Friday, March 9, 2012

Eating Spiders – The Art of Description

All writers know description is the essence of writing. Happiness, tension, confusion, fear–virtually all emotions readers feel while immersed in stories grow out of good description. Look at this picture and the child's real-life question:

“Grandpa, are you going to eat that spider?”

Spider? I never would have thought to describe a lobster as a spider like Charlotte did. Yet, this mere speck of a child provided a fantastic impression of that lobster. Her simple question paints a vivid image in my mind, one suggesting anxiety over what may be about to happen . . . a bit of trepidation mixed with awe and a little revulsion. That is fantastic writing!

We all know tension provides the rails on which a story’s conflict rides. It rises and drops, hopefully rising to a crescendo at the climax. It can even rise and fall thereafter during denouement as plot issues unwind, or perhaps, some under-explained subplot is intentionally left hanging as the setup for a sequel.

The art of description means we, writers, should avoid telling readers what to feel. Instead of saying a widow is grieving the loss of her husband, why not back the hearse up to the readers’ mental door and let them smell the flowers? Don’t tell the reader that the widow “could not speak” the final prayer as the coffin lid closed for the last time. Try describing that painful knot building deep in her chest and throat, denying her breath, as she mouths the words of the closing prayer, unable to utter a meaningful sound. Let the reader feel the widow's grief.

Same thing goes for horror, thriller, romance--all writing involves setting a scene and building tension through narration or dialog. Fear, titillation, compassion, disgust, outrage or any other emotion evoked by words should be experienced by the reader . . . not told to the reader. If there is any secret to great writing, it is this ability to craft words in such a way as to draw the reader into the situation and make them feel the tension on a personal level.

The next time I think about ordering lobster in a restaurant I will undoubtedly recall the spider analogy and its vivid imagery. Who knows? I might switch to the broiled halibut instead. Now, THAT’S an impact!


  1. Interesting post that supports something my mentor posted about awhile back on her blog about description and adjectives. Good short post Dean!

    1. Thanks Sacha, just food for thought. I'm always trying to improve on my craft. Who knew I'd get a lesson from a 2-yr old?

  2. Love this Dean :) It reminds me when my sister was little she was eating a muffin and picked out all of the nuts. When my mom asked her why she said, "Mom those were crab bodies blinking in my mouth."
    That line told me all I needed to know like any good description should :)

    1. Glad you liked it, Julia. I think that's the way all good writing should be. A few words can convey a mountain of images. Hmmm, now that I think about it, perhaps it's a corollary to the old adage, "A picture says a thousand words." Might say, it only takes the right few words to paint a vivid image.

  3. I've heard of lobsters being the cockroaches of the sea, but never spiders. It all depends on one's perspective and experience.

    I agree, a writer cannot with words on the printed (or digital page) match the imagination of readers--the images and comparisons they draw and the meaning those engaging moments within the story hold.

    1. "Cockroaches of the sea . . ." Funny how perspective changes.

      In colonial times, lobster was considered poverty food and fed to prisoners, slaves and indentured servants. Today, we pack Maine lobsters in special crates and fly them, alive, across the country to become expensive fare in restaurants. Such tidbits of knowledge can color a writer's story, making history a great tool in the art of description.

      By the way, any of you who read my blog should know that Terry is, by far, one of the most talented writers of fantasy that I have ever had the pleasure to read. His books, Flank Hawk and Blood Sword, are well worth your time and money.


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