Workshop 22: FOCUS on Description
My Book Therapy’s Susan May Warren (right) unpacked the purposes and types of description in her ACFW workshop, FOCUS on Description. Her heart to teach is credentialed by the fact she is a Carol Award winner and Christy Award finalist, the author of more than 30 books, and a sought-after conference speaker.
“Description isn’t just about showing your world,” Warren said. “It is about wrapping your story around your reader” until “They can smell it . . . taste it . . . feel it. Suck the reader in, and make them go on that roller coaster with your character.
“Description isn’t about words to describe a setting. It’s about helping the reader experience the story world through the eyes of the POV character and revealing the character’s perspective. Description contains a sense of rhythm and provides a musical score for the story.”
Types of description
Two types of description are static and active. Static description provides a snapshot for the reader, while active description takes place as the character moves through the storyon screen. The most commonly used technique is active description. Static description should be employed purposefully and sparingly.
Static description should be about three sentences long, only happen in important scenes, and be more prevalent at the beginning of a book. In static description novelists “take a snapshot of a character or location and cement it in the reader’s mind,” Warren said. “The reader should remember how they felt when they experienced it.”
FOCUS your snapshot: Employ Facts, Observations, and Close-ups while Using powerful nouns and verbs and creating Symbols and word pictures.
Facts should give only essential elements. Warren said it is easy to “give so much flowery description that the reader misses the point.”
Observations use the five senses. “The sense of smell is one of the best memory tools,” Warren said. Taste can be used literally or figuratively and is a great tool for evoking emotion. (For example: “In his kiss I tasted our yesterdays.”) The use of touch slows a scene and helps the reader experience its nuances. Warren warned that leaving out sound is “like watching a movie with the sound off.” She also shared the concept of “synthesia, when one sensation evokes the sensation of another.” (For example: “like the rich chocolaty taste of a great idea.”)
The Close-up is a simile or metaphor that conveys what you want the reader to understand about the character or scene.
When FOCUSing, Using “powerful verbs and nouns creates an image or emotion of what you want to convey.”
The Symbol or word picture is a “figurative statement the reader can remember.”
“Active description happens as you move a character through the scene using verbs to evoke emotion,” Warren said. She encouraged conferees to choose verbs to convey feeling, give the POV character a physical response to the description, and use metaphors that capture physical response. (For example: “being swallowed” would “convey a sense of fear.”)
She concluded with the admonition to, “Stay with your character and make it believable.”