Writing: Description

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As fiction writers we have a very clear idea of how a scene looks in our heads. We know exactly what our characters look like, we know what they’re wearing, we know the facial expressions and gestures they’re making in the moment. We also know exactly what the space they’re inhabiting looks like, where the chairs are, what colors the walls are, what the table is made out of.

We need to communicate these things to our readers, but I find that a lot of younger or newer authors have a problem with over-describing a character, her actions, or the setting for a scene. Their descriptions focus on unimportant minutiae that might tell the reader exactly how to picture something but doesn’t do a good job of actually telling the story. Getting too bogged down in details like this can stifle the flow of the narrative. It will make your readers bored, and as much as you may want your reader to see things exactly the way you envision them in your mind, that’s not really the strength of fiction writing.

What you want to do as an author is convey the important details. Show me as the reader the things that are important to see so that I can get a sense of the setting and people involved without having to wade through paragraphs of unending description. Better yet, show me the things that the characters view as important and would pick up on.

Character Description

If you’re describing a character, I don’t need to know the specific details about every article of clothing she’s wearing. Pick out the things that tell me the most about her instead. Is she wearing a graphic T-shirt with a videogame logo on it? Or is she the type of person who’s always finding an excuse to wear an elegant dress? Perhaps even just saying she’s obsessed with a certain brand is enough for me to get a picture of her.

I also don’t need to know every detail about a character’s physical appearance. For example, I don’t necessarily need to know that your female character has pierced ears, since a lot of women do. Maybe if she has earrings that are important, you could draw attention to those. Or if she has something like a septum piercing that might be more noteworthy, as those are not very common, and in a lot of ways they go against the conventional societal views of “feminine beauty”, so immediately this tells me something about the character and the way she interacts with the world.

Also, as an added tip, if you can describe your character’s physical appearance in terms of their surroundings, that’s going to make your writing even stronger. For example, don’t tell me your character is tall, but rather have him reach into the top cabinets of the kitchen, or maybe have him rest his arm on top of his friend’s had to show the height disparity between them.

You can also frame all of these things through the eyes of whoever the scene’s narrator or POV character is. Maybe he likes the fashion sense of another character. Or maybe he feels self-conscious about some aspect of his fashion or physical appearance. You can illustrate that by slipping in little details about how he views the things around him.

Setting the Scene

These same tips from above can be applied to describing settings and blocking character movements.  And to be honest, I think these are actually the two areas where authors stumble with over-description the most.

As far as settings go, as a reader I don’t need a blueprint of a room described to me. I don’t need to know how every table in a bar is laid out, or exactly how many seats there are in a conference room. Instead I want to know about the atmosphere. What does the place smell like? What sort of people are inhabiting it? What kind of things can I hear? These sort of descriptions bring the reader more immediately into the setting, make it more vivid, and make it interesting to read about.

Pick just a few visual examples that strongly illustrate the place. If a room is messy, talk about the pile of clothes by the computer desk and the stack of books that looks like it might fall over. If a bar is a retched hive of scum and villainy, then talk about the shady characters who inhabit it or the way that the lighting is dim so patrons can easily go unnoticed. I don’t need to know about where the computer desk is in relation to the room’s door or exactly how many bar stools line the bar.

Blocking

I’ve seen a lot of writers have similar issues of poorly describing blocking or character movement. For example, you might have a scene where a group of friends gets in a car together. I don’t need to be told blow-by-blow how the group approaches the car, who exactly got in what door, and exactly where they were all sitting. Certainly I don’t need to know all this information all at once.

I can find out where everyone is sitting in the car through the course of the scene. You can have the character driving speaking while trying to pay attention to the road, and then you can have someone pipe up with commentary from the backseat.

Instead of describing exactly how everyone approaches and got into the car, maybe just skip over that part. Or use it to illustrate something about the characters. For example, maybe one of your characters runs the car slams his hand on the door, and yells” shotgun!”. This is vivid, and it tells me something about that person. It’s not just a set of blocking descriptions that are meant to convey to the reader the exact idea of who sat where that you had in your head.

Conclusion

If you are super concerned about conveying the exact details of what you are visualizing to your audience, then I recommend exploring other mediums like perhaps comic books or film. Writing is a less direct or literal art, and it’s more about communicating feelings and ideas than it is about delivering exact images.

Elements like dialogue and the flow of the plot are going to be more interesting to your readers than whatever it is your character happens to be wearing. Of course, always include the details that are important to the story or are highly illustrative of a character or setting, but focus on conveying the idea of these things to your reader rather than trying to force them to visualize the exact thing you’ve seen in your head.

Writing fiction is really about evoking ideas in other people’s minds, and I find the best way to do that is not to get overly bogged down in too much description and end up writing all the parts people will skip. At the end of the day you can never describe things well enough to exactly depict what you’ve imagined, so why make your reader suffer by trying? Focus on telling the story, and give the reader just enough to figure out the rest.

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8 thoughts on “Writing: Description

  1. This was really helpful 😊 But I’d like to disagree at the point when you say writing cannot portray still images. I feel it can and all the more beautifully than pictorial representation. You must have heard of the Imagism movement of the 1930’s? I think imagery makes ones writings more expressive.

    1. That’s fair. I guess I overstated it. I meant to be more precise with the images and words being used in order to evoke a powerful image rather than to just try and describe something by piling on an abundance of details.

  2. Great post! I’m in the revision phase with my novel and description is a weakness of mine. Needless to say I am working on this but also reading to find as much information as I can. I’m on the minimalist spectrum for description. So I want be taking away, I will actually be adding. I don’t want to have a bunch of talking heads or people walking through the twilight zone of nothingness 🙂

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