Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing

Let’s talk about some ways in which your descriptions can do more than just describe. You’re not just trying to tell us what the room is like. You’re also setting the mood, telling us about the POV character, and establishing some of our progress through the story.

Howard (who rarely works in prose) offers some unexpected insight by talking about the way panels are composed in his comic. Mary offers even better insight by pulling the same principles through the domain of puppetry. Dan tells us how some of this is done by filmmakers. But yes, we finally do come back around to prose and how to accomplish these things with words.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Shades of Milk and Honey, written and narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing Prompt: Go someplace, use all five of your senses, and for thirty minutes write about the place you’re in. Not the people though. Just the place.

And Because It Needs To Be Google-able: “Mary Robinette Koala” — it might be more than just a pronunciation guide.

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43 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing”

  1. No no your supposed to give a description that evokes mood apparently.

    “The link leads to a 404, an unexpected error much like a wrapped Christmas present that is opened to reveal nothing.”

  2. Fixed!

    Sorry about that. Jordo’s original file name had typos in it, so I renamed the file and renamed the link, and botched the case-sensitivity. Granted, the field for editing this is so short that you can’t read the whole filename at once, so mistakes (including typos) are easy, but still, I should have given it one final test before scheduling it.

    Anyway, it’s fixed.

  3. I’ve been meaning to work on this particular skill for a while now, but today was the day I sat down to start studying, and here comes this ‘cast.

    If I was a certain paranoid Schlock Mercenary character, this would be undoing weeks of the therapy I don’t attend.

  4. Thinking about how the audience responds to the words rather then just how to get the information across is a great insight. One of your best recent casts.

  5. Thank you all for mentioning that good description can cut down on the amount of words used. There was a time when I wrote a wall of text to describe a single thing, now, since I read the Sword of Truth books, I know it’s possible to get it done with only a few lines at most, even if it’s a vivid detail.

    This podcast gave me a lot of the tools to understand how such a thing can work. I’ll make use of these ideas as soon as I can.

  6. Brandon PLEASE STOP staying uh, umm, so much, its driving me crazy, i love the podcast, and i’ve started reading some of your work, but your constant, uh, ummmm, ah, uh, is very distracting and keeps me from getting all the podcast has to offer.

    Thank you.

  7. Q: What did Santa give Mary when she was bad?
    A: Mary Robinette Coal.

    Q: What do Mary’s groupies aspire to?
    A. Mary Robinette Cool.

    Q: What does Mary wear when she wants to look mysterious?
    A: A Mary Robinette Cowl.

  8. I wanna see the sketch for “Mary Robinette Koala”. :D

    And thanks for the tip concerning the audiobook, I’ll try to get it from Audible.
    I really think Mary’s voice is sexy (with all due respect!).

    The themes have been interesting and the podcast episodes very informative.
    Keep up with the good work, guys!

  9. Hahaha, I love Mary’s laugh, it’s so genuine, yet she sounds like her masterful evil plan has just come to fruition. Fear her. Fear the lady who shall conquer the world with Pinocchio and the Thunderbirds :D

  10. As for the fixed file name, I still cannot download via iTunes. Does iTunes “catch up” to the name fix overnight, or do you guys have to refresh something over there?

  11. As of this morning, the iTunes download is still broken…I’ll grab it directly, but thought you’d like to know.

  12. Brilliant ‘cast – this one was deep. I would have loved to hear more from you guys on this. I’ve approached details as just giving the bare minimum needed to set the scene, the tip of the iceberg that implies the mass, and yes, giving the details that the character would notice first, but you guys took it much further.

    I’d love to hear more from Howard on cartooning syntax, and from Mary on puppetry queue – she did some of that in her first guest appearances, but I get the feeling she only touched on it. I do artwork, and I’m amazed at how much crossover there is between the creation of visual art and writing – I’m continually quoting the art phrase “in order to show light, we must have dark – the darker the dark, the brighter the light.”

    And I thoroughly agree about the best horror having almost a poetic feel to it. I’d add that the best horror has a real moral aspect to it, even a spritual aspect (but then, I prefer the psychological to physical dangers).

  13. Agh – puppetry “cues” not “queue” (I’ve been writing “queue” all day today for various reasons.

  14. Great podcast, guys! This is one of the harder skills to master. When Orson Scott Card mentioned WILD SEED as an example of this done well I checked it out. Emulating it was more difficult than buying it.

  15. Great podcast this week! It’ll help a lot with my descriptions, and trying to lower my word count.

    I also think Mary Robinette Koala has a chance of being a marvelous period writer, joining greats like Nathaniel Pawthorne (“Mouse of Seven Gables”), and Mane Austin (“Mansfield Lark”).

  16. Awesome stuff, thanks guys again.

    And I’m hopeless at description, but I’ve posted my attempt. It always comes across as forced, with about as much prose as a textbook on car mechanics.

  17. One great technique that Robert Jordan does well is to integrate description with action. Instead of writing, “The grass was tall,” try “She crept through the tall grass.”

  18. The way that Dan explained horror and why it works is exactly why I listen to these podcasts. This is something that I’d have a lot of trouble figuring out on my own but now that I know about it and can practice it, my writing skills will increase dramatically.


  19. Challenge accepted!!

    Not the most exciting of locales, but if I were to use it as a setting for a story, I think it would be pretty easy to pick out the dominant characteristics of it. In any case, this is one I’ll be re-visiting as I continue in my writing. Thanks!

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