Everybody loves meaty, juicy, and spicy descriptions, aside from a few exceptions. It goes without saying that descriptions can be among the most useful tools inside of your writing bag of tricks, but there’s one caveat to it. Like so many other aspects of the writing process, they are SO easy to goof up.
Time and time again, when we look at poorly written fiction the first thing we tend to notice is the quality of the prose. Either it describes far too much, it describes far too little, the words used are too complex for the audience, the words used are so simple that even a 1st grader would feel like he was being patronized, and a grand list of other complaints. In my opinion, description plays a role similar to the graphics of a video game. It doesn’t determine the overall quality of the product, (but you can bet that it provides a pretty good guess as to what that might be) yet it sets down the early impressions of your experience.
So bearing this in mind, description is a key component for writing a novel, be it sparse or dense. But I find that we as writers tend to boil description down in too simple of a fashion. The closest thing we tend to have as categories for description are the five senses—which are important—but I feel that they don’t cover enough ground. This is why I’ve sat down to brainstorm an effective way to categorize description for an immense amount of time.
And by immense amount of time, I mean that the idea came to me randomly.
For your reading pleasure, we at the QuestingAuthor Headquarters had come up with a surefire way to classify your descriptions. Our top reasearchers have discovered two families of description, these being Static and Dynamic.
Now that being said, allow me to clarify that neither of these are better than the other. Each has its own purpose within whatever piece of description you plan to write for the story. All we’re going to do today is define these categories, find out how they can ruin a scene if they are not in balance, and hopefully, you’ll be able to see why the novelist must learn to blend these two together.
In order to properly describe a setting, you need certain objects that remain immobile during the scene that you’re trying to write. Without these objects, your story is going to feel as though your characters were floating around in some intra-dimensional void rather than anything that even resembled reality. And static description is whenever we describe these kinds of objects.
If you’d like me to provide you with a more formal definition, then I hope you’ll be pleased with the following: Static Description = Any description dealing with immobile and unchanging objects, persons, or senses.
Now, it’s very easy to dismiss this kind of description because of the negative connotation that the title gives it. After all, when we say something is static, we equate that to something being boring. Static implies that there is no change or movement in something, which the proper way of viewing it. And this is not a bad thing.
Without static description, you don’t have a setting at all. Just a bunch of floating props. Examples for this kind of description tend to be but are not limited to, the walls of a room, the ground beneath a character’s feet, trees while inside a forest, a barrel that is standing somewhere, parked cars, statues, a lingering odor, and MANY other things. You need these details if you want an area to limit your description to. These often serve as the boundaries for the kind of prose you might plan on writing.
Remember, the only trait that makes objects eligible for this kind of description are whether or not they are immobile and unchanging. Bearing that in mind, use this too much, and your description will feel dry and stale.
Example: Gary followed the robed men into the depths of the cave. When he entered the cave, he was greeted with a bonfire made of brambles and dead leaves. The stalicties above him jutted out like the spears of a murderous warrior.
As in the past, this description is not necessarily bad. If used sparingly, it can be a good way to just summarize an event and move forward. But if we were to suppose this was an important scene, then this description leaves much to be desired. On its own, this piece of prose is far too stale and bland to carry any weight to itself. And that’s one of the dangers of it. But let’s leave that on hold, and move on to the next kind of description before we fix Gary’s example.
“With a hillman’s stride he moved through the ever-shifting colors of the streets, where the ragged tunics of whining beggars brushed against the ermine-trimmed khalats of lordly merchants, and the pearl-sewn satin of rich courtesans. Giant black slaves slouched along, jostling blue-bearded wanderers from the Shemetish cities, ragged nomads from the surrounding deserts, traders and adventurers from the lands of the East.” – Shadows in Zamboula, Robert E. Howard
What is the most resounding aspect in the piece of description that I just gave you? Was it the attention to detail that Robert E. Howard is so known for? Was it the various peoples presented in this piece of description? If you guessed any of these, you wouldn’t be wrong, but there’s one that stands out more than any other. Every line is filled with movement of some sort.
This paragraph by the late and great Howard is brimming with character and personality. You can already tell the style of writer that Howard is just by looking at this one paragraph, and there is so much color added to the City of Zamboula just because of this one paragraph. And that’s the beauty of dynamic description.
If there was a more formal definition for Dynamic Description, it would be along the lines of: Dynamic Description = Description dealing with mobile and changing objects, persons, and senses.
In my experience, this description tends to be the kind that novice writers have the most problem writing. And I would argue that this is because it, unlike its static brother, tends to bring the voice of the author to the forefront. That’s because it adds character and depth to the things that you’re describing, because it adds that little “spice” you need for vivid descriptions.
If there was a proper metaphor for this, it would be that while static description creates the world, dynamic description breathes life into it. Remember, anything can be dynamic description, so long as it is changing from one state into another while you write the scene. To can even repurpose the examples I used for Static Description. Walls being torn down, the ground splitting through an earthquake, trees whose leaves are being torn off by gales of wind, a barrel falling off a shelf, a parked car turning on its alarm, a statue being toppled, and a changing scent. It all depends on context.
Now don’t be fooled into thinking that Dynamic description is untouchable, because it can be just as bad if used too much. So to keep it consistent, let me bring back the last example I used for static description.
Example: The robes of the men rippled like banners as Gary followed them inside. The flames of a bonfire crackled and cast their sinuous shadows about themselves. Then, dots of water dripped from up above on to Gary’s head.
Again, this is not a bad piece of description if used sparingly. This can also be used to Segway into another scene. But notice how the lack of Static Description makes the prose here sound really…inaccurate. There’s a lot of movement, but the scene painted in this description is not precise enough for me to picture that movement in my mind. If a fire casts shadows “about” itself, then where the hell is the “about”? Movement is great for a scene, but has to be complemented with immobile objects. Everything here feels like its happening in a vacuum.
Moral of the Story:
We must throw away this misconceptions about one kind of description being better or worse than the other one. If anything, this post should at least show you that both are capable of wreaking the same amount of havoc on your cherished work. Each of them have their strengths and weaknesses, but both are crucial to any literary work that you are creating.
The key is to bring both of them together, in order to produce a unique blend that is capable of showing off your style and clear picture of your setting. Teamwork makes everything better.
Final Example: The robes of the men rippled as Gary chased them into the cave. When he came inside, he was met with a burning bonfire. The brambles in it crackled and the flames projected sinuous shadows along the moist walls of the cave. Water droplets dripped on Gary’s head from one of the stalactites up above.
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.