Editing Tips: Descriptions

Descriptions of characters, scenes, and actions are the mortar that binds the bricks of plot and character development, and when I read fiction, I sometimes feel like authors treat this very fundamental part of writing as perfunctory. Others, while they will occasionally offer an incisive or pleasant metaphor, it doesn’t seem to be part of a consistent discipline.

Take for example a pair of sentences:

When she stepped out of the shower, she felt very cold.

She grabbed the towel even before she stepped out of the shower, wrapping it around herself tightly as she fantasized that her shivering might somehow vibrate her into a warmer universe.

Notice how adding a symbolic action (wrapping the towel tightly around herself) and a metaphor (vibrating into a warmer universe) add a perception that goes beyond “very cold.”

Character descriptions

One of the first things an author should do in a story is to find some way to describe the narrator or main point-of-view character. Looking at one’s reflection has become so prevalent, it should be avoided for being stagy or overly obvious. But we find ways to describe a character’s hair when the wind blows her hair, his impractical shoes when his feet start to hurt, their different skin tones and facial features when someone erroneously assumes they are siblings.

Take a look at the masterful way Larry Niven fits in numerous details about Louis Wu’s appearance in the opening of Ringworld, as he arrives in a teleportation booth in Beirut, Lebanon:

His foot-length queue was as white and shiny as artificial snow. His skin and depilated scalp were chrome yellow; the irises of his eyes were gold; his robe was royal blue with a golden steroptic dragon superimposed. In the instant he appeared, he was smiling widely, showing pearly, perfect, perfectly standard teeth. Smiling and waving. But the smile was already fading, and in a moment it was gone, and the sag of his face was like a rubber mask melting. Louis Wu showed his age.

This description excerpt conveys so many facts an author might otherwise take much more time explaining. We know that Louis Wu is in a future advanced enough where (1) people can change the color of their skin and eyes, (2) clothing can have 3D designs hovering over their surface, (3) teleportation is common, and (4) teeth are most frequently genetically or artificially enhanced. Despite this, the character wears a queue (a very old Chinese tradition of shaving the head except for a long lock of hair in the back) and is wearing a robe, so we are encouraged to think that Louis Wu is either centuries old or at least old enough to eschew more modern dress. Given that he was smiling and waving when he left his departure point (suggesting he was seen off by family, friends, or even fans), we get the sense he is well liked, not a loner. And the fact that he instantly loses the smile and looks dejected foreshadows that he is not looking forward to his business in Beirut.

And Niven avoids the need for the character to see himself by choosing a third-person omniscient narrator who can see and describe the character. There are a lot of ways to execute a main character’s description even with a close, first-person narrator:

When the blindfold is removed, I can see that my wrists and ankles are bound by black leather straps chained to the wall. My nails are almost long enough to reach the straps on my wrists, but I shudder at the thought of possibly breaking a nail or even chipping the magenta polish I put on this morning to match my hair color. Derek is standing with his arms folded, smirking at some point between my breasts and my exposed navel.

Those three sentences give us a lot of information about the narrator. She is a human woman with magenta hair and nails, and she is wearing clothing that leaves her navel exposed. We are left with the impression that she did not enter the restraints willingly, as evidenced by her blindfold and her desire to free herself, if she could do it without ruining her nails (so her vanity is a bit more important than her freedom). That she knows the name of the man standing before her is also significant, though his smirk could be read several ways.

Scene descriptions

When describing a scene, many authors are able to load up a paragraph with details and maybe even a simile or two. But there are many other tools that are available.

Certain metaphors and similes can go beyond a physical description and create a mood. In the following excerpt from a new novel I’m working on (The Silent Interrogator), note how Sybil feels about Connor’s Roost:

As they approached the diner, it reminded Sybil of the last gasps of pre-suburban sprawl in the Maryland neighborhood where she grew up. It had an alternating blue-and-red neon sign on the roof proclaiming Connor’s Roost. It had been painted white all over, but the autumn winds had blown dirt and leaves against its lower walls, and dark fingers of soot ran down them from a leaky eavestrough reminding Sybil more of a partially unearthed skeleton.

If the paragraph had simply left the description of the diner’s exterior as dirty and old-fashioned, we would have missed the idea that this sort of free-standing commercial building was an anachronism in a future where they don’t exist elsewhere in the sprawl necessitated by population growth. We would have missed the opportunity to name the season (autumn), and the metaphor she chooses leaves an ominous impression of what she will encounter there.

The narrative rhythm can also vary to suggest additional information or create a mood. Note how the shorter sentences reinforce the idea of quiet desolation:

Sand. Sand in my shoes. Sand under my fingernails. Sand in my eyes and hair. Nothing but sand for miles. One large rock topped a dune. I crawled. I crawled. I don’t know why. It seemed important. It wasn’t a rock. I smelled it first. A dead camel. Even a camel couldn’t survive here.

Action descriptions

One of the hardest things for authors to make clear is action, especially fight scenes. Our language for describing motion is not quite as rich as our trove of static physical descriptions. Note how details may need to increase and time may need to slow down for complex physical actions:

With a sudden pivot, his fist sailed past her chest and only clipped her right shoulder. As the momentum carried him forward past her, she hooked his rear leg with her foot and between that brace and a shove to his right shoulder, he fell to the ground in front of her. She jumped over him and started kicking him in the back, trying to find his kidneys, and when she finally connected, he curled up into a ball, hugging his knees, and moaned.

Here too, metaphors can sometimes be a compact way to suggest a range of physical details. Here, for example, is a description of someone leaving a stasis bed where she had been lying for ten years from my novel The Walking Trees of Bauble:

She made the process of dismounting her bed like a cat might. Her hands touched the floor before her feet, but her knees and feet were not far behind.

Exposition through description

One of the ways to introduce events and other information that preceded the opening of a story is to reveal them through description. If you describe a building or a piece of technology that would seem futuristic to us as shoddy and rundown, you get a general sense of how far in the future the story takes place. Details of character as in the quote from Ringworld above can also help set a scene. The quote above in which the character is lost in a desert begins the process of revealing backstory: Somehow this character is lost so deep in a desert even a camel cannot survive there. And in the fight description above, you discover the female character’s facility with martial arts and that she is confident enough to want to make sure her opponent is incapacitated before attempting to get away.


This is the sixth and final post in this series of editing tips. If you enjoyed this topic and want to learn more about how to improve your writing, check out the previous posts: Editing Tips: Dialogue, Editing Tips: Plots, Editing Tips: Bad Advice, Editing Tips: Version Control, and Editing Tips: Style Guides.

1 thought on “Editing Tips: Descriptions”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s