In the last two posts, we have discussed the Character Introduction template and the Suspense Opening template. Another structure used by bestselling authors in vastly different genres is the Description Template.
Put simply, the Description Template is opening a story not with action or dialogue, but instead with description of an event or activity. As you might imagine, this template is tricky. There are numerous ways to wander into the dangerous territory of boring the reader.
However, done well, this template has the potential to launch stories into the bestseller stratosphere. Certainly, the rest of the story must live up to the questions, conflicts and trouble brought up in the beginning, but a solid first page (and first chapter) boasts literary power.
Two great examples of authors who have successfully used the Description Template are Dean Koontz and Stephen White.
Koontz begins several of his novels with description (although, admittedly, some switch to action and suspense sooner than others), including Tick Tock. In the novel, Koontz spends much of the first page focused on describing a man sowing up a doll. Doesn’t inspire throes of literary bliss, I know, but it works. It works surprising well, and there’s a very good reason it does. Koontz chooses words and images that generate the desired reader thoughts of “Something’s off about this” and “I think something bad is about to happen.”
Stephen White began his novel, The Siege, by spending several pages describing a building. Yes, that’s right, he opened a highly successfully novel by describing a building on Yale Campus….in detail. And it worked. Just like Koontz, White used specific words and phrases to hint at danger and promise trouble (If you’ve read the Suspense Opening Template, you’ll notice the connection between the templates at this point – both templates work best when plunged deep in the river of tension).
If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking: That’s great for bestselling authors like Koontz and White, but what about me?
Here are five tips for applying the Description Template to your story:
- Ask yourself, “Is there one, specific setting (building, island, farm, castle, etc) or activity (sowing, cleaning, running, etc) that highlights the problem, conflict or question in the story?”
- Consider using words and images that create anxiety, worry, tension and fear. Grab a thesaurus, write and revise until you fall in love with the words, sentence structures and images.
- Keep the description short (unless you have a really, really good reason). 1-2 pages is probably enough. Anything beyond two pages is deadly risky to your story.
Pitfalls of the Description Template
Too much description
How to Overcome the Pitfalls
If you’re worried about boring description, edit and revise for strong, vivid verbs and nouns. Add images (analogies, metaphors, similes) that hint at tension and conflict (i.e., don’t use a humorous comparison when you can use a scary one).
If you are worried about too much description in the opening, cut back. Edit, edit, edit. Cut words, sentences, paragraphs and maybe pages. 1-2 pages of description is enough for most stories (and sometimes, too much – each story is different). If you love the description, place it later in the novel between dialogue and action. Also, stick with describing one event, setting or activity. Anything more than one is probably too much.
If you are worried about “purple prose” or description that is “over the top”, revision is the answer. Remove adverbs and adjectives. Cut words and sentences, pare down to the essence of the idea you are trying to convey. Again, if you can’t stand the thought of deleting the prose, consider sprinkling it later in the story.
The least you need to know: Description Templates work best for stories with a single, specific setting or activity that is deeply wedded to the major conflict(s) of the story. When using this template, set the reader’s imagination on fire with the fuel of punchy verbs and vivid nouns. Word choice is key.
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What tips for description do you have for other writers?