Let’s talk about some ways in which your descriptions can do more than just describe. You’re not just trying to tell us what the room is like. You’re also setting the mood, telling us about the POV character, and establishing some of our progress through the story.

Howard (who rarely works in prose) offers some unexpected insight by talking about the way panels are composed in his comic. Mary offers even better insight by pulling the same principles through the domain of puppetry. Dan tells us how some of this is done by filmmakers. But yes, we finally do come back around to prose and how to accomplish these things with words.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Shades of Milk and Honey, written and narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing Prompt: Go someplace, use all five of your senses, and for thirty minutes write about the place you’re in. Not the people though. Just the place.

And Because It Needs To Be Google-able: “Mary Robinette Koala” — it might be more than just a pronunciation guide.

This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible.
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This entry was posted on Sunday, August 14th, 2011 at 5:00 pm and is filed under Career and Lifestyle, Theory and Technique. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. August 14, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

    “File not found.”

    Posted by Tony
  2. August 14, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

    Download doesn’t download?

    Posted by Mike Barker
  3. August 14, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    He’s dead Jim D:

    Posted by Bones
  4. August 14, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

    I also can’t download the file. And this looks like the one I really need to hear.

    Posted by Jim
  5. August 14, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

    No no your supposed to give a description that evokes mood apparently.

    “The link leads to a 404, an unexpected error much like a wrapped Christmas present that is opened to reveal nothing.”

    Posted by Baronger
  6. August 14, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

    I’m getting the “file not found” error as well.

    Posted by Raethe aka Silk
  7. August 14, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

    Same thing for me too: “file not found”. :/

    Posted by Michael
  8. August 14, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    I can download it, but its en empty file

    Posted by Joel Finnegan
  9. August 14, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    This podcast title sounds interesting, can’t wait until it’s up and ready.

    Posted by Ron
  10. August 14, 2011 @ 8:02 pm


    Posted by Michael Villo
  11. August 14, 2011 @ 8:12 pm


    Sorry about that. Jordo’s original file name had typos in it, so I renamed the file and renamed the link, and botched the case-sensitivity. Granted, the field for editing this is so short that you can’t read the whole filename at once, so mistakes (including typos) are easy, but still, I should have given it one final test before scheduling it.

    Anyway, it’s fixed.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  12. August 14, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    I’ve been meaning to work on this particular skill for a while now, but today was the day I sat down to start studying, and here comes this ‘cast.

    If I was a certain paranoid Schlock Mercenary character, this would be undoing weeks of the therapy I don’t attend.

    Posted by Heath Cowled
  13. August 14, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    Thinking about how the audience responds to the words rather then just how to get the information across is a great insight. One of your best recent casts.

    Posted by John Miller
  14. August 14, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

    Thank you all for mentioning that good description can cut down on the amount of words used. There was a time when I wrote a wall of text to describe a single thing, now, since I read the Sword of Truth books, I know it’s possible to get it done with only a few lines at most, even if it’s a vivid detail.

    This podcast gave me a lot of the tools to understand how such a thing can work. I’ll make use of these ideas as soon as I can.

    Posted by Len Berry
  15. August 14, 2011 @ 11:54 pm

    Brandon PLEASE STOP staying uh, umm, so much, its driving me crazy, i love the podcast, and i’ve started reading some of your work, but your constant, uh, ummmm, ah, uh, is very distracting and keeps me from getting all the podcast has to offer.

    Thank you.

    Posted by Paul S
  16. August 15, 2011 @ 6:49 am

    Q: What did Santa give Mary when she was bad?
    A: Mary Robinette Coal.

    Q: What do Mary’s groupies aspire to?
    A. Mary Robinette Cool.

    Q: What does Mary wear when she wants to look mysterious?
    A: A Mary Robinette Cowl.

    Posted by Katya
  17. August 15, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    […] Tweet of the Day: Writing Excuses: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing […]

  18. August 15, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    I wanna see the sketch for “Mary Robinette Koala”. 😀

    And thanks for the tip concerning the audiobook, I’ll try to get it from Audible.
    I really think Mary’s voice is sexy (with all due respect!).

    The themes have been interesting and the podcast episodes very informative.
    Keep up with the good work, guys!

    Posted by Maki
  19. August 15, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    Hahaha, I love Mary’s laugh, it’s so genuine, yet she sounds like her masterful evil plan has just come to fruition. Fear her. Fear the lady who shall conquer the world with Pinocchio and the Thunderbirds 😀

    Posted by Jonathan Ryan
  20. August 15, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    Well, I like this podcast. As for the Koala thing, a bit cruel, wasn’t it?

    Posted by Rafael
  21. August 15, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    Still waiting for a scan of the picture of Mary as a Koala

    Posted by Ryan
  22. August 15, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    As for the fixed file name, I still cannot download via iTunes. Does iTunes “catch up” to the name fix overnight, or do you guys have to refresh something over there?

    Posted by Guerry Semones
  23. August 16, 2011 @ 6:39 am

    As of this morning, the iTunes download is still broken…I’ll grab it directly, but thought you’d like to know.

    Posted by Guerry Semones
  24. August 16, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

    Brilliant ‘cast – this one was deep. I would have loved to hear more from you guys on this. I’ve approached details as just giving the bare minimum needed to set the scene, the tip of the iceberg that implies the mass, and yes, giving the details that the character would notice first, but you guys took it much further.

    I’d love to hear more from Howard on cartooning syntax, and from Mary on puppetry queue – she did some of that in her first guest appearances, but I get the feeling she only touched on it. I do artwork, and I’m amazed at how much crossover there is between the creation of visual art and writing – I’m continually quoting the art phrase “in order to show light, we must have dark – the darker the dark, the brighter the light.”

    And I thoroughly agree about the best horror having almost a poetic feel to it. I’d add that the best horror has a real moral aspect to it, even a spritual aspect (but then, I prefer the psychological to physical dangers).

    Posted by Laurie
  25. August 16, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    Agh – puppetry “cues” not “queue” (I’ve been writing “queue” all day today for various reasons.

    Posted by Laurie
  26. August 16, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

    iTunes download is working!

    Posted by Guerry Semones
  27. August 17, 2011 @ 2:41 am

    I was looking for words in all the wrong places… then I found this transcript!


    Posted by Mike Barker
  28. August 17, 2011 @ 6:15 am

    Great podcast, guys! This is one of the harder skills to master. When Orson Scott Card mentioned WILD SEED as an example of this done well I checked it out. Emulating it was more difficult than buying it.

    Posted by Matt Larkin
  29. August 17, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

    I’m guessing the writing prompt is this one from Mary Robinette Kowal’s website?

    Good stuff – thank you!

    Posted by John
  30. August 18, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    Awesome cast this week. I’ve already linked/mentioned it twice while doing critiques for critters.org

    Posted by K.W. Ramsey
  31. August 19, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

    Great podcast this week! It’ll help a lot with my descriptions, and trying to lower my word count.

    I also think Mary Robinette Koala has a chance of being a marvelous period writer, joining greats like Nathaniel Pawthorne (“Mouse of Seven Gables”), and Mane Austin (“Mansfield Lark”).

    Posted by Nathan Garrity
  32. August 19, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

    Awesome stuff, thanks guys again.

    And I’m hopeless at description, but I’ve posted my attempt. It always comes across as forced, with about as much prose as a textbook on car mechanics.

    Posted by Nathan
  33. August 21, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    Ok, now I’ve got to buy seasons 4-6 on CD, just like I got 1-3 (and reviewed them here: http://ethesis.blogspot.com/2011/08/writing-excuses-podcasts-comments.html )

  34. August 22, 2011 @ 4:39 am

    One great technique that Robert Jordan does well is to integrate description with action. Instead of writing, “The grass was tall,” try “She crept through the tall grass.”

    Posted by William Greeley
  35. August 25, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    […] to make your sentences do more than one thing at a time (incidentally this topic was addressed in a recent episode of Writing […]

  36. August 25, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    The way that Dan explained horror and why it works is exactly why I listen to these podcasts. This is something that I’d have a lot of trouble figuring out on my own but now that I know about it and can practice it, my writing skills will increase dramatically.


    Posted by AndrewV
  37. August 26, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

    […] 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing […]

  38. August 30, 2011 @ 6:42 am

    […] was taken from the writing prompt for the podcast Writing Excuses, episode 6.11 – Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing, which specifies: Go someplace, use all five of your senses, and for thirty minutes write about the […]

  39. August 30, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    Challenge accepted!!

    Not the most exciting of locales, but if I were to use it as a setting for a story, I think it would be pretty easy to pick out the dominant characteristics of it. In any case, this is one I’ll be re-visiting as I continue in my writing. Thanks!

    Posted by Chris G.
  40. August 30, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    I love all of your podcasts. However, this one was a notch above the normal. Very well done!

    Posted by Mark
  41. September 4, 2011 @ 11:13 am
  42. January 21, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    […] web cartoonist. They usually cover one topic per week ranging from nitty gritty stuff like making description do more than one thing to broader topics like writing gaming fiction. Pretty much all episodes are aimed at writers and […]