What is this a picture of?
Now, you might say trees, which is correct. You might say a meadow, which is not quite correct. You might even say water (though I can’t image why) which is also, oddly, correct. Lastly, you could say “A carpet of red and green plants on top of the water at Merchants Millpond State Park in NC, which, in the summer, can look like a lost scene from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ — but that’s quite a mouthful. Which brings us the today’s topic:
How Do You Describe a Thing?
Say a bookish, wordy thing, that you’d like people to not only buy but come to love, cuddle, carry around on most weekdays, and speak dreamily of for the next 50 years because it is the central tile to the mosaic of their lives and OH MY GOSH, WHAT IF THEY’D NEVER READ THAT GREAT DESCRIPTION AND HAD TO BUY IT??? Or, even worse, what if the description hadn’t told them what the book was really like?
And, as in the picture above, everything in this odd, descriptive realm is not always what it seems. Now, let’s look at the first of a few common misapprehensions (all mine at one time or another) —
Descriptions Are Easy
I think this confusion comes from three sources — very good descriptions, unnecessary descriptions, and simple ones.
- The very goods ones are probably burned in your memory, they inspired you to read that greatest book or they are the creme de la creme of what’s out now — the bestselling books, the biggest movies.
- The unnecessary ones are for the things that are already huge and you probably don’t really need to know much about. I was shocked that when I looked at some bestselling fantasy on Amazon, the newest books in successful series did not have that great of descriptions — but then, all they need to say is “the fifth book in the New York Times bestselling series . . .” and they’re golden, or at least a lot closer than the unknown book.
- Now simple descriptions are the one that get you — because we all are using them every day and we use them well. “Todd’s my boyfriend.” “The new house is a great A-frame with a blue roof and giant front windows.” “You’d like Suzy; she’s Cher from ‘Clueless’ meets the Terminator.” These simple images work because 1: We all know what a boyfriend is; 2: We can see the house in enough detail to be happy for our friend (but we’re not about to buy it ourselves); and 3: This ‘taste of Suzy’ is either funny or weird, but it’s interesting, and we don’t need to be that invested. We’ll probably meet Suzy at a future party — we’re not taking a week off work to climb a mountain to speak to ‘Suzy the Guru’ . Can you imagine the description you’d need to convince someone to do that?
Next up — Descriptions are IMPOSSIBLE! and Writing a Bestselling Description.
Descriptions are IMPOSSIBLE!
Now that isn’t a very positive outlook to have, but any author who’s tried to cram a 150,000 word novel that took five years and a thousand day dreams to produce down into a 250 word query letter or an Amazon description has probably had that thought at least once. Now, before we get into how to write a good description, let’s talk about how to write a bad one (this skill may come in hardy, you never know). I looked up a few words under Amazon ebooks (‘Magik’, ‘Cove,’ & Triangle’ if you’re wondering). The goal here was to leap off the bestselling list and get a better feel for what kinds of descriptions are out there. Um, and words fail me — you probably don’t have anything to worry about, description-wise. It was frightening. Let me share some thoughts about a few things I saw while being scarred for life and why you DON’T want them anywhere near your great book description —
- Putting your page count in your description, having grammar errors, and using character dialogue.
Now Amazon has a ‘print length’ section. You might want to give your readers a heads up if your novel is quite short so people don’t feel cheated (“As small and feisty as Andrea herself, this novel shows her journey. . .”). Errors are far too common (for us all) but rereading, asking friends (on- or off-line) for help or buying a teacher lunch can make you look like a pro in no time. Character dialogue is tough; I think it can be used brillantly, but only if it’s an amazing line AND drives the story forward at the start of the book (Misery by Steven King has some lines I might put in there about his “number one fan”). But 99 times out of a hundred, it looks unprofessional and more importantly — it doesn’t help the reader connect.
- Being boring
This was actually the number one problem I saw. Now, it’s hard to know how not to be boring but when in doubt, use less words (don’t use word count on this post!). Telling about too many characters, worlds, and situations loses people’s interest instead of gaining it. I learned from Janet Reid’s Queryshark that you actually only need a tiny bit of story to fascinate people and when you’ve hooked them — stop talking; they’re already sold.
Avoid it because it is the worse thing ever in the history of the world and no one ever would disagree with that statement unless they were the most crazy person in the universe.
- Make Each Word (or a few words) a Paragraph
I won’t do it here, because it’s very annoying for readers, but trailing off dramatically isn’t really a clever way to bridge these ones and zeroes and tell your would-be readers ‘WHAT IT’S LIKE’ to read your book. I have the same inclinations, but on Amazon, if you use up the small visible area on three lines and THEN get to the heart of your description, most people aren’t going to scroll down. Make those few lines alive up to their maximum potential.
- Describe Your Fantasy World Like a Piece of Beef
I saw someone ‘break the forth wall’ in their description by talking about how ‘The world has its own unique mix of tech steampunk and dark mythological elements, all blended into an epic fantasy tale with classically inspired battle scenes.’ Now, the only thing wrong about this to me (it’s not poorly written) is that it’s showing me the backstage, the bones of the creature, the trap door of the magician’s box. It may help you write it, but why would you introduce me to your world of dirty zeppelins, a man who traded his happiness for power only to abandon that power and overthrow his own government, a world of grand sword fights, and highly combustible steam engines — why remove the magic from your own story before you’ve delighted us with the tricks?
- “this gives you the background for the rest building to the joining of the realms series end book 6”
I’m not going write much about this real description of the first book in a series because I’ve run out to the store to buy the author two things readers love — commas, and story resolutions.
- Avoid Cliches
This is often called lazy writing, but I’ll just say that it’s not worthy of you. You’re talented, original, and very creative. Leave the cliches behind — believe me, whatever you think of will be better (“Happier than a skunk on a possum tree”). Why is that line so weird and yet it makes me happy?
- Don’t Get Too General and Tell Me Nothing About the Plot
This one is related to ‘Don’t Be Boring’ but it is when you tell too little. I need to know what makes your story different, interesting and un-put-down-able. ‘She must overcome evil to learn who she really is’ could be The Silence of the Lambs or Memoirs of a Geisha or, maybe, Bridesmaids. Tell us (or better yet show us) the cell of Hannibal Lecter, the hard wooden piece a Geisha must lay her head on each night to keep her hair perfect, and the woman who’d drink that ‘fresh!’ lemonade. You made a unique, beautiful world — tell me why I want to live there.
Next up — Writing a Bestselling Description.
Now we come to the tricky part — actually writing a good description. I say ‘good’ because I think some writers do themselves harm by either spending months on it, or giving up and calling a half done description ‘good enough’. I picked five Amazon listings sort of at random, ones that I thought were quite good — Gone Girl, Coraline, The Hunger Games, About A Boy, and Maurice (you might want to open these links to read the descriptions and play along). Remember to write it in third person, present tense — ‘Joe has a problem’. This is true even if it’s a first person novel. I have also read through every Query Shark query on that website (at least as of March) and queries are very like Amazon descriptions — and with both, there’s no one right way to create it, but there are guidelines —
Start with the Lead Character, the Setting, or a Great Tagline
Janet Reid of Query Shark suggests opening with the character. And when I looked at good examples I found that starting with the character’s name and then having the word ‘discovered’ in the sentence worked well (‘Will Freeman may have discovered the key to dating success’ [About a Boy]) (‘Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house’ [Coraline]). If the setting is arguably as important as the lead character (Panem in The Hunger Games or Edwardian England in that wonderful story of being a gay man Maurice) then you might want to begin with that. Girl Gone simply starts its description with the tagline ‘Marriage can be a real killer’ and then explains what that means for this story.
As this ‘Far Side’ picture suggests, the next thing you need is a sense that this character / situation will probably cause a lot of conflict and drama. In our examples, this is either achieved by explaining what going really right — but too good to be true (About a Boy, Coraline), what’s going really wrong (The Hunger Games, Gone Girl) or a giant secret (‘Maurice is a conventional young man in almost every way … except that he is homosexual’). I think a real problem writers have is trying to stuff too much back story right here in order to MAKE YOU UNDERSTAND the lead character’s plight. A simple idea like being investigated by the police for your wife’s disappearance, or finding a marvelous new house with a different set of parents are easy and compelling ideas for your readers to wrap their heads around. Even The Hunger Games, whose description is almost all setting, keeps it short and elegant. The flip side here is that you want SOMETHING big happening in the beginning of your novel and the stakes should be sky high (at least for the lead character).
Here’s where you need to tell us a little more about the plot (don’t be scared; it’s not a scary word). Just add in a few sentences about what happens in the story. The goal here is to let the reader get a feel for what the actual reading of the book will be like. Whether it’s competing in the Hunger Games (and the fact Katniss doesn’t think she has a chance) or Will inventing a two-year-old son (he’s obviously not planning on any long term relationships with these women). Gone Girl gets quite involved here while Coraline is a mere line about her using her wits to escape.
Leave Them Wanting More
Don’t tell the ending. Don’t mention it ends in a cliffhanger that isn’t resolved until book 5 (actually, just don’t do that to your readers at all). Instead, capture their interest and then stop. Make them want to ‘Look inside!’, or buy the book outright. What does a teenage ‘kill or be killed’ tournament look like? How does a twelve-year-old named Marcus mess up Will’s plans? How does Maurice’s homosexuality ‘save him’ in a repressive society? And most impressive to me, what’s in the ‘silvery gift box’ of Gone Girl? I don’t even think it’s my kind of novel, but I’m thinking of buying it just because I want to know. That’s real power.
The V-Word (Voice)
Voice is that thing that comes through naturally the more you write but, in the case of a description, you may want to goose it up a little. The goal here is not to sound forced but instead make a description that matches the book in tone. Don’t use ten dollar words and expound on the nature of the universe if your story is about a rude, funny, half crazy bard who never has had a deep thought in his life (I’d read this BTW). Gone Girl’s description is a little too on-the-nose for me with its ‘mix of sharp-edged wit and deliciously chilling prose’ but the rather unconventional use of Forster’s description of the lead character I think works wonderfully in bringing out the thoughtful humanity and wonderful writing quality of the piece. But I really think each of these examples does a good job of letting you know whether the tone is disarming and funny; epic; magical etc.
Remember the goal (at first) is to be good, not great. You can keep working to hone your description, and keep rechecking it for spelling and grammar problems. Remember, this is your reader’s introduction your wonderful world — just let your enthusiasm, your passion, and a desire to share your story guide you. They’ll be lifelong fans in no time.
And feel free to post a comment (or email me) with your description and I’ll give you a free critique of it.