Description in YA

Description is hard. At least, writing it well is hard. While I have come a long way from the boring, plot-stopping descriptive bombs I used to write, I am still improving my craft in that area.

I am taking a YA writing workshop with Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba, and we discussed description very early on. I found out several things about using description in YA:

1. Less is more. Trust your readers. Give the reader enough to interpret the space and place your character inhabits, but do not inundate with details. As author Patty Jansen reminds us in an excellent blog post, certain genres like historical or science fiction, where world-building is needed will of necessity have more scene-setting descriptions than those set in the present day, but be sparing in choosing your details—tell us what we need to know, and no more.

2. Description should be woven into the character’s experience, rather than an objective observation. Since most YA is written from a specific (often first-person) point of view, the Main Character (MC) will only notice details important to her at that time.

3. Any detail you mention should be important to the story. For instance, if you mention that your MC dropped a pot into the porcelain sink as a child and broke the sink, then that event must have some meaning to the core of the story. If you say that the MC loves the fact that the microwave is hidden in the breadbox, then that detail must be important later in the story. This is similar to the adage “If you hang a gun on the wall in the first act, you must fire it by the end of the play.”

4. Every detail has to multitask. Just as your MC will not notice details that do not directly concern him at that moment, he will also notice (and describe) them in a way that reflects his emotional state and life view at that moment. The way his perception of a place, object, or person changes will help build character and show emotion without “telling.” One of the best examples I found of this was in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Her descriptions of the passing seasons mirrored Melinda’s growth and healing.

5. Description can add foreshadowing and complication to a story. For example, if the reader first sees a kitchen through the MC’s eyes as warm and homey, but later sees that same kitchen as cold and menacing later in the story. The first instance builds the expectation in the reader that something bad will happen to destroy that happy, homey feeling (this is YA fiction, after all—something always happens to disrupt the happy status quo!).

6. Use description to build an image system throughout the story. Again returning to Speak, Halse Anderson’s use of Melinda’s art project (a tree) also showed her growth and return to life as Melinda wrestled with repeated mistakes but improved every time she tried to carve it.

7. Don’t info-dump. Beware of show-stopping blocks of description and layer in the information as the reader needs to know it. Have the reader ask the question and then answer it. This type of back-and-forth between the reader and the words on the page is what keeps the reader engaged and immersed in the world you have built.

I hope you found these tips as helpful as I did. I hope to apply them to my current manuscripts in the next round of edits!

Are there any other description tips you would like to share?

When It Rains, It Pours

Have you ever noticed how things in life all seem to happen at once? Like the day I had a pediatrician appointment for my daughter, then had a class, then faced a 5-hour drive to Virginia (in the rain)—until the skylights in my house started pouring rain on my head.

Everything at once. You all could tell your own version of the story. That’s life.

That’s also what makes compelling fiction. Piling one complication on top of another so fast that the protagonist can’t breathe—and raising the stakes each time.

You start small and build up: A guy and his wife buy a house. Then they find out she’s pregnant—with twins. She gets pregnancy complications and has to quit her job. Then he gets fired for a mistake someone else made. He starts doing something slightly illegal to make money. Then it gets more illegal. Then he gets in way over his head, only to find out that there’s about to be a terrorist attack sponsored by his employers. He snitches to the FBI but his identity is leaked. Now he’s on the run, but the bad guys grab his way-too-pregnant wife to lure him out. He finally gets to her, but there’s a bomb ticking down. They have time to run—but she goes into labor.

You get the idea.

I’m currently devouring the House of Night series by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast. I read the first one as a recommendation by our local librarian, and got hooked. The books are addictive, not just because of the strong voice of the protagonist Zoey and the well-drawn individuality of the other characters, but because Zoey’s life is a never-ending series of problems that simply get worse and worse. Every time she (and the reader) think that maybe she finally has things under control, that maybe things will start to go her way, that she can take a break and maybe even relax for a second, something else heaps on top of the burden she’s already carrying. Zoey’s problems start off normal—overbearing step-father and drunken boyfriend issues—and eventually (in Book 4) ramp up to saving the world.

There are nine books in the series (so far).

Zoey’s already trying to save the world in Book 4. What worse problems can she possibly deal with in the next 5 books?

I don’t know, but I’m sure going to read on to find out!

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