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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

3 Tips for Strengthening Narrative Description

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3 Tips for Strengthening Narrative Description

source: listeningislearning.org
This was something I was thinking about while writing this week. Description is a weakness of mine. It's not that I do it badly, but that I sometimes forget to do it all together. When I remember, I do okay, but I have to tell myself to focus on description in order to do it thoroughly. This week, I tried to focus on strong descriptions and I had a few thoughts while editing.

1) Strong verbs. Especially in description, we tend to use the verb was a lot. It was strong. He was sad. There was green paint on the wall. Now, I'm not saying don't use was. I use it all the time. My rule of thumb is that in any one description, you shouldn't use it more than once, and not at all if you can help it. Go through your descriptions and highlight all your was verbs. See if you can find stronger words.

Ex. Which is better: There was a husky, bald man sitting to her right, clutching the cage in fear.   OR
                              On her right, a husky, bald man clutched the cage with white knuckles.

I've highlighted the active verbs. See how much weaker was is? (Notice also that instead of telling the reader that he was afraid ("in fear") I showed that he was ("white knuckles").

2) Do or do not. There is no try. Don't use "trying" unless the person or thing doing the trying is going to fail. So, if someone is trying to climb a wall...only describe it that way if they aren't going to make it up. (He was trying to climb the wall, but kept slipping back down...) If they're going to make it up the wall, don't say "trying." Just say they scaled the wall with some difficulty.

He began trying to scale the wall. When he got to the top...  OR
He scaled the wall with some difficulty. When he got to the top...

Granted, both sentences would work. I'm sure some people will argue that this character has no confidence and that's why they described the climbing that way. That's fine, but you can describe their lack of confidence in a stronger way than using "trying." All this shows is the weakness of your narrative, not the weakness of your character. Be strong and certain of what your characters are doing. It will ground your readers in the moment and make them sympathize more strongly with the characters, confident or not.

3) Seemed and began. I've used both these examples before so I won't beat them to death, but they are similar to #2. Just trust me that, nine times out of ten, they make your description weaker. Either something you're describing is true or it isn't. Unless you are unsure, it shouldn't "seem" to be true. Only use this if your POV character isn't sure of what they're observing. (It seemed about to rain, but she couldn't be certain.) And don't have anyone or thing "begin" to do something. Just have them do it. You'll cut your word count and strengthen your description at the same time. Win, win.

How about you? What do YOU do to strengthen your descriptions?


  1. Very good reminders-- thank you!

  2. I try to minimize wases, and, yes, any wishy-washy words dilute your meaning.

  3. I have trouble with #2, haha, but I'm getting over that. :) Awesome post. Thanks for the tips!