Descriptive Writing Styles: Conveying A Sense Of Place, Person, Personality And Mood

Posted at 19:35pm on 2nd February 2009

When you sit down to write, do you find that the bit you like best is when you can indulge your love of description? Is that the part of your prose that you feel most proud of? Does it give you a thrill when you read it back to yourself? If so, you are not alone.

Most new writers are rather prone to the use of too much description. Large blocks of illustrative writing about the weather, the scenery, appearance, character and atmosphere add little to the modern narrative and should be used sparingly, if at all. It is, however, essential that a reader should have a sense of time, place, person and mood, and in order to convey this, an author needs to understand how this might best be expressed.

DESCRIBE EVERYTHING FROM THE CHARACTERS’ POINT OF VIEW

The key, as I’ve written before, is in Viewpoint writing. This means that everything - including the portrayal of place and person – is filtered through the Point of View (POV) of the character in whose scene the description appears. Let me explain.

The following piece of descriptive writing about an event in the novel I am currently working on is written entirely from the POV of a character named Julie.

“An innate affinity with wide, desolate, spaces led me often in the direction of the headland above St Agnes Bay. Well-known as a canine delight for a dog with retrieving instincts – as Jasper unfailingly reminded me on our daily excursions – it was pure doggy heaven.

Heather mounds – twisted, wiry stems shrouded in wisps of low-lying mist - concealed a labyrinth of rabbit warrens. Flat, open areas of cropped turf facilitated the chase. A dozen yards or so from me, Jasper’s blonde plume of a tail, flagged a persistent, frenzied pleasure.

I wished I could share his enthusiasm.”

DESCRIPTION OF PLACE

Julie is a dog-owner and the description of place, from her POV, is written in that context. Had she been an artist, she would probably have made no mention of rabbit warrens or Jasper’s love of the chase. Instead, seeing another point of view, she might have noted the clarity of light and shade, the contours of cliffs and soft colouring of sky, sea and turf. But if Julie were a biologist, her emphasis would have been different again. Alternatively, as a city dweller, she may have viewed country life disparagingly, in which case her description of this place would have been derogatory and included expressions of distaste.

AN IMPRESSION OF PERSON & PERSONALITY

But this description is not simply about place. Note that it also conveys a direct, and indirect, sense of person and personality. Julie’s daily walks tell the reader that she is fit and healthy, that she enjoys the open air and undoubtedly dresses appropriately, is comfortable with her own company, and is probably an introvert. However, she obviously takes pleasure in the antics of her dog and from this single piece of information most readers, I would suggest, would expect from her the sort of friendliness that is common to many dog owners.

A SENSE OF MOOD

These same few lines of description are used, also, to create atmosphere; a sense of mood. There is a feeling of contrast between Jasper’s tail signalling pleasure, and the twisted, wiry stems shrouded in wisps of low-lying mist - concealed a labyrinth of rabbit warrens. Does this point to something that is not straight forward, something, perhaps, underhand? And what of the Flat, open areas of cropped turf facilitated the chase? Is Julie feeling hunted by whatever is going on in her own life, under the surface? Then we have it! I wished I could share his enthusiasm. Abruptly, Julie admits to her unease.

USE DESCRIPTIVE WRITING TO FURTHER PLOT & TO DEEPEN INTRIGUE

As I said earlier, pieces of descriptive writing should rarely, if ever, stand alone. Use them to give a sense of place – as seen through the eyes of a particular character. But use them, also, to push forward plot and character; to convey a sense of intrigue and mood. Never make your reader feel that this is something to be skimmed through, or even missed. Make your descriptive writing style as significant to your story as are the plot, character and dialogue.

Let me know how you get on.

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