Writing vivid description is not my strong point. The children I teach can often produce better descriptions of setting than I do. I prefer working on dialogue, pacing and action. However this year I tackled this deficiency in my writing when I was awarded a bursary of €300 from the Irish Writers’ Union. I could do with the money exactly as I wished – as long as it helped develop my writing. This was a very pleasing thought and I rubbed my hands together with glee. The immediate plan was treat myself to a week away writing. No husband, dog, cooking or dirty floors – bliss. But COVID restrictions, and booked out holiday accommodation, destroyed that project. Instead I used my precious writing money to find an online course. I chose Writing Vivid Description led by the writer Caroline Greene and offered by The Irish Writers’ Centre.
I often avoided writing description in my stories because as a teenager I was bored by pages of scene setting in the novels by Charles Dickens, the Brontés and Thomas Hardy. I skipped and scanned their paragraphs searching for the next piece of dialogue and action. That experience left me with a fear of boring my readers in the same way and I became anorexic about writing description. This did not serve my writing well. An agent once told me that my novel – supposedly set in Italy – barely mentioned that glorious country at all!
Caroline Greene’s course, on Writing Vivid Description, has taught me how setting a scene need not be boring for the reader. I can use tools such as psychic distance to add texture and layers. Before attending her course, I hadn’t heard of psychic distance so I didn’t realise that my writing can be flat and samey. I wasn’t moving the camera lens in and out. Sometimes I need to be close inside the character’s mind and body while other times it is better to look down on them from an overview. I now notice other writers doing this – right now I’m admiring Maggie O’Farrell’s layered description in Hamnet – and I’m having fun practicing this tool myself.
Other tips I learned are:
- Use a few well-chosen “killer details” instead of blanket bombing the reader with everything the character sees, hears and feels etc.
- Show setting through the eyes of the character – not the omniscient narrator as was used in the old classics.
- Manipulate the reader’s mood by carefully choosing your words.
- Use strong verbs to replace adverbs.
- Use Showing to immerse and Telling to inform the reader.
My next challenge is to put all of this into practice!