Sunday, March 27, 2011

Never "just description": making description subjective

Description is never just description.

It took me quite a long while to figure that out. I suppose when one first starts writing, one begins by exercising one's access to words and images, and thinking of the most beautiful, or the most visceral, or the most fill-in-the blank way to describe what one imagines. When you're using your own voice as an omniscient storytelling narrator, that can work just fine. However, once I started writing in close points of view, I started to realize that every time I went into a "description," I'd lose the sense of closeness. And that was a problem I had to fix.

The fact is that description is always subjective in some way. It is literally impossible to capture every detail about something in the real world. Every time we notice and name an object, that is a subjective choice. Every time we put an adjective on something, that is also a subjective choice. Subjectively, we decide what is noticeable and what is too normal to draw anyone's attention to.

If you keep this in mind, then it becomes possible to discover just how subjective your descriptions can be. Particularly if you work with close point of view, the identity of your character is going to change the way that things are described. Every word you choose is an opportunity to show something about your character.

To make this more concrete, let's play with it a little. I have a room in my work-in-progress, and I just had my main character walk into it. That means I had to describe it. But before I show you how I described it for him, I'll describe it in a few different ways (all third person, just for the sake of consistency).

As myself:

The Hall of the Eminence is a long, rectangular room with stone walls, columns and ceiling arches in the style of a European cathedral. The arches are decorated with mosaic tiles of variegated blue with occasional tiles in gold. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The floor is covered in a white silk carpet patterned with the green swirling insignia of the Grobal caste. There are embroidered hangings on the walls, and there is a wooden dais at the end where sits the carved wooden throne of the Eminence.

This description is very informational and makes reference to the real world. It shows no positioning words to indicate any physical point of view. I might as well be hovering above it, or nowhere near it at all. I'm certainly not interacting with it in any way. It reads like a blueprint - good for my personal notes or outline, but useless for the story.

As a member of the merchant caste walking in alone, having never seen the place before:

The room made him want to shrink and retreat. Its arches stretched probably two stories high, and with every step of these ordinary shoes, he risked defiling a symbol of nobility. The chandeliers above and the embroidered hangings on the walls all around would have fetched a pretty price at the Exchange, but nothing compared to the wood of the stage at the far end. Not to mention the throne itself - a single piece of wood so large it would bring more than the worth of his entire family.

This description has a lot more to it. There's an emotional reaction to the sight of the room, and the person assesses its size ("probably two stories"). There's positional information ("the far end"). He draws a contrast between ordinary and noble. His actions have social consequences (defiling). He also shows his own idiosyncratic knowledge base and his personal priorities as he assesses the worth of various objects in the room.

As a fugitive:

She whipped around a corner and burst through the first door she found. Damn - just her luck she'd find the one room in this place where there was nowhere to hide. The place was bright and open, and even the wall-hangings were too flat, too high off the floor to give any cover. Maybe that stage with the big throne? She sprinted toward it, but it was worse - wooden boards that thudded under her feet, sure to announce her presence to any pursuers. With so many doors all around, they could come from anywhere!

Unlike the last person, this person has an urgent purpose in the room. She doesn't care about the richness of the room, but swears about finding a place so large and open. I can let her assess possible hiding spots, and thereby get in a little about the room, but really she doesn't care much about what's in it. She judges what she encounters, and pays no attention to the value of anything except as it serves her goal.

As my protagonist:

Tagret straightened up fast. The Hall of the Eminence was packed with potential enemies. To be on guard, he needed his eyes open. And to be the man Mother wanted everyone to see, he had to stand gracefully, making the high mosaic arches of the ceiling his portrait-frames, and the crystal chandeliers his spotlights. Father's hand stayed on his arm as the rest of their party came in. From the wall-hangings all the way to the dais with the wooden throne, the crowd glittered in ostentatious clothing, muted somewhat by the grieving yellow of mourning scarves. More and more eyes watched him as people entered through the doors around the Hall, clustering by Family. From this vantage point he couldn't see anyone he could clearly identify as either Sixth Family, or Ninth. Eleventh seemed like it might be in the far corner.

Tagret cares far more about people and the interaction he's entering than he does about the place, which is very familiar to him. Therefore, all the information about the room itself is backgrounded to his other concerns. In this scene, the conflict all comes from the interaction, so there's no reason for him to give any direct attention to the physical location at all. However, it's important for readers to know what the place looks like, so I let Tagret use the room's features incidentally to serve his own focus. He's also taller than most people in the room, so he has a pretty good view across the crowd, which affects how he describes it.

I hope these examples give you a sense of how widely descriptions of the same thing can differ from one another. In your own writing, as you approach a description of a place, an object, or a situation, here are some things to think about:
  • Does this place/object/situation have a special social significance to my character?
  • Is it unexpected, abnormal, or otherwise unusual (will appear in description)? Or is it normal (less likely to appear; more likely to be backgrounded)?
  • What is the current mood of my character?
  • What is my character's goal and primary focus as he/she encounters this place/object/situation?
  • Does the physical position and/or size of my character affect how he/she would describe it?
By thinking through these things before you start to describe, you'll discover many more opportunities to make your description subjective, and thereby to make it unique.


  1. Thanks for this post! As far as descriptions I fall into the "make it beautiful" camp, but I've been learning more lately about how to make my descriptions play more into the story.

  2. Juliette - this is brilliant stuff. While I'd thought descriptions alter based on who was describing, I was still too focused in exposition mode; I hadn't considered how description could reveal purpose and mood. Thank you!

  3. DuskRose Dreaming, thanks for commenting! I think it's possible to get the best of both worlds when you need it - beautiful, and serving the story.

    Archaism, thanks so much! I'm glad I could get you thinking.

  4. Great post! Description is so much more than what's there, and this illustrates that beautifully.

  5. What a great post Juliette, thanks.

    Great examples. You always write about POV in such interesting ways. Thanks again.

  6. Thank you for those examples. They made something in my brain go "ah hah! so that's what I was missing!"

  7. Thanks, Janice!

    Thank you very much, Sam!

  8. T.S. Bazelli, I'm glad you found them helpful. I find it's always clearer when I use examples than if I just talk about the ideas behind them.

  9. My descriptions (when I write them at all) nearly always start off with the factual listing of how things look. Then I have to go back and figure out what's important to the characters and work in just those details. But I'm getting better at working in information thanks to many of your posts and Janice's on worldbuilding and description. The examples really help me to understand the points you make.

  10. Sounds like a good process, Jaleh. I'm glad you liked the examples - thanks for commenting!

  11. I haven't thought much about this before. However, you are right we see everything though the lenses of our life, culture and goals. I will have to reexamine the descriptions in my WIP to make sure they comne from the right POV. Great advice!

  12. Thanks, haleywhitehall! I'm glad you found it helpful.