As we’ve discussed before description can create emphasis. Generally the more description we have the greater importance something appears to be, however it’s not always as simple as that. If we spend long paragraphs describing something, even if it’s important, then we slow the story down because as long as we’re focused on whatever we’re describing the story can’t move forward. As I’ve mentioned previously sometimes we can have something or someone of huge importance but there’s very little description. Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is so important the story wouldn’t exist without him, and the same with Elizabeth, but there’s no physical description of him and yet this doesn’t negate his importance. Alternatively, we might have a lot of description of something or someone but the description is spread out through the story so the emphasis is lessened though the subject of the description is still important. From yet another angle we can create emphasis and importance with description while using very little description.

Simply put description doesn’t have to be in long complex paragraphs to convey the importance of something. We can create this focus with very few words but the right words. As we discussed in yesterday’s article we create emphasis by defamiliarising something, making the familiar unfamiliar. In doing so a phrase can magnify something that might otherwise go unnoticed. A small wrinkle becomes a huge flaw, a tree branch becomes a monster, and a person becomes mysterious.

Our choice of words affects an emotional response in the reader. This emotional response can create emphasis and/or importance in the reader’s mind. We don’t necessarily have to make something appear unfamiliar to do so. Our choice of words also creates an emotional response from the reader at the most basic cheerful words create good associations and grim words create negative associations. It’s not quite so simple though, we also have juxtaposition where we use two seemingly opposing ideas to create a reaction. For instance, we could say ‘vibrant dirt drawings’, vibrant implies colourful and lively while dirt is usually associated with being grimy and unclean. But drawings can be created in dirt or with dirt that are incredible, alive and even colourful so while these ideas appear contradictory they can work in unison. This juxtaposition also creates emphasis that saying something like ‘drawings in the dirt’ wouldn’t have. Calling them vibrant draws the reader’s attention while just calling them drawings passes over them. We haven’t used more words but we’ve emphasised the image.

However, even using fewer words to create emphasis we can still create the same effect as using long paragraphs where we slow or break up the narrative with too many images. We have to consider what we want to emphasise, the kind of images we want to create, and what can be passed over. Creating vivid settings and characters doesn’t mean we have to describe every part of them. We might decide we want to focus on key features that create a sense of what we’re describing, perhaps a room has a huge fireplace that looks like it could eat the table and chairs in front of it.

We may even decide to spread the description of the room out which we could do by having the characters interact with the setting (see previous article). Breaking up the description can be used to negate the impact of more description by describing while still moving the story forward. We can also spread out imagery which can make a scene seem less confusing than when we have a lot of tightly packed images.

Sometimes it can help to imagine each bit of description as a shot with a camera and there’s only so much the camera can see before we have to move it again. Just like there’s only so much the brain can process at once.


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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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