Structured Descriptions

Nat Russo Description, How-To, Process, Writing 25 Comments

The journey from world building to prose is a long and twisted one. We know what a specific plaza in a specific city looks like. We have all of the elements: weather, sound, objects, people, etc. But unless we put them together in some kind of rational order and present them in a logical sequence, all we have are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered on a table. We need to employ structured descriptions to allow the puzzle pieces to fall into place.

 
 

Collecting The Pieces

You’ve probably spent weeks, if not months, meticulously building your world and outlining your plot. Or, perhaps, you’re a pantser (that breed of writer who prefers exploratory writing with little “up front” outlining). Either way you’re going to reach a point at which you have a collection of stuff that you want to describe to the reader. 
 
If you’re anything like me, you learn best by example and practice. So let’s take a look at a hypothetical example. We’re approaching a climactic scene involving two ships doing battle. There are some people in a plaza that borders a dock and they’re watching events unfold.
 
To set the scene, we want to convey the following: ships, people, people’s clothing, a dock, cannons firing, a storm, storm clouds, merchant booths, a plaza, and a fountain in a plaza.
 
We roll up our sleeves and start typing.
 

Shotgun Approach

In our first draft we’re probably going for speed. We don’t want to stop and edit too much. There’s a lot of stuff percolating up in that mind of ours and we need to spill it onto the page. We wind up with something like this:

The waves rolled violently against the dock, splashing over the mooring lines of a three-mast ship anchored in port, covering them in foam. Merchant booths lined the far end of the plaza that bordered the dock. Some people took shelter from the rain in the booths, but many stood on the dock looking out to sea. Two large frigates sat across from one another on the horizon, battered by the roiling water. Storm clouds blacked out the sun as the ships fired their cannons at one another. The people on the dock were dressed too lightly for such a fierce storm. They didn’t even have cloaks to pull around them to fend off the elements. The torrential rain pounded against the marble fountain in the center of the plaza.

Yep, definitely first draft material. Of course, when we’re writing the first draft it usually doesn’t come across that way. Everything makes perfect sense when we’re writing it.

Why?

Because it’s our world. We have the entire story, world, plot, characters, and critical events in our minds as we type. Of course it makes sense to us. We know everything. When we read our prose our minds will fill in the gaps for us. 

If we were just writing for ourselves this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But we’re not. We’re writing for other people. To make sense of this mess [by the way, you realize your first draft is a mess, right? Don’t worry. It always is.] we need to take a step back and put ourselves in the shoes of the reader.

Structured Approach

The first thing we realize is that our initial attempt was simply all over the place. There’s no order! It’s just a confusing hodgepodge of facts. From the reader’s perspective, you’re taking their head in your hands and saying “Look here! Now look over there! Now look here! Now there!” You’re breaking the poor reader’s neck. Worse, you’re not painting a cohesive picture. The reader may not have a sense of what that plaza looks like after you’ve randomly shouted “Fountain! Ships! People! Merchants!” at them.
 
So we roll up our sleeves again and try to come up with some sort of order.
 
There is at least one question we should ask before we begin: What is the most important element of the scene? When we discover what that element is, we can employ our craft to highlight the importance of that specific detail. 

Our craft teaches us that words/phrases appearing at the beginning or end of a paragraph are automatically interpreted by the reader as having emphasis. Let’s use this to our advantage.

 
We take a look at the situation and decide, all else being equal, the ship battle is the most important thing. So let’s lead the reader gradually from the plaza, across the dock, and ultimately out to sea where we reveal the battle:
 

Storm clouds hid the sun as torrential rain struck the cobble plaza in sheets. The storm must have caught some of the people by surprise, because they ducked into nearby merchant booths for cover. Those who were prepared, dressed in heavy cloaks and hoods, stood in front of a large marble fountain and gazed out beyond the dock, beyond the three-masted ship moored in port, beyond the violent waves that covered the mooring lines in foam, to a sight they hoped never to see again. Two large battle frigates sat on the horizon, broadside to one another, firing dozens of demi-culverin cannons at each other.

Could use some work and tightening, no doubt, but how much more life does this version have? We immediately set the mood and tone by establishing the violent rain storm. Also, by leaving the important point for last we’ve increased the overall tension and added a hint of suspense, all leading up to the “Oh CRAP!” moment when the reader realizes that the unexpected battle had begun.

Description is another tool in our writer’s toolbox. It has a purpose. That purpose is not simply to reveal all of the wonderful research you did while building your world or structuring your plot! Description should serve the story, advance the plot, reveal important characterization, or adjust your pace. If you approach description in a structured fashion, your world will be more real, the overall tension will be increased (almost always good), and, most importantly, the reader will feel like they’ve given over control to capable hands.

Do you approach complex descriptions with a strategy? Let me know in the comments below.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 25

  1. Thanks for that Nat. I can see the ‘structural’ faults in the first one but preferred the style in contrast to the second example…but hey, style is more about subjective interpretation.

    1. Thanks, AJ. What you point out is an invaluable lesson to consider as well. There are very few absolutes in our craft, particularly when we get down to the atomic level of paragraph and sentence. What one style guide will suggest is an “error” at the sentence structure level, another guide will hold up as the golden standard when taken in the context of the entire story.

      I think the best any new author can do is to listen to all of the advice offered, then select answers based on their own stylistic preferences and what works best for them.

      Imagine how boring books would be if all the writers followed the same advice? 🙂

  2. I have a very visual imagination, so yes the order of events I treat like a camera panning around the scene especially in third person POV, consequently your second example works better in this respect, great information as always.

    1. Thanks, Peter. I hear you on the “camera panning” comment. I used to have a problem with this, as my beta reader @JoanWIP will tell you, but I’ve since adopted a more cinematic method of descriptions (thanks to her mentoring).

  3. Pingback: Getting the Word Sequence Right - A Writer's Journey

  4. I can’t help thinking Kerouac would hate this process! LOL.

    Descriptive passages can have a variety of functions. One fairly neglected function is to show the state of mind of the describer. The detail is what the describer notices and/or prioritises, the detail is the describer’s perception of how and what things are, not necessarily their objective reality. Communicated to the reader, this can bring about a kind of interpolation – the reader is gripped by the perceptions, shares the emotions and reactions of the describer.

    I’m about to work on a passage of this kind very shortly, in a YA novel. The 1st-person narrator and his companion (about whom I shall say nothing!) are travelling a post-apocalyptic landscape. In order to survive, he has had to eat human flesh; a day later they find a cache of canned food at a ruined supermarket. This drives him temporarily insane. My first step[ will be to crew the keyboard and crash headlong into a description of the images – real and imaginary – that come into his mind as he surveys the world around him. Heaven knows whether I’ll revise it once it’s written…

    Hours of fun, eh?

    MM

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      That’s a great point, Marie! If the observer is incapable of bringing structure to the description, and you’re describing from that observer’s point-of-view, then structure is the last thing you want!

  5. It does sound like fun, Marie.

    Like you said, description is as much to show someone’s thought processes as anything else. So you get to go wild thinking up what a broken mind might notice, but then give it an order that shows just how messy his thought processes have become– plus make any actual facts you need clear, and limit the amount of chaos shown so it doesn’t overdose the reader. Like they say, “it takes a lot of work to make it look this easy.”

    Come to think of it, Kerouac liked to say he wrote *On The Road* in three frantic weeks, but first he spent years gathering notes. And then he spent the next few years editing before he published.

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  6. I, er, I do strange things with language. I took this as a writing prompt and wrote the following.
    Might not have all the elements, but I leave it here for people to read:

    the shaheegj Flotsem gabrilda hovered meticulously while
    the first exchange of insults was zokked at the
    Emarism Flotilla, stabs, barbs, on flagpoles and other
    cantilever gantries hit the gabrilda’s deck, occupied
    by the memome-warriors in their slock-jackets and armed with
    inverse pudding sextants, the air was thick with thick satirical
    parody, slabbling into the deck and splashing off. The slock-jackets
    were of brightly fluorescent colors and decorated with the sigils and
    other markings of fealty and oaths that each of them was abridged
    thereunto. Ochsuxie Blavar was knocked down by a vague slanderous libel
    that had accidentally emerged from the exploding gabrilda’s
    Uhxay Corporation Sarcasm-Coherentizer, a machine designed to disabrogate
    the haters from the smexy, to wend the wisted way though superfluous snark
    and vaporize it. Flashing yellow “Warning: There are Carrots Nearby” alarms
    bursted forth, and the good memomewrights ducked as massive unrepentances
    of misapprehended glee burnished funky above. Salaxara Crayenzea smeared
    her nose with a polka-dotted anti-philosophical poultice as the Flotilla
    through over Exclusionary Symbolic Thought Pedagogy Incendiary Devices,
    each one exploding with vapor charged with philosophical rhetoric whose
    barrier of entry was shamefull high, translated into a diminished fifth
    lilac odor and a major third of fennel fragrance.

    “Zaahai! Zaahai”, Ernaro Columh ached at his cohort. “They’ve tossed us
    a kipper!”, a gigantic holographic kipper appeared on deck, projected
    by a tiny electromechanical bee-robot. It started singing an achingly
    homogenous ditty about the allergy of celery to beetroots, and
    those on deck covered their ears until the robot-bee repellant swing
    arm could be deployed. Ernaro hit the clutch and the gantry above swung
    the movable portion of the arm, and the robotic holographic-projecting
    bee could have been heard to squeak in a tiny voice: “Hideousness!”,
    before buzzing away.

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  7. I use a story map–plotting the journey from beginning to end; then I develop a character chart where I create the personalities of my characters. Once I develop a relationship with my characters, they tend to take over the story and I let them. Their perspective
    on unfolding events is better than mine and I really look forward to what they’ll do or say next. Thanks for sharing!

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  8. This relates to your post about the description of fishing nets and the fishing process. What I preferred about the approach in the fishing net post was the use of dialogue. Here we have a scene told with exposition, but no characters and no dialogue. The second draft does a solid job as an “establishing shot,” as they call it in visual media like film and comic books. In another post, you describe LOTR as Tolkien’s tour of middle earth, and that is exactly right. Here we have a similar tour of the dock. But how much more interesting would the whole scene become if we put our characters in it and allowed them to move through the scene, discussing it, responding to it, and taking action? Not that you should have created characters for an example post, but this is always my first thought when I end up with a scene like the first draft.

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      Oh, I definitely agree! This wasn’t intended to be a complete scene. Merely a descriptive passage *within* a larger scene. This is to suggest that if the writer is going to create a form of “establishing shot”, or some other longer descriptive passage, it helps to apply a certain logic to the process (unless a more chaotic approach is called for given the context).

    2. Was just reading some chapters from “Born Free” this morning. Joy Adamson does a great job of what you are demonstrating here: using logically structured descriptions. She has zero dialogue, and the main subject is a lioness. So, she tells all of her African travels and adventures through exposition. Though I am mainly interested in the parts about the lioness, having your post fresh in my mind gave me a deeper appreciation of how well Adamson structures her descriptions of everything: from the details of their caravans, to the landscape; from their daily meals, to the cultures and personalities they meet along the way.

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