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If you are like me, who hesitates / struggles with description, then this is for you. I discovered a wonderful book that helped me overcome my fear of descriptions.

What is a description in fiction?

It is a method by which the reader is enticed to suspend his reality and enter the world created by the writer by using imagery.

What is imagery?

Imagery is a literary device that uses description to recreate the scene that is in the writer’s mind, in the minds of the reader. Imagery employs all the five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste) and also temperature and movement. Basically, it is a transference of sensorial perception from the writer to the reader. Often the writer falls into the trap of describing only by sight, leading to lyrical yet superficial imagery. The writer shows (the reader) what he sees, not what he feels.

E.g.–It was a hot day. (Tell, no show)

The sun was a ball of fire on that day. (sight description)

On that day, the air was pungent with everyone’s sweat and irritability. (smell description).

The third sentence grabs the reader’s attention better.

But mere description would be of no use if it does not move the story/narration forward. If fact, the reader would feel short-changed if he reads a whole passage about it being a hot day and discovers later that the story could have moved on even if it was not a hot day. i.e. If the writer is describing the temperature in such a specific manner, the reader expects to be rewarded for imbibing that information. The particular scene/incident could have happened only on a hot day. The temperature should have direct relevance to the scene/plot.

E.g. It had been 10 minutes since the elevator jolted to a halt between floors and now, the air was pungent with everyone’s sweat and irritability.

We understand the temperature of the confined space, the mood of the travellers and the time, all description, yet all dynamic moving the story in a direction.

This is the opening line of the much-anthologized short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates.

Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.

The writer does not simply state Connie is pretty but vain. The writer says this through movement (quick), sight (glance at the mirrors) and sound (nervous giggle) all to describe her vanity.  And Connie’s vanity has an acute relevance to the story. So the reader feels gratified at having known that Connie is vain from the first line of the story.

Usually, the writers start off with sight description because we imagine in sights. One way to get around it and write better is to get the scene down, which will usually be visual, and then see if other dimensions can be added.

It was a hot day when the elevator jolted to a halt between floors. People inside it were becoming impatient as the minutes went by. Soon there would be a fight.

It had been 10 minutes since the elevator jolted to a halt between floors and now, the air was pungent with everyone’s sweat and irritability. Understanding sighs were turning into impatient tut-tuts. People who shrunk themselves, mindful of others’ personal space, now gave up and asserted more. With each elbow graze and muttered apology, a fight seemed imminent.

The above passage is not perfect as it was written in a hurry, but you get the point. Write what the mind sees and then start exploring, using other senses and dimensions. The resulting imagery will be surprisingly fresh and original.

Comments and discussions are welcome. We are all here to learn.


Author’s Bio

Sarveswari Saikrishna is a short story writer, currently working towards her MFA Creative Writing degree from Writer’s Village University. Her stories were published twice in the literary magazine, TMYS and one fetched The Best Story title. She was a finalist in the mentorship project offered by Writers Beyond Borders. She is proud to be a part of several anthologies published by Artoonsinn and Hive.  She lives in Chennai with her family and dreams of a day when she can write without interruptions.


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    Hi, you mention having discovered a book that helped you. Would you be okay with sharing the name of the book?

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