“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?