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Describing with Precision

The Daily Writer by Fred White

Precise descriptions are as important to storytelling as plot development. Readers love the feeling of being made part of the story world, which is what precise description is able to do. In his 1903 novel The Ambassadors, in which the American Lambert Strether becomes seduced by the old-world glory of European culture, Henry James describes Strether’s hostess’s Parisian house with sumptuous and precise detail:

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He found himself making out, as a background of the occupant, some glory, some prosperity of the First Empire, some Napoleonic glamour, some dim luster of the great legend; elements clinging still to all the consular chairs and mythological brasses and sphinxes’ heads and faded surfaces of satin striped with alternate silk.

He had never before … been in the presence of relics … little old miniatures, medallions, pictures, books, books in leather bindings, pinkish and greenish, with gilt garlands on the back … under the glass of brass-mounted cabinets. His attention took them all tenderly into account.

Precise description has a cinematic effect; it allows readers to visualize the story, to experience the sensuous delights of a setting. Broad, general descriptions will not do the trick; writers must focus sharply on particulars.

1. Practice precise description by describing a room in your home in meticulous detail. After finishing your description, test it out by reviewing the details in the room and seeing if you missed anything.
2. Describe a character’s appearance in two different ways: in formal dress at a special event such as a concert or wedding; then in casual dress in an informal setting, such as a beach.

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