Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

Telling description

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A key to adding narrative touches to a story is using telling description. That means description that conveys important information, rather than description just for description’s sake. Think of it as stimulus-response in storytelling. Something happens, something is revealed, and a reader can react emotionally. Telling description avoids processing thoughts or feelings for the reader and instead leaves a space for the reader to react.

As Saul Pett, an AP feature writer once put it: “Don’t tell me the situation was dramatic and expect me to take your word for it. Show me how it was dramatic and I’ll supply the adjective.”

Compare two versions of the same passage from a series called “Christopher’s Cancer”:


The Wilson family relied on optimism and deep faith to face each day’s challenges, but even Chris has occasional doubts and a child’s questions.

“I want to be around to watch Mallory grow up,” he’d tell his dad.

He wanted to play baseball again. Occasionally he wondered aloud why kids get cancer.

“Dad, I’m not going to make it, am I?” he asked his father one day when they were talking about his spreading tumors.

“Well, son, you just never know what God’s plan is,” Barry answered quietly.

Chris thought for a moment and made up his mind.

“I’ll just have to keep planning like I’m going to.”


“Dad, I’m not going to make it, am I?”

Barry Wilson pulled his car out of the Children’s Hospital parking lot. He and Chris were heading for Johnny’s Toys to spend Chris’ gift certificate. Minutes before, doctors had told Chris they were out of options for treating his brain cancer. He had maybe a few months to live.

“Well, son,” Barry answered quietly, “you just never know what God’s plan is.”

Chris thought for a moment.

“I’ll just have to keep planning like I’m going to.”

Which one is more visceral?

By processing the feelings in the draft, and deciding they add up to “...optimism and deep faith…,” the writer is assuming a lot. Left alone to process the second passage, a reader may reach the same conclusion, or more likely put their reaction into their own words. What the second passage does is get out of the way through telling description and dialogue and let the reader feel the story directly.

Jon Franklin once said,  “As far as I’m concerned, ‘narrative’ has nothing to do with length.  It’s chronology with meaning.”

Chronology is expressed through telling description, which delivers the meaning for readers to feel.

William Blundell, in The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, defines good description this way:

…the trained storyteller serves readers by using description only with certain purposes in mind. The highest of these is story progression.

The purpose of description is to create pictures of photographic quality in the reader’s mind, not blurred images that make him squint and wonder what he is looking at. Description must be sharp.

Readers prefer people to places and things, so the storyteller injects humanity into his descriptions whenever he can do so legitimately.




Written by mroberts8

October 30, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Posted in Stories, Writing

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