Description Is An Opinion

by limebirdvanessa

“Description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.” Anne Enright

Sometimes you hear a quote, or a simple of piece of advice, and everything suddenly falls into place. The above quote did that for me. Of course I was aware that descriptions need opinion in order to bring them to life, but it wasn’t until I read that quote that I really internalised what that meant. It isn’t just about adding an opinion to description, it’s about recognising that description IS an opinion.

Whose opinion should it be though? If you are writing a memoir piece, or an article then the opinion can of course be yours, but in fiction it should usually be the opinion of the character whose point of view we are with at the time (although there will be times where it is more appropriate for the opinion to be that of an univolved narrator). If you know your characters well then you should find it relatively easy to get inside their head and write the description as they would see it. This also helps the reader get to know the character better.

To illustrate the point, here are three different ways of describing the same jug:

1) Jenny picked up the jug. It was pink with yellow polka dots on it.

2) Jenny picked up the jug. It was a tacky sickly pink with hideous large yellow polka dots.

3) Jenny picked up the jug. It was a fun design of bubblegum pink with big sunny polka dots.

The first one has a flat description of the jug. It’s uninteresting, we don’t know whether or not Jenny likes it, and we learn nothing more about her character. The second and third show two different Jennys, in each one we are left with no doubt as to her opinion of the jug, which in turn helps us learn something about her personality.

You can try something similar to that as a little exercise if you’re struggling with description, or if you’re just generally a bit stuck in your current writing, and want to spend some time getting to know your characters better. Pick something in the room that you’re in, or something you can see outside, and describe it in three ways. Firstly a flat factual description with no opinion. Secondly a description from your personal point of view, injecting your opinion. Thirdly from the point of view of one of your characters. You can repeat the exercise several times, with different things around you, and using the point of view of different characters from your writing. I’ve tried this a few times and have found it helpful in terms of helping me switch to the right voice for writing description depending on whose head I’m in, and as part of getting to know my characters better.

Do you inject your characters’ opinions into your descriptions, or do you have a different way of making your descriptions come to life?

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35 Comments to “Description Is An Opinion”

  1. Lovely post Vanessa! Hmmm, thinking about it, I probably do inject my character’s opinions into descriptions. It’s a great way to get to know the character more, especially in third person. Great start to the week! x

  2. Great post. I think you hit the important point – knowing one’s character is key. Happy Monday!

  3. Great exercise. I’ll have to give it a try sometime.

  4. I try to do this in my novels as part of “showing” and not “telling” something about the characters. I may not do it enough, though, and this would be a great way to practice. Thanks for sharing!

  5. James Joyce displays his mastery of descriptive craft in the short story collection, The Dubliners. My favorite story in the collection (and of all time) is The Dead. From the opening line on, Joyce provides details from the POV of the character currently “in the frame.” It’s a brilliant piece of writing. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The description in the last few paragraphs of the story breaks my heart every time I read it.

  6. What a great idea! Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Since I only write from my experience, my descriptions are my opinions. I make them come to life by adding senses other than sight of feel. Taste, sound, smell, and sometimes even anthropomorphizing inaminate objects (I picked up that cold, heavy blue ceramic jug we got for our wedding. The words “Ashes of former lovers” stared back at me, judging me.)

  8. Cool post and yes, I do it too. I had never thought about it but I do. You’re right, it’s an excellent tool showing insights into character studies.

    • Yes, I think we often do it naturally without thinking about it a lot of the time, but it can be good to look at some pieces of description we have written that seem a bit flat, and see if we can inject some opinion to liven it up!

  9. What an excellent exercise! It’s not only helpful for your personal writing habits, but it really helps the character come to life for you and for your readers. Thank you!!

  10. Yes, I definitely try to place my characters personality into the narrated parts of my story. It gives life to the narration, especially when the viewpoint is from a dynamic character.

  11. Nice article, Vanessa. Your examples illustrate perfectly the difference a character’s opinion can make in description.

    I inject characters’ opinions into descriptions all the time. 😀 I find it creates a fuller sense of both the character and the world around him, for the reasons you mention. Sometimes, those opinions match my own (because it’s easiest for me to identify with a character), but it can be just as much fun to insert subversive little biases in there, too. Being mindful of my word count and what sort of words I use to paint a picture succinctly has made me even more aware of how powerful adjectives can be.

    Thanks!

  12. Reblogged this on Dogpatch Writers Collective and commented:
    Dear Dogpatch Readers,

    Check out this great discussion from Limebird Writers!

  13. I do this a lot; but the idea of using it as an exercise should really help hone the skills!

    This week I sent off a crime story to Crime City Central. The protagonist is a rather unlikeable psychologist. Here are a couple of his descriptions (in my mind he has a gruff ‘Hooray Henry’ voice…)

    The streets were full of slack-faced workers en route to various office blocks with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. The bruise of a storm was building in the east, marring the face of the sun; it seemed that the English weather was again trying to show who was boss.

    and

    A nondescript house in a nondescript street – the pavements slick with damp leaves and boxy little cars parked by the kerb. The door opened to our knock and there stood a nondescript woman.

    Apart from trying to give the descriptions his opinions, I would re-recommend that, during the writing/revision process, the writer reads it in the character’s voice as well, it makes a big difference.

    • Those descriptions really capture a mood and a character well Dennis, I felt drawn in even from such short extracts. And I like your idea of reading it out in the character’s voice as well, I might have to try that!

  14. I love to write description. And it’s fun to set the stage with description or to use ugliness or beauty to help show a character’s mood. I think a character who had just suffered a painful breakup would look at a sunset differently than a character who has just fallen in love.

  15. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it before :-O I really don’t know, it’s a great way to go about it though and I’m definltey doing to pay more attention to that little detail!

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