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Giving it Body

By Jim Francis
Copyright 2007 by Jim Francis, All Rights Reserved

Is that wonderful story you've just finished a bit on the thin side? Are you wondering how to put flesh and muscle onto the skeleton? It can be quite easy. What you need to do is give it body by improving your descriptions.

In writing, description is done with words that appeal to any or all of the five senses -- sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. It communicates experience to the reader and thereby gives the story body.

As giving body to a character, place, object or situation is a matter of appealing to one or more of the above five senses, it might seem that the more descriptive terms used the better the description will be, but this is not the case. Readers tend to skip long passages of description, or perhaps fall asleep and drop the book, never to pick it up again. It is necessary to be selective; selectivity, brevity, precision, imaginative appeal, and an effort to make one aspect dominant are the keys to descriptive success. 

Description is communication of your knowledge of your subject. Word pictures of people and places and activities convey knowledge of mood, feeling, and the state of mind of the observer (narrator). Vivid, concrete detail engages the reader in visualizing a person or some select detail to give a unified effect and a dominant impression. Most often, description will include more than one aspect, as in the excerpt below. Dickens has placed a quick picture of an old man in with the description of the receiver's warehouse.

Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the cold air without, by a frousy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.

A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens

Descriptions of people can be slanted or objective. The author can slant his description to make a person likeable, as in 'Well set-up, erect,' which implies self-respect. A mention of height and posture can also suggest man who respects himself.  Words can be slanted for external respect. Grave eyes could indicate sincerity; a caged force hints at a man of action. On the other hand, 'eyes at times sullen and mean' could intimate underlying traits, possibly of a man who could get very nasty when angry.

From scarlet the officer's face went white, for this was mutiny; and mutiny he had met and subdued before in his brutal career. Without waiting to rise he whipped a revolver from his pocket, firing point blank at the great mountain of muscle towering before him; but, quick as he was, John Clayton was almost as quick, so that the bullet which was intended for the sailor's heart lodged in the sailor's leg instead, for Lord Greystoke had struck down the captain's arm as he had seen the weapon flash in the sun.

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It is normal, when introducing a character, to try to get the reader to see him or her. This is most often done with sight. What does the character look like? Face, clothes, etc. Is the character clean or dirty? In the excerpt below, Dickens has drawn a portrait of Scrooge's nephew with his 'rapid walking -- all in a glow -- eyes sparkled.' We get a clear idea of him from this description. Surely this can't be a nasty person.

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge's, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again. `Christmas a humbug, uncle!' said Scrooge's nephew. `You don't mean that, I am sure?'

A Christmas Carol   by Charles Dickens

This portrait of the shrew speaks for itself:

Katharine, the Shrew, was the eldest daughter of Baptista, a rich gentleman of Padua. She was a lady of such an ungovernable spirit and fiery temper, such a loud-tongued scold, that she was known in Padua by no other name than Katharine the Shrew. It seemed very unlikely, indeed impossible, that any gentleman would ever be found who would venture to marry this lady.

Taming of the Shrew   Shakespeare (Charles Lamb essays)

The sense of smell can also be used with people. For instance, can soap be smelled, or is there an odor of sweat? 

The primary introduction of a setting is usually by sight as well. Setting can include houses, transport, public buildings, and places of worship. All these will have their special appearance.  In Conan Doyle's description of the Amazon we have a 'good-sized river' that is 'dark, but transparent' and mention of the affluents and the reason for their differences.

For two days we made our way up a good-sized river some hundreds of yards broad, and dark in color, but transparent, so that one could usually see the bottom. The affluents of the Amazon are, half of them, of this nature, while the other half are whitish and opaque, the difference depending upon the class of country through which they have flowed. The dark indicate vegetable decay, while the others point to clayey soil.

The Lost World   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Smell is often used in setting. Cooking odours in a house, booze in a bar, incense in a church, and so on; all can be used to enhance the reader's knowledge and sensation of the setting.

For events and action the character experiences something. The description is of things in motion, and it helps to impart the author's idea, giving a sense of reality to the intention and purpose of the story. It, too, provides body, and what senses are used will depend on what sort of action is going on. The next example shows the adversity the travellers have experienced.

Towards the end of the journey the camels, terribly strained by their privation of water, began to die, and it was evident that the force would have no time to spare. One young camel, though not apparently exhausted, refused to proceed, and even when a fire was lighted round him remained stubborn and motionless; so that, after being terribly scorched, he had to be shot. Others fell and died all along the route. Their deaths brought some relief to the starving inhabitants. For as each animal was left behind, the officers, looking back, might see first one, then another furtive figure emerge from the bush and pounce on the body like a vulture; and in many cases before life was extinct the famished natives were devouring the flesh.

The River War   Sir Winston Churchill

In the next excerpt Alice is exploring the environment in which she finds herself and makes discoveries; the first is of a 'three-legged' table when most tables have four legs, made of 'solid glass,' not wood. She explores further until she moves a curtain to discover a 'little' door. Carroll has used imagination to make things unusual and therefore interesting.

Suddenly she came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass; there was nothing on it except a tiny golden key, and Alice's first thought was that it might belong to one of the doors of the hall; but, alas! either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them. However, on the second time round, she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted!

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland    Lewis Carroll

As a last excerpt I offer one that uses hearing.

...the British and Egyptian cavalry had moved round to the west of the city. There for nearly two hours we waited, listening to the dropping fusillade which could be heard within the great wall and wondering what was happening... Thus absorbed... the soldiers hardly noticed the growing musketry fire from the peak. But suddenly the bang of a field-gun set all eyes looking backward.

The River War   by Sir Winston Churchill


If you think you might need practice in description, you could use an old method of training the senses. Take a walk anywhere -- around the block, in a park, along a busy thoroughfare -- and when you return, write down everything you've noticed with any of your senses. Describe where you went for lunch, what you ate, what it tasted like, what the other smells were in the area while you were eating and so on. On your way home, did you use public transport? What were the smells and noises on the bus? Were any of the people noteworthy for any reason, or were they just tired people on the way home? What made you decide they were tired? Was it just that you were tired and you assumed they all were the same?

Never forget that good description often lies in rewriting and revision. It is possibly a mistake to give a lot of worry to description in the first draft unless you are good at getting description down at this time. Worrying about it could distract you from the storyline.

So start building that body onto that skeleton.