too, lay Thief River and all that remained of an outlaws’ rendezvous, reduced through the years to a handful of shacks that, like gray ghosts, stood scabrously creaking eerily along the dark street. These, and a ramshackle pole corral, with a tubular steel gate and six-foot-high wooden fencing, still stood as a monument to past greed and perfidy. The rest was gone, scoured away by the desert winds.” Thief River, Nelson Nye, 1951 [addition mine]

When setting a scene, don’t give a grocery list of visuals. Decide what emotion you want to evoke, then choose details that help readers connect with that emotion.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmailby feather
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.