Traditional Publishing

Ways to Describe

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Tuesday February 25, 2020

One important job of the author is to describe what the reader can’t see (smell or taste, etc), and that includes a description of the point of view character even if the novel is in first person; descriptions of other characters from the first person character’s point of view; and descriptions of the setting, both the macro setting (the city, for instance, but maybe the neighborhood and/or the house) and the micro setting (such as the home interior or a room in the house). Not to mention everything else, the dinner, the restaurant, the music, the crowd, the scent in the air, well everything...

And my point, which is fast coming up, is that we’ve all had various experiences of life, and though we don’t know what the exact items in your novel look like, we pretty much have a certain set of expectations. As such, the author can both rely on this predictability, and can at other times turn the predictable on its head. Being changeable in your descriptive approach doesn’t have to always take place. But that depends on what you, the author, are trying to achieve—and can serve as a tool in the writer’s, uh, toolbox.

In relying on what is already known in our common universe, the author can use this set of reader suppositions to sketch out descriptions and not dwell on the details. We don’t have to trouble ourselves to go into describing what the airport in Gotham City is like, perhaps. Just saying the terminal is jammed with holiday travelers or that Cindi can’t find a seat in the waiting area might be sufficient. A person meant to be noticed can be detailed a bit more, however—the tribal-looking woman (later a murder victim—or a suspect?) has faint ink markings on her forehead that interests the sociologist in Cindi.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t, and neither will Cindi, who perhaps contrasts her own appearance with that of the person who seems to be from the Middle East. Cindi says that she herself is “plain as dirt, indistinguishable from hundreds of thousands of others like her from the Midwest, though she has a cheery cast to her features, and men her age seem to find her attractive.”

Thus authors can use both the common and the uncommon in describing. But wait, that’s just a start.

The common:

The traffic wasn’t heavy and Larry made it from 80th and Jackson to 12th and Thunderbird in under 20 minutes. (Though we don’t really need to always step Larry through his travels, and we can actually just bring him to the main offices of Pratt and Finch without wrinkling his jacket in the car.)

Jolene was a blonde and subject to all the hair and male-harassment trials of those of her ilk who were also pretty, petite, and under thirty.

The three bedroom and two bath house of 1,400 square feet was crammed to the gills with Wal*Mart furnishing from the 90s and five young men studying engineering at down-the-block Waymont College.

Though based on accentuating the common, all these descriptions are also distinctive and with a certain amount of writerly impact.

Why would you want anything more? Well, not every protagonist or every meal or every airport will be commonplace

The uncommon:

They came to John’s house and entered in through the vestibule, where a male servant greeted them, a young Jew who spoke Aramaic but was dressed in a Roman-style mantle. The two cousins removed their dirty shoes and put on clean house slippers, then went into the lounge where they sat on wide, cushion-covered benches next to an open-roofed atrium. On the other side of the lounge was an outdoor garden with fountains and sculptures of fish and birds.

A serving woman brought in bowls of water for the cousins to wash their hands and the man followed with a tray that held olives, figs, bread, cheese, and a pitcher of some sort of juice that Jesus suspected would be pomegranate. He was right.

Every day, Miriam rose at 5:30 a.m., saw to her grooming, ate dinner leftovers, put on one of her three simple work dresses with a pair of sandals, and left the house. She walked along packed-dirt roads to the part of town that had been paved by the British and thus was hotter in the heat of the day than her own neighborhood. Here, she washed and cleaned during the morning with the radio tuned to an Arabic station, as Miriam was afraid if she moved the dial she’d never find her employer’s frequency again.

She roared off of a runway not quite long enough for absolute ease—probably about three thousand feet—a tight squeeze, but doable. Up above was a Hawker 1000, a corporate jet that had taken off immediately before her. The Hawker could fly non-stop New York to Los Angeles. The range of the jet she was flying today was about half of that.

She climbed to thirty thousand feet and stabilized, heading in a southwest direction. From time to time, Helen glanced at the radar screen, but she also kept watch visually through the window for other aircraft. This close to several major airports, the skies could be crowded. Although no one was supposed to be at the same altitude in this flight “lane,” the correct procedure was to stay on the alert. Flying could be a lot like defensive driving in a car; you never knew how well trained—or how untrained—the other pilot was. You kept your eyes open.

Yes, I wrote all the above, pieces not as detailed as they might be, but each telling a specific story. No, I’ve never been to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, never been to Ghana, and never flown a plane. So how do we describe in a specific way what we don’t actually know?

We do research, if we need to. That is, we search a setting, a meal, what people from a certain part of the world might look like. Or we invent—such as what the inhabitants of the star system 70-million light years from earth might look like.

If we research, good for us. We’ve learned a lot. But we don’t have to put every fact we’ve acquired into our description. A certain type of shutter might be one foot by four, but who cares. We just want to describe the look of the house and its impact on the protagonist seeing it for the first time.

This was her new house, and the shutters, painted a rich royal blue, drew her eyes immediately. Gloria knew she was going to be happy here.  

So the look of the house, the description, is integrated with the character’s emotion. Description is meant to make the construction of the home, the meal, the settings, the locale real so we feel that we can see, smell, hear the other parts of the story—the action, the faces, the reactions of the characters.

Let me repeat that we must integrate description with other facets of the story. We don’t just want to say: “The living room had two red area rugs, a couch, two end tables, and three armchairs.” We want to say that Ernie found the two red area rugs out of place, contrasting oddly with the dark-yellow couch. That together with the two end tables and three armchairs reminded him of the dayroom at the drug rehab center where he’d stayed for two months when he was in his twenties. His stomach roiled.

Since I myself don’t write the most sophisticated descriptions in the world, I’ll share one with you from the novel I’m reading now.

“Dinner over, Helena carried the coffee tray to the terrace, where the light was fading. The sky ran from a grainy navy in the east to a strange citrus-green behind the spinney, where the trees were already a compact black mass. Beyond the stone balustrade, the lawns, their finely shorn texture becoming indistinct, stretched toward the blurred hollow of the water garden. Marta brought out a candle and placed it on the table. Richard poured out brandy, Simon lit a cigar.” From Death in the Garden by Elizabeth Ironside (the pseudonym of Lady Catherine Manning), 1995.

Nice writing.

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is a short story Edgar winner. She teaches a mystery writing and a thriller writing and other writing classes at Writer's Digest online university. The third edition of her Writing the Mystery is available through Amazon and other good bookshops. She is also the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.