How To Write Description In A Novel: Viewpoint

Posted at 02:57am on 15th September 2009

Viewpoint, or Point of View (commonly referred to as POV) is, arguably, one of the most difficult aspects of creative writing for a novice to grasp. Even when the theory is understood, it is so easy for a new writer to slip up and write from an omniscient (all-seeing) point of view. I have written on this topic in the past but I want to revisit it in this series of how to write description in a novel.

In the first article, I highlighted how little is required, when writing a character description, in order to flesh out the appearance and disposition of the individual in question. I used a scene from a Joanna Trollope novel in which a husband was taking a new look at his wife. He was describing physical appearance but, because it was filtered through his sight, his mind, I pointed out that it was ‘essentially, his view of her.’ In other words, it was written from his Viewpoint.

A second example of how to write description, was taken from a Rosie Thomas novel. In this instance, although written in the third person, it revealed a character’s opinion of her own appearance. Like the first example, the state of the character’s hair was not only used in describing appearance, but also in order to reveal a state of mind. In the one the husband thought his wife ‘small but defiant.’ In the other, the girl’s inferiority complex is exposed.

Both are valid. Each was written ‘in character’ – in other words, inside the head of the individual – and therefore each revealed the thoughts of that person.

Each of them was, also, quite brief. They formed an integral part of a narrative which took the story forward. They were woven into the action of the piece.

THE USE OF LONGER CREATIVE WRITING DESCRIPTIONS

Sometimes, however, a rather longer piece of descriptive writing is necessary. In the following example, taken from my novel, A Painful Post Mortem, the mother, Claire, is meeting a character for the first time.

“A girl – a woman, really, of about Katya’s age I would think – looks up from where she’s crouching on the floor and smiles as we enter. She has a canine missing which gives her a lopsided appearance. But it is an otherwise pleasing appearance, if you like long, unkempt hair, black-kohled eyes, a white fringed skirt that could have been pressed into service as a bedspread – assuming it hadn’t, already, metamorphosed from one to the other – and a super-abundance of silver and gold jewellery. It makes me, clad in old jeans and T-shirt, feel under-dressed.”

The whole point of this long description is to communicate the sort of rapid assessment which we all make in unfamiliar territory and, supremely, to convey Claire’s discomfort in a situation which is completely alien to her. The reader doesn’t really need to know much about the appearance of this minor character. What is important is to know, and understand, Claire’s state of mind. Is she standing in judgement of this girl, or does she like her? How does the girl make her feel?

And this, in essence, is what Viewpoint writing is all about.

HOW TO WRITE DESCRIPTION: INCLUDE ONLY WHAT IS FAMILIAR

Descriptive writing which is from a particular Viewpoint, should include only what is familiar to that particular character, and it should be couched in the sort of language he or she would use. We’ve already seen how appearance mattered to Claire. Now consider the discomfort of her ex-husband in this example.

“Mark pulled back into the middle lane and slackened his grip on the steering wheel of his silver BMW Z1 Roadster, which he’d bought a month or two earlier and which, with its sleek lines and drop-down doors, was intended – before Kat’s death – to give him the ultimate buzz. It had, today, failed spectacularly to do so.

Traffic was bad and he’d been stuck in the fast lane far too long, the tension building in his neck and shoulders until he felt that, at any moment, he’d burst a blood vessel. Every other vehicle on the motorway appeared to be towing a ruddy caravan clogging the inside lane, and those that were not jostled for position as if they were Schumaker at Silverstone.”

In this example of writing description, a BMW Z1 Roadster is portrayed in loving detail, and a traffic jam with frustration. But is this what is important to the reader? I would say that of far greater importance are the following points.

  • This piece of descriptive writing is obviously from Mark’s Point of View – there is nothing here which would be familiar, or of interest, to Claire.
  • Without writing a character description as such, a good deal of Mark’s personality is conveyed through his love of fast cars and an expensive lifestyle.
  • In fact, it’s all about power – and the lack of it.
  • The short sentence at the end of the first paragraph punches home his sense of stress.
  • His use of the word ‘ruddy’ in his thinking is typically his way of expressing himself, vocally.
  • Likewise, his comparison with racing is not one that Claire would have used.

OMIT ANYTHING WHICH IS UNFAMILIAR

Later in the same scene, Mark is reminiscing about the row he'd had with his wife, at home, the previous evening.

“Home was a pair of cottages converted to one dwelling, and the cultivated shabby chic of neglect suited him admirably. But there was, he acknowledged, more to it than a difference of opinion over décor. He’d felt vaguely depressed since leaving Compass Quay, and found himself oddly untouched by Sylvia’s presence, as if either he or she had taken up residence in a bubble, insulated from reality. It was a disturbing state of mind, quite outside his experience, and was compounded by his inability to explain it. It left him feeling that his ruddy world had shrunk, and that even in its reduced circumstances, he was powerless to influence anything, or anyone, around him.

‘I picked up some brochures and fabric samples while I was staying with Mummy,’ Sylvia said, getting to her feet to open a second bottle of wine. ‘I wanted to see what colours and styles went best with the furniture. I’ve made my choice, but you need to have your say. What do you think?’

She replenished the wine glasses, then produced a carrier bag crammed full of glossy, illustrated, pamphlets depicting furniture and soft furnishings in ornate, traditional style, and a collection of fabric swatches, which she named as chenille, damasks and satins. It was clear that she was excited with her finds, but Mark had his mind elsewhere.”

I’ve included the whole passage, here, but the important bit is underlined. Having told the reader in the first sentence that he is not interested in décor, Mark is hardly likely to be familiar with the fabrics which his wife produces. It would, therefore, be ‘out of character’ for him to be able to name them. He describes them merely by the names which she gives them.

DESCRIPTION IN WRITING: FOR ACCURACY, THINK YOURSELF INTO CHARACTER

It is advisable to stick to one character per scene, so as not to confuse your reader. Of course, some description is not overtly through Viewpoint. ‘The dress she was wearing was pink,’ says nothing to the reader about whose character we’re in. But ‘The dress she was wearing was pink and slinky, accentuating the swing of her hips,’ is unlikely to be written from the Viewpoint of the character wearing the dress, but from that of someone observing her.

The best way to be sure that you are writing from the correct Point of View is to think yourself into character. Whether you are writing from first or third person, BE that character. Ask yourself questions:

  • Can I see my face? If not, I should not be describing my expression.
  • Do I know this other character well? If so, I should not be describing what is familiar to me.
  • Has something changed either the appearance of this character or my view of them? If so, description is legitimate.
  • Do I know the name of these ingredients, those flowers, that film star? If not, I should describe them only in vague terms, not by name.
  • Do I have specialist knowledge of, or a particular interest in, something? If so, my description should convey that.
  • Is my social standing upper class, intellectual, or uneducated? The language I use in my ‘stream of consciousness’ should convey that.

If you apply this method to each of your characters, it’s usually pretty easy to pick up on where you’ve gone wrong. Read and analyse the descriptive writing of well-established authors to determine from whose Point of View a piece is written. Learn from them how to describe a character in as few words as possible. Practise describing characters in such a way that your reader learns not only what they look like, but also how they are feeling. And don’t forget that describing location can also be a means of conveying the personality of your character.

Do let me know how you get on. And make sure you send this on to a friend by clicking the button in the side bar on the right.

ALL PROCEEDS FROM MEL'S LATEST NOVEL, A Painful Post Mortem, ARE FOR CHARITIES BENEFITING CHILDREN WORLDWIDE. PLEASE BUY A COPY AND HELP RAISE CASH FOR PROJECTS LIKE THIS OVERSEAS OR THIS IN UK

Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.

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