Writing Description: Finding the Sweet Spot

A while ago (as this is a repost) I read an article by fellow WordPress maverick Raeanne G. Roy regarding the fine line we walk when deciding just how much description to provide the reader.  Her original post is located here.  I tossed my humble two cents into the comments box and went on with my day.

description meme.jpgThat evening I sat down at the appointed hour and began my own writing, and wouldn’t you know it, I couldn’t stop thinking about description.  Suddenly, the wasteland renegades I write about were sporting sweaters with patches and rips and buttons, but not just any buttons, buttons made of bone, but not just any bone, the bone from a forgotten slave from a forgotten land.  I realized it was happening —gave myself a quick facepalm—then beat on the backspace for a few minutes.

With this in mind, I decided it wouldn’t hurt if I tossed some information into the blogosphere regarding description.  Then I could watch it float away like wasteland confetti.  Coincidentally, this confetti is not made of colorful bits of plastic, but actually the brittle, delicate pages from an old book. Not just any book, the good book. That’s right! Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  A first edition—the inside cover still faintly bearing the worn signature of…uh…erm…on with the blog!

As usual, I thought I would provide some examples from legit authors to steer us in the right direction.

Chuck Wendig provides some great (and often hilarious) nuggets of information regarding description in his book, The Kick-Ass Writer.  I earmarked this excerpt in particular:

“When Betty Crocker first started selling mixes, they were super-easy to make. Packet of powder, add water, and bake.  But they didn’t sell – in part because they were too easy.  It felt like a cheat.  So Crocker chose to leave out the egg – meaning, a housewife had to add an egg, an extra step.  And bam!  They sold like a sonofabitch.  The lesson is that your audience wants to work.  When they work, they feel invested. Hand them a pickaxe, a pith helmet.  Don’t give them all parts of the description – let them fill in details with their imagination.  Let them add the egg” (p. 95).

The Kick-Ass Writer

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, The Kick-Ass Writer, written by Chuck Wendig.  I wrote a post about this book here

The takeaway here is to not spoon feed the reader description (unless that description is made out of Betty Crocker cupcake mix).

Stephen King in his book On Writing discusses description.  He states, “For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.  In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind” (p. 175).  While this a small excerpt of a larger explanation, what King seems to be driving at is this:  when you sit down to write those first details you see in your minds eye are usually the strongest ones.

Those first sparks are the bones of your description, and often times, they can support the muscle and meat that make up the scene.  The mistake I tend to make is I worry those bones are too feeble. So the black revolver in the hand of anonymous bad guy #3, becomes a pearl handled, laser engraved, .44 caliber, black and silver hand-cannon with a laser sight duct taped to the barrel.  I shall resist!

So these two examples are basically saying, “take it easy with too much description,” but what exactly is too much description?  There are more than a few schools of thought out there.  Let’s talk about a couple.

80s montage.jpg

*cue montage music*

One is that you focus on describing people, places, and things that will reinforce the actions and emotions of your characters as they move through your story and shy away from stuff that is just, well, stuff.  The danger here is the reader can catch on.  If every building is a building, except for the one you spend a paragraph describing—they know something is about to go down in that building.  This can be a good and this can be bad.  It’s obviously an issue if you are trying to catch them off guard.  If your book is an 80s movie, sudden and uncharacteristic description of anything cues the montage music and lets the reader know the big boss battle is coming.

The other school of thought is you simply describe things instinctively.  Let your minds eye be the judge as to what is important at first.  When you come back through with the editing pen of fury (or doom), you can subtract or add.  By letting your creative side assign importance to the mundane you might stumble onto something more.

Example. The curtains were light blue.  Two pages later, when the protagonist pulls them open to look out the window, he realizes they are actually hospital linens.  Cool.  In my wasteland story, people re-purpose items all the time.  Maybe a doctor lived in the house, maybe there are meds stashed away behind the bookcase, maybe he’s down in the basement cutting someone to pieces while everyone is upstairs sleeping unaware?  This organic description while writing allows for the story to gain its own life outside of any rigid outline you have preordained.  As long as it doesn’t veer you too far off track, I think you’ll be all right.

different viewpoints.jpg

What do you see?

Lastly and most importantly, does the description enhance the reader’s understanding of the people and events happening in the story?  Delicious tidbits of description scattered throughout tell us a lot about the characters and world we are reading about, and saves us from beating people over the head with paragraphs of background information.  If one person observes a rifle of some kind, that tells us something about the person.  If another observes the same rifle, and concludes it’s a lightweight, 5.56, air-cooled, gas operated, magazine-fed assault rifle, with a rotating bolt, we can draw some pretty obvious conclusions about that character’s background without typing anything else.

Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers explain:

“…if you allow your readers to get to know your characters gradually, each reader will interpret them in his or her own way, thus getting a deeper sense of who your characters are than you could ever convey in a summary.  Allowing your readers this sort of leeway in understanding your characters enables you to reach a wider audience – and reach it far more effectively – than would defining your characters before we get to know them or analyzing them afterward” (p. 26).

question markWell, I’ve scratched the surface with this post about description.  It’s a giant beast requiring many knives to bring down.  I would love to hear your two cents/insights regarding description and what you feel is vital to the story.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

19 responses

  1. Thanks for these posts. I struggle with it while at the same time I love it. If I am writing a story about a relationship, I try to be descriptive things in the environment that mimic or provide information regarding their inner thoughts and emotions. If I’m writing a first person experience or I’m building to a reveal, I go real sparse on description. Also the speed of the story dictates the amount of description I use. But I write as a hobby and most of my stuff is pretty crude. I hope that I’d write much better with more formal training. In the end I’m looking to entertain the reader with speed, description, and a twist at times. I have to be honest though. I do what I do more on instinct than the sound fundamentals. I’d probably be kick-ass if I dedicated more time reading blogs like yours. You have really good info.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m humbled by your kind words Malakhai. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a great comment. Writers can hone their craft by reading books and taking formal classes, but one of the hardest things to train someone to do is write instinctively. All of the methods you are describing that you employ are powerful tools and are in no way crude. The fact you are already doing these things with little training says a lot about what you can do and what you will create. So my advice to you is to keep hitting the keys and not stress about the details too much (deal with those details in revision).

      From one aspiring writer to another, I’ll share this secret, if you are writing you already kick-ass. Don’t let anyone say otherwise. Nothing trains you to write like writing – plain and simple. Best of luck in your pursuits!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that quote about leaving the egg out! I also love the suggestion to allow us to learn more about a given character by what they notice–by what stands for them, and how much they know about what they’re looking at (as in your example of the rifle).

    I have a tough time with both description and sensory input. I attempt to give a vague impression of a character, including their race. (I think it’s true that many of us will otherwise default to white, and I like to use settings that reflect, to some extent, the multicultural area I grew up in.) But I don’t give too much description, because I want people to “cast” the character as they see fit. I don’t want to all but say, “You know what? Just picture Lou Diamond Phillips.”

    I find it even tougher with places. I think your advice above–with the example of the rifle–is helpful here too, though. Think in terms of what the viewpoint character notices.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • If you do tell me to imagine Lou Diamond Phillips, I’m going to imagine him in Young Guns screaming “Regulators!” Then we are going to go into the mountains and sample the bounty of mushrooms there. This will lead to me howling at the moon and thinking I am some sort of skin walking bird warrior. Following by a moderate bout of profuse weeping.

      Sorry for all of that, it’s early here and I just drank two cups of coffee (one is none…two is one).

      As for being afraid to “cast” characters, I know just what you mean. The late edition of Lex to my book was a nail-biter. Casting her as a lesbian was even scarier. But there was purpose to the decision, and it wasn’t a random selection to attempt to add diversity. While I do think of diversity in writing as something valuable, diversity for diversities sake can lead to hollow/stereotypical characters. The 90s spawned the term of “token characters.” Characters there to simply round out the cast, but that had no real purpose. I don’t want people to say that about any of my characters.

      For me, and we’ll see how this goes, I erred on the side of adding the amount of description I thought was necessary and guessed toward some mannerisms. I’m going to carefully select some additional beta readers who will be able to address these issues specifically and tell them straight up, “Please don’t be offended, I guessed toward these aspects, please advise me where I screwed up so I can correct before my ship hits the rocks.” I’ll be sure to hook them up with some free signed hardbacks and swag (because you know I have to bring Drake eye patches when I go to conventions).

      Fears aside, I love Lex’s character and feel she adds a huge level of complexity and value to the story. Hopefully my readers feel the same way…

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment today. I’m looking forward to Tarot Tuesday tomorrow! My favorite day of the week 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • You know, I have never seen Young Guns? I always associate LDP with Numb3rs and now Longmire, where he’s very good as Henry Standing Bear.

        And his parts in those two shows give us two different ways of handling diversity. In Numb3rs, as Agent Ian Edgerton, we didn’t know what race he was portraying. He can pass for Filipino, Mestizo, Cheyenne–you name it. And it was okay that the show never said, because their cultural explorations (such as they were) were generally confined to the Judaism of the main family. But there was never any doubt that the people in that family’s life (including Edgerton) came from diverse backgrounds, even if it was left to fanfic to tell those stories.

        In Longmire, it’s crucial that Henry Standing Bear is Cheyenne. (Actually half Cheyenne and half Lakota in in the books, but he identifies as Cheyenne.) Walt Longmire is a white sheriff on the edge of a Cheyenne reservation. And interactions between the white communities, the Cheyenne communities and the Crow communities are a major part of the storylines. So there’s way more cultural detail, and representation, for all three. Henry is Walt’s BFF, so we learn a lot about them. Only Walt is a POV character in the books; they’re written in the first person. But Henry is sometimes a POV character in the show.

        Both approaches to diversity work. A lot depends on the story you’re telling, and how much cultural background you’ll get on any character.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I was actually going to lead with Longmire, but ironically enough, I figured more people would know him from Young Guns. I absolutely love him as Henry. That’s an interesting series too.

        Speaking of series, Supernatural finally came through on Netflix so I can finally start watching the latest season. Now I just need to find time!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I continue to have trouble providing historical context in my story without rambling for multiple paragraphs of description. In my first draft, I over-corrected this by providing tidbits of information through dialogue, or as quick one- or two-sentence asides between lines of dialogue or action. Lo and behold, my alpha readers came back and told me they want more background.

    I still feel like having a ‘staged’ dialogue between characters describing a particular part of their shared pasts is a little on-the-nose for providing this background, so puzzling this out will be one of my biggest challenges during my revision process.

    I like the idea of leaving some details to the reader’s imagination though. I’ll keep that in mind!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good luck. It’s tricky to say the least. I’ve heard of some authors who play the odds with their alphas (the more you have, within reason, the more effective this is). If at least half are satisfied, they leave it be. I know MLS Weech (an author I work with) makes notations in certain areas where he felt it was iffy. If a reader mentions any of these areas he beefs it up. It’s not a bad way of trying to organize the revision process. This is something I will troubleshoot myself as I begin my first rewrite next week and then begin the alpha reading process.

      Thanks for sharing your process and the challenges you are facing. It’s always valuable for me to know what authors are coping with and how. Best of luck to you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks! There were definitely a few sections that I knew needed more detail. I tend to need a bit of reinforcement, however, which is exactly what my alpha readers have given me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • Good luck finding the sweet spot. It’s tricky finding balance. It seems authors either over-describe and then cut back, or run with minimalism and beef up afterward. I lurk in the middle.

      When I’m really in the rhythm, or enjoying a scene, I’ll go over the top and have to cut in revision. When I’m dragging, I’ll start tossing in brackets [insert sentence about this room]. I like to be sure there is enough for a reader to visualize, but not so much they can’t apply their imagination. A single sentence can do a great job of painting an overall picture of a room or setting. Then it’s just a matter of having the character interact with aspects of the environment or setting.

      Thanks for reading today and best of luck to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s definitely a balancing act. Perhaps the important thing is to ask, what function do my details serve? Do they evoke character? Setting? Do they evoke mood or theme? Do they provide subtext to dialogue? All of the above? The more functions that details serve, in my opinion, the better!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you 100 percent on this. It’s great advice and I really appreciate you taking the time to share it. The more work we can make those words do, the better. Happy reading and thanks for swinging in today 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • When I work with authors on a regular basis, they end up just putting those areas of lacking description in brackets or parenthesis during their first pass. Then, when they come back through on the second pass (or toss the manuscript to me) the description gets beefed up as needed.

      The area I frequently see that is lacking in description are setting anchors at the beginning of chapters. While in 1st person this isn’t a big issue, when the writer utilizes multiple POVs it becomes a larger problem. I call them “void openers.” The character exists in a void for the first page of the chapter. Often, this happens when the writer has zoomed POV into the head of character and is revealing some sort of internal motivation or thought. It also seems to happen when chapters transition. The assumption being the reader hasn’t put the book down and come back to it between chapters.

      I don’t think there is an exact formula for description, but a second set of eyes from an alpha/beta reader will typically ferret these issues out. Best of luck to you in your writing, and thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and leaving some kind words. Glad you found some use in my ramblings. Happy writing!


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