Six impossible things

Basics: Description 1

Description is as much about what you choose to describe and when you choose to describe it as it is about how you describe it. Furthermore, there are really significant differences in how much description different readers like or can even tolerate, and no writer is going to be able to please everyone.

But this is all about basics, so let’s start with the most basic thing of all: what is description for?

The simplest and most obvious answer is “to tell the reader what things look like.” That’s certainly one of the things a writer does with description, but it’s hardly the only thing it’s for. I’d even argue that “what things look like” isn’t even the main thing. Yes, “talking heads” seldom make for a fascinating story, but neither does four pages of point-by-point interior decorating.

And readers are in this for the story. So whatever else description does, it needs to enhance the reader’s experience of the story.

Looking at description this way clears up a lot of things. Lush, detailed description can be an intentional part of the story experience, as in E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros; an author like Hemingway can, equally intentionally, avoid giving anything more than the barest of bones. Either approach is equally valid; it depends entirely on what kind of experience the writer is trying to create for the reader, and on the writer’s personal voice and stylistic preferences.

Focusing on the reader’s total experience also encourages writers to think about more than just visual description. Writers have been defaulting to describing “what things look like” since before Homer, but the tendency seems to have become worse in the past fifty years or so with the rise of visual media (TV, movies, online video). The image a camera provides is whole and complete in an instant; a complete written description of the same visuals would take pages, and still wouldn’t have the same emotional impact because it would take too long for readers to absorb. Yet new writers seem to put more and more detail into their visual descriptions (often to the detriment of their stories) in a misguided attempt to somehow force their readers to “see” the exact same mental picture of the scene that the writer has in his/her head.

Most stories need some visual description, but books don’t have to stop there. “Use multiple senses when you describe things” has been one of the most basic tips for writing vivid, evocative descriptions since forever. Poul Anderson claimed that he went over all his manuscripts to make sure he had used at least two senses other than sight on each and every page…and on the couple of occasions I was privileged to hear him say that in person, every professional writer in the audience was nodding in agreement.

Writers can talk about the sudden hoot of an owl in a dark wood, the smell of baking bread as a character enters a kitchen, the sting of half-frozen rain on a POV character’s face as they gallop away from the lost battle, the taste of salt in the wind off the ocean, and the reader can and will fill in most of the other details. Stylistic considerations aside, unless the story requires that the reader know that this is a spruce wood, that the stove is against the back wall and the kitchen curtains are dirty, that the rider has a blue cape and a black horse, or that the character is standing at the top of a cliff rather than on a beach, the writer doesn’t need to provide much more in the way of specific detail.

That is, the writer doesn’t need to give more details if the only purpose of that bit of description is to give the reader some idea where the characters currently are. If someone is going to be found stabbed to death under the kitchen table later in the story, on the other hand, the writer probably wants to mention the knife and the table in addition to the smell of the bread, when the first character enters the room. If the red bandana under the table will be a vital clue later, the writer better mention that, too…and maybe one or two other details so that he/she isn’t only mentioning plot-critical stuff (because that gets really obvious really fast).

It is really common for writers to know a lot more about where the characters are than the reader needs to learn. If one does, and one puts it in, one frequently needs to take it back out later on. I just finished cutting about three pages of description from my current WIP and replacing them with “They walked the rest of the way up the mountain.” (OK, I left in a little more than that, but only a couple of sentences.) The description was fun to write and brought out lots of cool backstory…none of which are necessary for my readers or my characters to know at that point in the story. And all the unnecessary description was slowing up the pacing to a unacceptable degree. Some writers go the other way and have to add description in the second pass, because all they have in their first draft is talking heads. Nobody seems to get it right on the first try.

The other really basic, much-ignored tip for writing description is that it doesn’t always have to be all in a lump. That’s how people see a place when they first encounter it, but many readers skip straight past any chunk of descriptions that’s “too long” (which is an individual measure ranging from “more than a page” down to “more than a sentence”). It’s therefore often more effective to split up description into smaller segments, starting with a quick overview and adding more details every few paragraphs. Describing a place through the viewpoint character’s experience of it can be even more effective and evocative. I’ll talk more about that next post, ‘cause I’m running out of space in this one.

  1. The amount of description in a story can influence, and be influenced by, its pacing. Consider the work of Arthur C. Clarke, a lot of whose work can be boiled down to “We went out and saw all these marvelous things, as follows” [followed by several paragraphs] “and we never found out what they were, but they were marvelous.” Great reading, if you are not in a hurry.

  2. One poignant yet non-obvious tenet of character description is that, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, the main character should get *less* description than other principles in the story. The purpose of the manuscript is to impart an experience to the reader, and this is best done by making the reader identify with the protagonist. Too-specific description interferes with this identification, but the balance is a delicate one; you have to supply *some* visual cues because readers want to know what the vehicle for their experience looks like. But excessive detail separates them from empathizing.

    • @Wolf

      Heh – reminds me of a story I’m currently reading. The main character has NO description in the story thus far besides a rather grudging acceptance of the fact he has “less then supermodel looks”. Quite important to the plot because the MC’s goal is “to be a superstar” and his… ah… lack of beauty is getting in the way.

      ^_^ Still wondering who would win a beauty contest – him or Mick Jagger.

  3. 1. Isaac Asimov was very non-visual and hardly ever described anybody. When somebody called him on this, he asked each of the women in his publisher’s office to describe the heroine of his current book. Each woman described herself. Worked for him.

    2. I generally begin with what film-makers call an establishing shot: the background, the foreground, the participants, and describe the protagonist (briefly) then. I then follow him around and before we know where we are, it’s tight-third.

  4. Catching a bit later… I think that a thing which can be usefully done even with a static description is to show the reader what the viewer considers important. If Jane the Cop On Duty walks into an apparently unoccupied cabin in the woods while looking for a suspect, the first things she’s going to perceive are the places someone could be hiding, the guns on the wall, whether it shows signs of being hastily abandoned. If Bob the Carpenter walks in, he’s going to notice the furniture and other woodwork before anything else.

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