Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Description: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

By Sarah McGuire, @fireplusalgebra

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Description is an important element of any novel, but it's also an easy element to stumble over. We do too much, not enough, or choose all the wrong details to bring our story worlds to life. Please help me welcome Sarah McGuire to the lecture hall today, to share some thoughts, and some tips, on making the most of our description.

Sarah loves fairy tales and considers them the best way to step outside of everyday life. They’re the easiest way, at least: her attempt at seven to reach Narnia through her parents’ closet failed. She lives within sight of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where she teaches high school creative writing and math classes with very interesting word problems. Valiant is her first novel.

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Take it away Sarah...

Description is a tricky bugger.

In elementary school, we’re taught that description is all about pairing adjectives with nouns: big dog, red wagon, crooked feather.

Perhaps from those exercises, we get the impression that description is only about word choice—finding words that create a high-resolution image in our readers’ minds. If we can find the right words and paint a sufficiently detailed description that appeals to multiple senses, we will have painted the person or place so well that our readers will be sucked into our story.


Let me tell you about one of my adventures in description

My debut novel, Valiant, is a retelling of The Brave Little Tailor, where a tailor outwits giants and ends up marrying the princess. (As one does in fairy tales.) When I decided to retell the story, I knew only two things: the tailor would be a girl who wouldn’t marry royalty, and the giants wouldn’t be stupid monsters.

I wrote Valiant as part of a whole novel workshop with Patti Gauch, and one of the bits of feedback she gave was that my giants were giant-ish enough. If my readers were going to encounter giants in the pages of my story, they’d better feel like they’d actually met one.

When I looked back at the sections with giants, I realized my poor giants didn’t read like giants at all.

Look at a few excerpts from my oh-so-thin first draft. These are from the first time Saville, my girl-tailor, encounters giants. She’s trying to rescue a young boy from the two giants who hold him, and then she challenges them to see who can squeeze water from a stone. (Or a hunk of new cheese, in her case.)
1) Yet they were giants, and they did not look so misshapen as I had thought– human only bigger. Much, much bigger. Their heads were nearly level with the trees outside the city gates…

2) The young one who had held Will lifted up his foot. I dove away seconds before it crashed down where I had been standing. The ground shook at the impact. I threw myself to the side as the other giant took a stomp. But it never came. The bearded one had pulled him back with a commotion like a small landslide.
3) Before they could discern my fear, and before I could become scared that they would be able to hear my heart, I walked over to the river, where I had kicked the cheese. I picked up the fist-sized hunk and held it aloft.

“This is the stone I have chosen.”

Two heads nearly as big as I drew close, peering at it till they were nearly cross-eyed. They were so close, I could feel their breath blasting against me.

“It is hard to see it,” said the first. 
Riveting stuff, isn’t it?

My giants certainly didn’t have a sense of being giants. And it was my fault. Granted, it was a first draft, but looking back, I can see I’d been trying to write about my giants the wrong way.

Simply describing the giants wasn’t going to give a sense of their giantish-ness. I don’t know how or when this struck me, but as I worked with Patti in the workshop and then my fabulous editor, Alison Weiss, I realized that description isn’t a matter of writing a high-def description of a person or a place.

It’s about the sense of it. It’s about the emotion.

I’m going to say it again: description is not about the five senses. It is ultimately about the emotion your character is feeling and the emotion you want your reader to experience. 

It is absolutely true that a well-placed, high-def, detail can work wonders. But it works because that detail drives home the emotion the writer wants to convey.

As I revised Valiant, I needed to do two things:

1) I needed to get a sense of the giants physically. I needed to know what Saville would notice about them when she saw them for the first time.

2) I needed to know how they would make Saville feel.

I started with #1 and went to YouTube to see how really big creatures move. I’d ruled out giraffes- their gait is too goofy for giants. But I thought elephants might do the trick. So I watched videos of elephants: elephants feeding, elephants playing, and elephants charging. (I might have also watched way too many videos about cute baby elephants, but who can blame me? Have you seen those videos?)

After a while, I noticed how elephants seem to be moving slowly even when they aren’t. How there’s a graceful, sweeping sort of motion about them. Again, it was more a sense of how they moved, rather than that high-def description, but it felt right for my giants.

Then it was time for the emotion itself. I went back to the chapter where Saville meets the giants. For the first time, I grasped her wonder at realizing these giants weren’t exactly monsters. I felt her awe at standing before them.

And there was fear, too. Of course there was fear.

So as I revised, I focused on Saville’s emotion.

Sometimes I’d just be still, close my eyes, and wait till I had a sense of what Saville was feeling—the fear, the awe, the exultation. I think this is where metaphor and simile come into play. They shouldn’t be something that we shoehorn into our writing. Yet when description is about emotion, sometimes metaphor and simile are the only way we can get at it.

The process wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick. But thinking about description this way helped me. In the end, I described the giants better than if I’d tried to go for only high-def description.

Here are the revised portions of description, where I tried to give a sense of the giants, and focused on Saville’s emotion and reaction:

1, revised)
Giants! They approached the bridge, moving like huge draft horses, slow and strong.
2, revised)
The young one flinched then lifted his foot in one sweeping arc. I dove way as the boot crashed down where I had been standing. The boot rose again and I threw myself to the side.

But the boot never fell.

“No!” the bearded one pulled the young giant back with a commotion like a small landslide. “Kill not!”

“The Duke commanded—” The young one pushed the other giant away and he staggered back, the ground trembling beneath us. I’d never seen such strength, such force. I’d been a fool to think they moved slowly. The bearded one found his footing with a growl, and the two giants faced each other.
3, revised)

“Now you’ll see my strength!” I ran to the river. Once there, I quietly dropped the cheese from my pocket and toed it around in the dirt until it was covered. Then I picked up the fist-sized hunk and held it aloft. “This is the stone I have chosen!”

Both strode toward me like a slow-moving avalanche. I yelled and stumbled back, heart thudding against my ribs, arms raised against them, as if that could protect me.

Nothing happened. Instead, both giants dropped to one knee. They peered at me until their cat eyes were almost crossed, ready to see if I could squeeze water from a stone.

They were close enough to touch.

No, not touch. Though they bent close, their faces were still far above the ground. I’d have to stand on someone’s shoulders just to reach the young one’s chin. I’d never been so frightened, so awed. It was like having the sun and moon fall out of the sky and hang just above me. Their breath gusted against me, slow and steady.

The bearded one rested his left hand on the earth, palm down, to steady himself. His arm rose up like a tree, at least twice as wide as my body. I could see the muscle and sinew.

Lité?” he asked, and his voice rumbled through my chest. “We await you.” 
I’m a firm believer in the butt-in-chair, focus on your craft sort of writing. I rarely talk about muses (chasing them or waiting for them). But I also believe that it’s our passion for stories that keeps us writing. Paying attention to that passion, to that emotion, can guide so many aspects of our craft– including description. So when you’re working on description, pay attention to the five senses, but never forget that it is always about the emotion you want to evoke in your reader.

About Valiant

Saville hates sewing. How can she not when her father, the Tailor, loves his bolts of velvet and silk far more than he's ever loved her? Yet, when he is struck ill shortly after they arrive in the city of Reggen, Saville must don boy's clothes in the hopes of gaining a commission from the king to keep them fed.

The kingdom is soon on edge when stories spread of an army of giants led by a man who cannot be killed. But giants are just stories, and no man is immortal.

And then the giants do come to the city gates, two larger-than-life scouts whom Saville cunningly tricks into leaving. The Tailor of Reggen is the hero of the kingdom, the king promises his sister's hand in marriage, and by the time Saville reaches the palace doors, it is widely known that the Tailor single-handedly killed the giants.

When her secret--that she's a girl--is quickly discovered by Lord Galen Verras, the king's cousin, Saville's swept into the twists and turns of court politics. The deathless man is very real, and he will use his giant army to ensure he is given the throne freely or by force.

Now, only a tailor girl with courage and cunning can see beyond the tales to discover the truth and save the kingdom again.

Valiant is a rich reimaging of The Brave Little Tailor, artfully crafting a story of understanding, identity, and fighting to protect those you love most.

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  1. This post resonated with me as I struggle with adding descriptions to my settings. Writing about the five senses makes me feel as if I must sky dive without a parachute. It's a long way down.... But writing the emotional impact of a setting/scene? That I could do with far less fear. Thank you, Ms. Sarah, for giving me this valuable, new perspective!

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful, Samantha! It certainly gives me a way to think of it.

  2. Great post, Sarah!

    Close your eyes, sense, and feel. Wonderful advice.

    In gratitude,

  3. A retelling of `The Brave Little Taylor'? That... that exists? (Suddenly big eyed and hopeful.) Your revised description of the giants was beautiful. Especially where she felt as if the sun and moon had come down to stare at her. It gave me an instant mental picture of all those Mother Goose storybook pictures of the moon as a person- and what that would feel like.

    1. Chicory, I'm glad you liked the revised descriptions! It takes me a while to get there, but I keep working at it! :)

  4. I have always loved `The Brave Little Taylor' :) a retelling of it will be awesome, it isn't one of the popular tales that get such attention, you're very clever to choose it. description gives me a hard time too but applying feelings to it made me love the darn thing! I learnt this from Don Maass's 'Writing the Breakout Novel.' Great post.

  5. I was just at a Don Maass workshop in April! It was fabulous– he has so many good techniques.

  6. Number 1 revised was both shorter and better than number 1 initial.

    BTW, The Heart of the Matter is the title of Graham Greene's best novel >:)

    Cold As Heaven