In photography they say the act of looking at one thing is also the act of looking away from something else. The same can be said of description. When writing description, it’s important to consider what’s left unsaid. For example, a character stands in the middle of a street. Audiences will either assume that the street is empty or that the character is ignoring the activity around them, both of which convey meaning.
Concrete & Abstract Details
Concrete details are objective characteristics: shape, color, location, etc., while abstract details are opinions and conclusions: beautiful, loud, fast, etc. Figurative language falls in between the two: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, etc. Describing a person as having a hawkish face is an example of figurative language; not everyone will agree but most will have some idea what the speaker means.
Most writers either begin with a concrete detail or include one early on, then mix concrete, abstract, and figurative language. For example, “a beautiful dog runs towards John, her fur glistening in the afternoon sun.” ‘Beautiful’ is abstract, but ‘dog’ is concrete, and glistening is debatable. The key is that audiences know that the subject is a dog, which serves as a central anchor for the rest of the description, much like a tree anchors the ornaments at Christmas time.
Here is an example of a description with no concrete details. “A tall figure up to the sky, his rough arms clutching tiny strips of cloth as they fluttered in the wind.” Some may recognize this as a description of a tree, but at no point does the description reference roots, branches, or leaves. It all comes back to the author’s intentions. What meaning are they trying to create? Lovecraft was particularly well known for using abstract and figurative language to describe his creatures, enhancing the otherness that they represent.
Whether it’s the heights of joy, the passion of anger, or the depths of sadness, scenes with high tension can be very daunting. Start with the character, determine how the character responds to intense emotions; whether they become active or passive, talkative or quiet, moving around or remaining still, whether the emotions are plain to see or if they remain calm.
Consult your memories. Few people have truly risked their lives, but many have seen a scary movie, or ridden a roller coaster. Find a memory with the same emotional charge as the scene, and build on that.
When describing the scene, don’t get too clinical. Describe what something means to the character, not what it is. If it’s an intimate scene don’t get caught up in explicit details when a hand on someone’s back or arm can be just as intimate. If it’s a fight don’t worry about describing every hit when a single blow can be brutal. Show the audience just enough to set the stage, and let them fill in the rest. Remember, the goal is to convey the meaning, not outline every move they make.
Pitfalls of Prose