When Writing Description, You Must F.O.C.U.S.

by Susan May Warren

Three weeks ago, I introduced the acronym FOCUS, a tool I use to help me write description. (Click here to read that blog)

First step in writing great description is to put it through the POV of your character. It’s all about how they feel about being there. We layer in their attitude while they describe the scene. Once you add in perspective, then you need to dig deep into the description. I use the word FOCUS to help me break it down.

F= FACTS: You want to take a good look at your noun and ask:

What is it? What is it NOT?

As we start writing description, we need a baseline of what we’re looking at before we can dive into description. One of my favorite ways to do this is to compare what the POV character is seeing against what they expect, or want to see, or what it could be.

This is from Sons of Thunder, one my favorite comparison scenes.

Markos had become a foreigner in his own skin. As if he’d left himself back on the dock or perhaps sitting in his square, white-washed window, the shutters wide, watching the sun’s blush on the waves creeping over the fishing boats and charming him to sea.

But not this sea. This sea he didn’t know, with its endless caldron of jagged valleys, edged with spittle, and at night, so black, the wind over it an endless moan. At night, the sky appeared so immense, yet miraculously intimate, it seemed he could pull the stars from their mooring. And, he’d never been so cold. A kind of chill that he couldn’t flee pressed into his bones, turning him brittle. The wind from this black, sometimes green sea—never his Ionian blue—moaned in his ears, burned his throat.

The key to seeing the object is to tell us the facts of it. We need to know what it is. But we also need to know only the important facts for the scene. We don’t need to know everything, just the essentials of the elements.

But we need more than the Facts. We also need to understand this with our senses. This is where we employ those 5 senses: I call them Observations: O = Observations.

The 5 Senses–Sight, Smell, Touch, Taste, Sound—are key to bringing the storyworld to life.

Consider this passage:
(From Baroness) Rosie: Paris 1923

Rosie and Dash walked home along the Seine, Notre Dame Cathedral shining against the night, the stars above the bright lights of a grand performance. 

Accordion and banjo music floated out from the cafés as they walked up the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, the music mixing with the murmuring of voices of those dining on outdoor terraces. (Sound) The moon came out to join them and hung low, peeking between the greening linden trees, the redolence of spring twining toward the blackened river. (Smell) 

They laughed, and Rosie felt Dash slip his hand into hers. Warm and strong, he wove his fingers through hers and tucked her close to him. (Touch)

Here’s another from the same book. The heroine is hoping to hitch a ride with a barnstormer.

Twilight skimmed the shiny wings and their sleek red bodies as she finally broke free of the departing spectators and lost herself among the airplanes, parked in a neat row before a long white tent. Inside the tent, lamplight flickered, (Sight) voices of the pilots tumbling out onto the grassy field. (Sound) Parked alongside the tent was the red roadster she’d seen barrel through town, and a truck with The Flying Stars painted on the side, a trailer attached to the back. A man in a grey jumpsuit, stained with grease sat on a running board smoking a cigarette (Taste & Smell), the ash a red eye in the encroaching darkness. A mongrel with a mangled ear lay at his feet. 

She wandered between two planes, feathering her hand over the painted canvass of the wing (Touch). Bracing herself on a wheel strut, she pulled herself up to look into the cockpit.

Once we build the Facts and the Observations (Senses) we need to cement the sense the description into the reader’s head, as well as show what is important about the description to the POV character. Too many details overwhelm the reader – they don’t know where to look. Think about a camera. When a photographer zeros in on a subject, it finds the most unique element and frames that in the shot. It’s the details that betray us.

So, going back to the acronym, we use the C.U for the Close Up. (F.O.C.U)

From The Help

I watch as she cuts out biscuits with a shot glass that’s never shot a thing but short dough. Behind me, the kitchen windows are propped open with Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogues. Pictures of two dollar hand mixers and mail-order toys flutter in a breeze, swollen and puckered from a decade of rain.

Sons of Thunder
More of a dangerous, even seductive scene.

Marcos just tried not to glance in the mirror, where the bright bulbs illuminated her array of make-up pots, jewelry, and discarded headdresses. Or the hosiery that hung over the top of the dressing screen.

Sons of Thunder

He’d filled out – well, they both had, probably, but with Markos nearly thirty, he reminded him of their father, wide shouldered, seaweed tough hands. A square jaw, his face grizzled with whiskers, which parted at an open wound on his cheekbone.

(we focus on the cut)

Pick a Close Up that epitomizes the feeling you want to leave with the reader. The cut shows the violence of war, and how tough the hero is. He’s a survivor.

In the previous paragraph, we focused on the hosiery, hanging down like legs.

Close Ups bring the scene to life, add a sense of reality as well as texture to the story. We see it, and the close up embeds a feeling into our minds.

In about two Weeks (April 14th) I’ll be back here to to talk about the final and most powerful element of FOCUS: Symbolism, and how to use it to connect your reader emotionally to the description (and thus use description as another tool for emotional layering in your scene!)

BUT, if you’d like an in-depth class on description, check out our Storyworld video series!

Go! Write something Brilliant!

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-time Christy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.