Monday, January 16, 2012


Has anyone ever read Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel? Oh my gosh, my teacher used to say that Oppel was the master of description. And believe me, the beginning left me breathless.

You guys lucked out, I was able to find an excerpt of the book online. Here's the first paragraph....

Chapter One
© Kenneth Oppel
Read the Excerpt

Skimming over the banks of the stream, Shade heard the beetle warming up its wings. He flapped harder, picking up speed as he homed in on the musical whine. He was almost invisible against the night sky, the streaks of silver in his thick black fur flashing in the moon's glow.

I mean, yes, this is written in Children's-fiction-language, it's not what you would expect from a YA novel or an adult novel, but it's children's fiction! It doesn't have to be.

First off, you have to know the difference between children's fiction, YA fiction, and Adult fiction. You have to find out which one your story fits into before we deal with the type of description. If you're not sure, read the articles below.

Writing YA Versus Adult Fiction: What’s the difference?
The Difference Between Middle Grade & Young Adult

I'm not going to go too far into novel length, word count, and all that other stuff that makes the difference between the three. As the title points out, we're talking about description. Let's start with determining thought processes. Emotion is just as much a part of description as sight or taste.

Thought Process

Children's Fiction - They are generally more accepting. They aren't as questioning as YA fiction, and if they do question, it won't be to the depths as YA or adult. They don't have as many of the experiences or knowledge to. Most children might want to be older or think that they are bigger.

YA Fiction - YA is usually the emotion-oriented of the three. Their actions are based the most off of emotions. The MC tend to be less sure of themselves because they don't have the protection shell of a younger child and lack the confidence of adults who have found there place.

Adult Fiction - The MC has found their place and has been there a while, gotten confidence and found a job. Maybe settled down. They tend to be more sure of themselves and cling to old beliefs. Things have been the way they are for quite some time, so they are very comfortable in their regime.

I want to remind you that I am just pointing out generalizations, not all MCs/stories are like the ones I am categorizing, there are exceptions.

Now that we have thought process, we can determine how they react to change.

React to Change

Children's Fiction - As children go, or at least young children, they tend to accept things. They don't know the boundaries of our world like older people do. Who is to tell them that mermaids don't exist? Or that everyone has a happy ending? 

YA Fiction - Change? There's so much of it going on, usually the only thing that they can do is grab onto a piece of floating wood and wait out the storm. Change is the way of life. 

Adult Fiction - Things have been the way they are for as long as they could remember. They grew up knowing these things, living this way, they don't usually expect change. If change happens, they might hang on to the old ways as hard they possibly can. 

Common Points of the Stories

Children's Fiction - Growing up, watching change as an outsider or having it affect their older sibling or parent

YA Fiction - BIG ONE: Finding their place in the world, being thrown into the sea of change

Adult Fiction - Sudden change in society, fixing/stopping change, learning to overcome and accept change

See how important it is to determine their reaction to change? It can seriously affect your story. Let's say that a meteor crosses the sky. A child would think immediately about a shooting star and maybe make a wish. A teenager might think about it as an omen, there's so much going on they can't focus on it but the thought stays in the back of their head for a long time. An adult might immediately worry about their families or scoff at the idea immediately and shove it out of their head. Things couldn't possibly change now. 

One change but three totally different reactions. You have to keep this in mind when writing detail and description in your story. It may not seem important to know which type of fiction you are writing in, but I can't emphasize enough to find out/decide which one you write in. 

Now is as good as any time to talk about the main points in description. You may be familiar with the five senses, but they aren't the only ones. 

Sight - eyes, seeing
Hear - ears, hearing
Taste - mouth, tasting, eating
Touch - hands, skin, feel
Smell - nose, smelling
Emotions - mind, feelings
React - mind, instincts, reacting
Others- not only emotions and such from your MC, but from others too

It's important to have a balance of these. You might think that sight should be the most used, but keep in mind about emotions. It is also a big one. You can't just see everything, you have to formulate your own opinions and emotions about things, this is especially important in YA fiction. 

Also keep in mind the details about your MC, as they will also greatly affect the senses that you put in. If your character is blind, it won't "see" per se. If your character is deaf, the same goes for hearing. Description changes with the main character. 

Age, characteristics, personalities, etc. they all change the way that description should be added. I'm not going to tell you a certain way to describe something because of all the different varieties of description. As with anything, the most important thing is balance.

You can't describe the whole story long, then it becomes nonfiction. You can't lack any sort of description otherwise the story looses it's meaning. You have to find a healthy balance of description. Let's look at a few examples...

A - She told Max about her necklace and he frowned. She started to sing. 

B- She whispered to Max about the broken necklace and he frowned, obviously thinking back to the time that he had given it to her in remembrance of their mother. Trying to show him that she held no grudges, she started to sing the lullaby he used to whisper when they were little. 

Does A seem to be lacking something? Do the sequence of events not make complete sense? Read B, make sense now? If you add the girl's emotion, the description about the necklace being broken, and the conclusion to sing to make him better, the story makes a lot more sense. Now read C (below).

C - She whispered about the broken, silver necklace to her older brother, Max who stood over her trying to eat his little bowl of pink ice cream in peace. He slammed the little, rusted spoon against the white ceramic of the bowl and scooped up another small bite of the tasty treat. His mouth moved into a tight frown that hid all of his teeth, obviously remembering the time so long ago that 

Description can make or break your story. C, if you hadn't noticed, is a little over-described. The bit about the ice cream, although allowing us to picture the scene better, completely diverts the reader's attention from the point of the story; the broken necklace. Be careful with description.

Pros and Cons of Description

Pro - Helps the reader picture the scene
Con - Can be overused
Pro - Brings depth to a scene
Con - Makes it easy to tell instead of show
Pro - A sign of a good/growing writer
Con - Can distract from the story
Pro - Tells a lot about a character or place

Obviously, the pros outweigh the cons and description is a very important part of a story. This section was just meant to remind you that description can be a double-edged sword. Be careful when you attempt to use it.


Use it or lose it. You've heard the saying before. The most important place to use description in is the beginning. There's no other time that you'll be able to use it in that amount so make it count.

Description can either be used to show or tell, make sure you have a healthy balance. You've sure heard a lot about that.

Don't let description distract you or the reader from the story.

Practice! As with anything, if you use it enough, you will get better.

My advice is to focus on who your characters are. If you can figure that out, description will be easy.

Wow, that was pretty long. I hope that I could help you better understand the art of describing! :] Have a nice day, a happy January and good writing to you all!


  1. Wow. What a great post! You guys put forth a lot of work to get these done. I really enjoyed it Nata, thanks for the tips!

    1. Thanks! I'm glad I could help! I thought it was a little all over the place myself, so it's good to know it made sense to someone else. :] Good luck with your writing!

  2. She pulled the necklace gracelessly from her neck, pausing only to glance at Max and gauge the result of her conspicuous contempt.

    As she passed off this last piece of herself into his loveless hands, she turned and swung her heart around to a song from another time, each heavy step leading her away from what was her last hope.


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