I chose the above picture for this article because it’s one of the MANY scenes in the LOTR/Hobbit movies that are idyllic yet epic-looking. It’s hard enough to arrange something like this in a movie; how hard would it be to describe it in written form? This image gives off more than one feeling: heroicness (I checked, that’s a legit word), hope, a spirit of adventure, encouragement, an idyllic-type feeling, peacefulness, and a multitude of others. How can you make it so that your describing of the great place in your imagination doesn’t come across as a migraine to your readers?
William Zinsser is no writer of fiction, but his principles are good for any author. If Zinsser’s maxims were to be summed up in two words, it would be these: Remove clutter. What he means by “clutter” is unnecessary words, phrases and clauses that don’t cut straight to the point. Anything that dithers, wastes time, or is excessive has to go. A good principle, but to the point: Zinsser has something similar to say about describing places.
“…Choose your words with unusual care. If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; it’s probably one of the countless clichés that have woven their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to make a special effort not to use them.”WILLIAM ZINSSER, ON WRITING WELL
Zinsser here was speaking of the Travel Article, a work where you describe the events and scenes of a journey. In this quote, he warns writers of using all-too-well-known ideas to describe a scene. For instance, don’t tell us that the villas in Kernou (A fictional place I just made up) are “charmingly pretty”, “Small and cute” or, horrors, “Inhabited by the rich”. All of these terms suggest themselves when you say (or rather, write) the word “villa”, and, in being so, mean virtually nothing. You put your reader to sleep.
The intelligent writer, however, sees this problem and corrects it. The point is this: Use original terms. Don’t borrow old terms from places you’ve seen before. Tolkien had great ways of describing places: learn from him, but don’t be a copycat. If you find yourself writing like someone else when describing a place from YOUR imagination, check yourself and substitute words that YOU would choose. As soon as you find a writing style that is different from all the book authors in the world, you’ve found your way of describing people and places.
But Zinsser has another tip when describing places:
“As for substance, be intensely selective. If you are describing a beach, don’t write that ‘the shore was scattered with rocks’ or ‘occasionally a seagull flew over.’ Shores have a tendency to be scattered with rocks and to be flown over by seagulls. Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white.”WILLIAM ZINSSER, ON WRITING WELL
Again, a good principle to keep in mind: anything that looks artificial or irrelevant probably is. Keep the details short and relevant. A paragraph or two will do. “But I want to use 1500 words to describe my scene!” You say. “It’s just that cool!” I’m sure it is. The human imagination is capable of great feats. But do you want your readers to suddenly become…non-readers? Pick the best and punchiest (No, I didn’t make that word up either) details to fit in a paragraph or two, and use that for your description.
Another good point: as cool as the place may be described, it’s dull without some action. You can use pages to describe the waves on the sea (Part of the reason why nobody wants to read Moby Dick), but even if your ever-so-detailed-and-painstakingly-rewritten scene lacks action, it’s doomed to be dull. A lamely-described place, however, can be lit up with interesting events (Frank Peretti favors quiet, mostly-undescribed American towns with high action and events). So, a good event accompanies a good description of a place like mice and cheese (That didn’t sound quite right…But whatever.).
If you take nothing else away from this article, take two quick points: One, forget well-known clichés. A great writer has no need for them. Two, excise unnecessary words and phrases when describing. When you find your work turning into a TMI (Too Much Information) cut back and use only the best of your details.
Good luck, and happy writing!