How To Use Description in Fiction

30th November 2002

Filed by: Officer Taylor

Many less helpful language authorities than the SAGP will tell you that the use of description is an important skill to master in fiction. They're right. While it's true that story is at the heart of good fiction, and although story is generally advanced more effectively by plot developments, nevertheless description is absolutely necessary - not only to provide flavour, nuance and allusion, but also by way of a respite from the stream of action, action, action that overwhelms so much modern fiction.

The fact is, even the most breathless prose can often benefit from a little judicious description. As usual, an ounce of example is worth a ton of theory, so here is a sample passage, illustrating how description can enhance an action scene rather than causing it to drag:

As I moved quietly through the forest, I heard a twig snap behind me. I span on one foot - too late, as the dinosaur was upon me, the great claws of its hind feet tearing at my clothing. I tried to reach down for my gun, but as I was crushed to the ground by its weight, my arm was pinned beneath me. I felt its hot breath on my face as it poised to strike, and did the one thing I could: shoved my other arm down its throat as far as possible. As it struggled to breathe, I noticed that although its flanks were covered in non-overlapping tubercules about three to four centimeters in diameter and roughly hexagonal in shape, a variety of other integumentary structures were to be seen on its head: long, hairlike threads in drab grey-brown colours ran down the back of its neck, while keratinous structures not dissimilar to feathers formed a display crest, most likely for sexual display in the mating season. I estimated its femoral length as about two thirds that of the tibia, suggesting a cursorial lifestyle, although the femoral musculature was not proximally concentrated in the manner typical of an endurance runner, so a wait-and-pounce predation strategy was indicated. Then it bit my arm off.

As always, the trick is good taste and judgement: neither too much description, nor too little.

Now try to integrate this skill into your own writing.

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