Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some Words on Description

How many of you would say you've a talent for description?

I've heard a surprising number of remarks lately from writers who find description a difficult task. Some wish they could layer in more setting, others feel they go overboard. So how do you strike the right balance?

Voice and Pacing

Most obviously, choose the level of description that suits the story's voice, the narrator's voice, and your voice. Sparse prose needs few descriptors, beyond a hint or two to set the scene. A great deal can rely on the reader's own associations filling in the blanks.

If your style is rich and vivid, or your images need more description (unfamiliar locations, alien races, unusual costumes), you can take a little longer to weave your descriptions, and add more detail. Just beware how long others may be willing to read before they start skimming.

Instead, space things out among relevant action and information. Slip them into movement and action, spread a character's description out over a whole chapter.


Description can't just describe things. It needs to do something.

Don't just describe the boss's hairy arms, but how your protag would love to rip those hairs out. Set the scene in relation to the conflict at hand, or use it to pique curiosity. Tension carries a story not just from page to page, but also from paragraph to paragraph. Give your descriptions more purpose than just window dressing -- lead them toward plot points, character motivations, internal conflict.

Since I could spend all night thumbing through my favourite authors for examples, I hope you'll forgive an example from my own WIP, where page numbers come easier:

Old chipped vases, bronze things green and unidentifiable with age, sat on ledges down dim corridors. Innumerable bits of weathered metalwork escorted me where I hazarded a lord would keep his library, and I could have snatched any number and been off without raising an alarm.

Farther on ornaments bore ancient bits of gem and precious stone, some as large as sovereigns, and I hesitated. I could take three, five, a dozen perhaps, and the gems alone would fetch enough to bribe a Guardsman, barter passage with the Wayfarer’s Guard. It was the safer bet. Any thief would do as much -- but one hadn't.

They're tiny questions but each paragraph has one that leads to the next, and the descriptions come in the context of movement, and things relevant to the character. The point of the scene keeps moving forward.


The appearance of a new character makes another easy culprit for grocery list descriptions. We love our characters, and we want to ensure people share the exact same image of them as we have. Really though, how many do we hang on to?

To quote Stephen King (who has many other marvelous things to say on description, all of which you should read. Right now -- no wait, after this post): "If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can't you? ... We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us."

A few well-chosen details usually do the best job, and, as King points out, those details will probably be the first to spring to mind. For my antagonist, it's all about the mouth, for another it's thin lips and receding hair. Receding, yes, but I couldn't tell you the colour. That never seemed to matter. After your basics, a few character quirks will fill in the rest on their own. If the they stick around, drop another line or two later on and flesh it out.

With arms clasped behind his back, Durance looked me over, twisting a heavy gold ring on one finger. I stood stiff under his scrutiny, returning the same. Little older than Shaw, privilege left Durance slim and soft of line, swaddled in fine velvet. But they shared one thing in common, master and servant—neither gaze missed aught of note. Not my worn boots, not the patch of flesh glaring beneath my rent tunic, torn over an inch below the collar bone.

There's not much description here, but I don't think you'll be lost without his eye colour. I think later I threw in a reference to hair, but only because he was wrenching it all out of sorts.

Do descriptions give you trouble or do they come easily? How much description can you read before you start to skim? Are there specific types of description (character, setting, movement, action scenes) that give you trouble?


Anne Germaine said...

This is a very timely post for me Hayley. Only yesterday I was mulling over the beginning of my story and wondering how to make it better because it just seems to be missing the mark.

Description is always a struggle for me. As a reader, I skip those parts because they don't really interest me (I know what a sunset looks like you don't need to describe it to me in four long paragraphs). But as a writer I feel I need to provide details and I continue to struggle to find the right balance.

I think your quote from King is very interesting. I always try to describe the picture in my head because I think it is important for the reader to see what I see...but why? They have an imagination and their picture of the character or the setting may be more interesting to them than the one in my mind. Imagination is a powerful thing and I probably don't give my potential readers enough credit.

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

Great post. I believe descriptions are among the most important elements of creative writing.

I also find description to be the hardest part of writing fiction. The descriptions I like best are akin to poetry. I love Nora Roberts and Betty Neels descriptions.

I think descriptions should delight the reader. Descriptions play a very large role in historical novels and novels that take place in exotic places. Descriptions can also take on the importance of a major character in genres like American southwest mysteries which are purchased largely based on the location of the stories. Well crafted descriptions can contribute in setting the mood an author is trying to establish in a story. Descriptions are not objective; they can be embedded with emotion.

How much description can I read before skimming? It all depends on the quality of the writing and the nature of the story. When Lucy Gordon writes a story that takes place in Italy, I want lots of description. I’d like it to be delightful and rewarding description. I really like it when the author describes a familiar landmark in such a fresh and new way, that it is like seeing the landmark again for the first time. When I read such descriptions, I just think, “Yes, the Rialto Bridge was like that. Why didn’t I see that for myself.” Then I really feel inadequate as a description writer.

In a first person, fast paced, mystery I need very little description unless the description contains a clue to ‘who did it’. In writing descriptions, I feel it is very important to avoid tired writing and clich├ęs. Delight the reader. Make the descriptions interesting reading in themselves without distracting from the story.

It really helps to be a poet.


Karyn Good said...

I don't think I'd go so far as to say I have a talent for description. I don't think I'd even hint at it! And, personal preference, I don't care to read books with realms of it included among the pages. How much before I start to skim? It depends, I suppose, on the subject matter but in the end - I get bored fairly quickly so not much. I love the Stephen King quote (I'll have to write that one down).

I do like to know what the main characters look like though! I need that picture in my head. But I don't need a paragraph describing the color or their eyes or their chin. Or even whole sentences, just a hint, as you say - a few well chosen details will do.

Thanks for the tips, I definitely keep them in mind as I revise!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anne, I'm glad this post came along in good time for you then! I hope it was helpful. Stephen King also says in his section on description that it's an acquired skill to know how to write description well -- you read a lot and see how people do it and what works for you, and then you write a lot and figure out what works best.

For first chapters, considering the amount of other information you need to get in there as well, I find it helps to get a really solid picture of the scene in mind (mind clicked once I finally figured the location out) and then assume everyone knows the scene so you don't feel the urge to explain it all. Then you can just pepper in relevant relational tidbits as they're needed. Likewise for character appearances.

Helena said...

My writing pendulum has swung from a lot of description to a focus on dialogue, which then requires the insertion of description (of setting and characters) when revising, to provide the necessary backdrop and the specifics that will identify characters and location more precisely.

My taste as a reader influenced my first stabs at writing. I like a fair amount of description, so that's how I started. Now I am more aware of the value of action and dialogue early on in a story, so it becomes evident that conflict or tension are not created by too much description all at once. Should be judiciously sprinkled on, like a seasoning, as necessary!

Your post about description is very timely for me as well. Thank you for your insight, Hayley.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, I definitely share your love of poetic descriptions. I love beautiful imagery, especially some of the luscious prose in Angela Carter's works. Her incredibly baroque style, however, would not work for just anyone, and in other stories I've seen attempts for poetic description that just turn verbose and sluggish. Everything still needs to serve a purpose, and the art of poetry is turning imagery toward meaning :)

Cliches are a definite trap... as Anne said, we know what a sunset looks like. I find the worst is often in character descriptions though. So many heroines with flashing eyes, heroes with arrogant cheekbones. It winds up not meaning anything because it happens all the time, and can also turn into lazy characterization. Cheekbones aren't arrogant, people are arrogant, and then it's just telling rather than showing.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, I'm with you that I like at least something to grasp onto with a character. Reading Stephen King's whole section on description (this is all in On Writing of course), he places a lot more value on setting for striking a mood than whether someone has pimples on their face. I agree with that, but I still like a few more details than he might deem necessary. The little unused illustrative part of my mind likes to be able to sit down and sketch out a scene if I felt so inclined.

Usually though, that only takes maybe three or four good character details though, and they summarize the rest. If memory serves, you described almost exactly the same mental image of my character Pharius when I posted a couple snippets with him a while ago on the beta blog. Whether we both see him slim or with a bit of paunch doesn't matter, since the character's been crystallized.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Helena, I know exactly what you mean about that swinging pendulum! The few days I managed to nab for BIAW wound up being almost entirely dialogue, and I know I'll be layering in a lot more context and movement later. I wasn't sure where the scene was going to go initially, so one it got moving I couldn't stop to worry about narrative spacers, and just kept firing points back and forth.

I actually had an analogy about cake and icing (equally spread, not just globbed in the first bite to get it out of the way!) in this post originally, but it wound up long so I went through and cut a lot of the chatty excess out.

Heather said...

Thanks. I will think more about letting the details become more a part of the story rather than a shopping list.

Janet said...

Excellent post, Hayley. Description can be very difficult for a lot of new writers because we've heard of the "too much" rule, yet want to illustrate our story precisely as we see it. It takes a lot of practice and writing to understand less is more - and to weave in the description such as you've described (ha) in such a way as to not bore the reader!

On the opposite side - just as more writing makes you a better reader, so does more reading. Study those authors who do description right (or right according to you) and see what it is that works.

BTW - I love your snippets. Your writing is always very descriptive, but if asked, I would have to say I read no description. Seamless!!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
This is a timely post for me as well. I'm working on a new BIAW project right now and I was just thinking that I don't know what my characters really look like. I haven't described them at all much yet, but I really like what you had to say about putting in maybe 3 or 4 descriptors that will really stick in the readers mind. I'll have to find a way to work that in.

I loved the quote from On Writing. It's a great way to think about description.

Lots of great comments too. There are times when a poetic description works well. In a love scene perhaps. And Anne's remark about not needing to know what a sunset looks like is food for thought. Very interesting.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Janet, reading is such a crucial part of it. It helps us tell what works in the proper medium. Picturing the scene is fine and dandy, but writing isn't a visual medium. That's one thing I think a film-culture can give us trouble with if we're not careful. We're not blocking out scenes for someone to precisely film, we're leaving that to the reader to arrange as best pleases them! :)

And thank you, I always appreciate your kind words. I consider myself a descriptive writer, and description came up at the fall retreat (one of the things that spurred this topic), yet when I went to go look for examples, I had a hard time finding anything. Guess that means it's layered in well, and takes a page or two to get the full image.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Jana, I'm so glad this has been well-timed for so many people!

I actually struggled a bit with a recent scene (the character description example I posted) because I realized I didn't have the character's image in my head strong enough yet. He was acting like various bits of other people. When I figured him out, he really started to act like himself... and then I just slipped in the ones that had clinched it for me.

Loved Anne's mention of sunsets. Raises a good question about why we feel compelled to add certain descriptors.