By: Emrald Sethna
As writers, we are often told to "show, not tell," meaning we must understand the importance of details and descriptions that grip readers and reel them into the story. They should be able to envision the environment you display and be stimulated by the senses that the characters experience. In other words, include detailed descriptions. This can be difficult, however, given that there is a fine line between just enough detail and too much detail. Would you want to spend two or three pages listening to a description of the meal a character is eating? Not really. You may want to allow readers to see or taste the dish for themselves but that can be done in a matter of a couple sentences--ones that not simply tell readers about the dish, either. Let's look at a few examples and exercises to help you understand and practice the use of descriptions.
Since we are in the midst of the winter season, we'll focus on descriptions of the winter environment. Feel free to take inspiration for your own work in the future! Firstly, we will look at an effective description that "shows" followed by an unneffective one that "tells" and a long, undesirable desciption that "shows too much."
What you want: "The frost clung to the stubby tree's sleeping branches, sparkling in the golden morning light."
What you don't want: "There was frost on the tree."
What you don't want: "The milky white frost clung to the stubby tree's sleeping, brown-black branches that stretched five feet long. They sparkled and glimmered in the sun's golden rays hitting it at a perfect 45 degree angle."
Notice how "telling" a reader about something leaves them with several questions. What tree? Where was the frost? What did it look like? Meanwhile, a long description gives readers too much unnecessary information. We don't need to know what precise angle the light hits the tree nor do we need to know the color of frost or how long the tree's limbs are. Writers must strive to describe what is necessary--just enough to allow readers a glimpse into the environment, which they can summon through their own creativity--without going overboard.
Let's have you exercise descriptions of winter. Below you will find some key words for the different senses a character could experience in a winter environment. Your job is to take the following situation and create an effective description.
Situation: Your character is walking down a sidewalk. It's the middle of winter. What is the world like around them?
Here are the key words you could use:
Sight: Sparkle, Hazy, Glisten, Dense, Pile, Cloud, Thick
Smell: Sharp, Fresh, Crisp, Thick
Taste: Icy, Frozen, Cold
Hearing: Crush, Crunch, Swish, Whoosh
Feeling: Soft, Chilly, Cold, Sharp, Dense, Solid, Icy
"The dense snow crunched beneath her boots. Her vision was hazy from the cloud of soft flakes that showered down onto her. It easily erased the footprints she left behind."
Get creative and try to show the situation rather than tell readers what happens. Utilize adjectives you would associate with winter and use your own experiences as inspiration!
With a little practice, you will have no problem becoming the Goldilocks of descriptions, distinguishing between too much information, not enough description, and what is just right.
Share your exercise descriptions in the comments below, and if you have any questions, let us know!