So, fellow writers, here’s what I want you to do.
Pick a book from your shelf. It doesn’t matter if it’s one you’ve read before or not–we’ll get to that in a bit.
Start at the beginning and read until you reach a sentence that is entirely description, whether it’s for a character, object, or setting.
Write that sentence down, then work out everything it actually tells you.
My first example, from a favorite of mine, The Wizard of Earthsea:
Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.
This comes at the middle of the second long paragraph–early, but not instantly.
What does this tell me?
- [From the very first sentence, I already know we’re on an island. I want to mention this so I can refer to it without confusing anyone…]
- The island contains several different types of landscapes: forest, farms, a river, and mountains high enough to get snow.
- “Pastures and plowlands” means there are both crop-farming and animal-raising going on, though we don’t know which crops or what livestock.
- “Vale” plus a river means the part of the island being described here is a river valley.
- The village in question is the highest village in the valley, because there is nothing above it but forest and stone–it’s remote.
Why is this important? Our wizard Ged has a humble beginning (as they so often do) in an isolated village, far from the more sophisticated civilization of the world, and that becomes important in his character development. It’s established early (and often, with further description to come) what Ged’s home is like, both the village and the valley around it. The scenery isn’t just about painting an impressive picture of the world, but giving the reader insight into the characters who live there, who grew up there, who were formed by their environment.
I know this because I’ve read this many times, so I see where the description is leading me, and what purpose it’s meant to serve.
But what about a book I haven’t read yet?
I grabbed The Night Circus from my TBR shelf, because I hope to get to it soon. Let’s see what I find.
From the first page, third paragraph:
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen.
So what does this tell me? Not as much as AWoE, but to be fair, it’s a far shorter sentence.
- [And we’ve already established from the title and first line we’re discussing a circus, so off we go…]
- We know the tents are tall and striped in black and white. I know that’s obvious, bear with me, please–
- But by deliberately mentioning two brighter, more vivid colors the tents are not, this stops being a simple observation, and becomes a statement of how different this circus is from your garden-variety circuses, which usually riot with color.
Now, I haven’t read this yet, so that’s as far as I can go with my analysis; but already, a strong image has been created in my mind. (Aided by the cover, too, in this case, which is gorgeous.)
So what have we learned about descriptive styles from only these two examples?
AWoE uses a long, lyrical sentence to provide a lot of information about the setting quickly, and extra meaning can be teased out of word choice. TNC uses a short, emphatic sentence to say less, but make its message clear and powerful. (I could hardly have picked better contrasting examples if I tried, which I totally didn’t. I browsed a few of my favorites for good lines to analyze before settling, then grabbed TNC without opening it, so my reading would be honest.)
Both styles have advantages, and in AWoE‘s case, the expansive tone matches the landscape and the style of the rest of the prose–long sentences with little punctuation (less than I’d use, certainly, being a comma devotee) but vivid word choice. As for TNC, I’ll have to read the rest to find out.
Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to try this exercise with at least two books, one you’ve read and one you haven’t. And more, certainly, if you like! If you want to go deeper, ask yourself these questions about what those first description-only sentences tell you:
- [Read] Does this particular bit of description set the tone for the book? Does it tie into the theme? Does it reveal something important about the character(s)?
- [Unread] What do I expect, based on this first description? What can I predict, if anything?
And then, apply this to your own work. How strong is your first descriptive sentence? Do you even have a single one, or are your descriptions dribbled in piece by piece through dialogue or action sentences? What’s your style, and how does it fit the tone of your piece? (Or does it?)