Day 1 – What is Description

What is Description?




We often think of description in pretty simple terms. How we are going to describe the physical appearance of our ancestor or the setting of the story.  Description does cover those physical appearance elements. However, it also includes the other senses of sound, smell, touch, and taste. It can also include action both internal and external.  Description is a tool we need to bring our ancestors, the setting and story into view. Description is detail and shows up in many places in our story.

For a great deal of the next 28 days, I will be helping you bring description to your family history writing. Why description? Description is an element many of us struggle with as new writers.  It is a key factor that can help us turn our summaries into scenes, it can help us bring life to our stories, and it can transport our readers to another place and time. Description works in many ways, and it’s time to learn them so you can write engaging stories.

Our primary focus will be on how to use description in our family history stories and how we can make our description as interesting as possible.

A good description is lively, stimulating and energetic. A bad description is slow and boring. We tend to use a lot of bad description in our family history stories.

Often in family history writing, we like to pile in all the details, why, because we have them. Damn it! We’ve done the research and were including it.  As writers we need to learn when to pull back, when to use particular descriptions and when to leave others out because they have no bearing on the story, they don’t serve a purpose.

A description is more than just describing your ancestor or the scenery. It is about providing a sensory experience for the reader. It’s about bringing the story alive. Here are a few ways we can use description.


  1. Ground the Reader in the Setting – One of the topics we will cover this month is setting and using description in our settings. Description helps to establish the reader in the scene. Every time you show your ancestor in a scene, it’s important to show the reader where they are, and description is how we will do it.


  1. A description can help to symbolize and foreshadow – Foreshadowing is used to hint at things to come in your story and symbolism to hint at your theme and deeper layers of your story. Description comes in very handy for bringing both to your narrative.


  1. Develop the Theme – Over the course of your story, your theme evolves, and description can help to bring that theme to the forefront.


  1. Build Characterization – What an ancestor notices when they enter the room, how they interact with their surrounding can reveal a lot about their character. It’s important for us to understand our ancestor’s personality in order build characterization in our story. I hope you’ve completed an Authentic Ancestor Profile found in Workbook 2.  It will help you build characterization in your story.


  1. Add Conflict or Tension – Description can add conflict, tension and even complications. We can use it to show something disturbing about another character, or our ancestor’s surrounding.


  1. Backstory– Backstory is anything that happened before the opening of your story. It can be something that happened to your ancestor, or it can be a larger world event. Using description is a useful technique for hinting at backstory or sliding in bits that the reader needs to know.


  1. Provide Emotion – how you describe your ancestor’s reaction to a situation can tell us a lot about their feelings about a particular event or their surroundings or even another person.

Now, I hope description has a new meaning for you. It’s not just the colour of your grandmother’s eyes or the kitchen we find her in, it is a major component of your story and can be used in a variety of ways. It’s time to learn more about description, practice it and improve our family history stories.