Six impossible things

Descriptive details

When I was in grade school, one of the first writing assignments we got was to write a paragraph describing something, usually a single object. As I progressed in school, the assignments increased in length and complexity, from a single object to a room, from a room to a static setting like a garden or a forest, from a static setting to one with activity like a blizzard or tornado or thunderstorm.

Focusing strictly on describing something in detail – whether that’s a single object, a group of objects, or a place with active weather – taught me to think about just how description works. Everything has particular properties that add up to a whole: shape, color, size, weight, smell, material, texture, age, wear, etc. There’s also often a base that you start from; a mug is different from a teacup from the get-go.

So you begin with a mug or teacup and add details. The mug is bright red with a black handle (color), large enough to hold a cup and a half (size), made of battered tin (material and wear, implying age). The mug feels light when it’s empty (weight). There’s a small chip in the paint near the handle (wear, implied age). The handle is squared off (shape) and the edges are worn smooth (feel, texture). The tin interior shows the kind of fine scratches you get when you scrub metal really hard with steel wool – or maybe there are just one or two short gouges where somebody obviously was a little careless about prying off some dried-on food (usage, wear, texture). It smells faintly of strong coffee (smell).

Pretty up the sentences a bit so that they flow, and there’s my third-grade descriptive paragraph. A couple of grades later, I was applying the same technique to writing a page describing a coffee table in my mother’s living room (What shape is it? What’s it made of? What color? How big? What’s sitting on top of it? What shape is that? Etc.) And eventually, I worked up to two or three pages describing a thunderstorm or tornado or the view of Chicago from Lake Michigan.

The trouble is that when it comes to fiction, this kind of description is a relic of the days before photography, TV, the Internet, and easy travel. A Scottish crofter might never see London (much less the beaches of the French Riviera, the Himalayas, the Sahara desert, a tropical rain forest, or indeed anything more than fifty miles from their home) except through the long, detailed descriptions in a novel.

Today, one can usually expect one’s readers to have a pretty good idea what mountains, plains, beaches, rain forests, etc. look like, even if they’ve never been very far from the middle of Nebraska. TV, movies, and the Internet provide visuals for just about anywhere one might want to set something, and for just about any object one’s characters might run across.

What this means is that in fiction, it is far less necessary to provide all the details in a description – in fact, doing so is likely to slow the story down so much that many readers will get bored and stop reading. Ironically, the prevalence of TV and movie visuals has, at the same time, made many writers want to provide pages and pages of details, in hopes of conveying to their readers the exact same mental picture of a setting that the writer has…and that a single photograph or ten-second pan in a video would do instantly.

It’s easy to say that writers should keep descriptive passages as short as possible, using only one or two of the most important or evocative details, for only those places or things that the writer needs. The trouble is that “as short as possible” “most important/evocative,” and “only those things needed” vary wildly from story to story and author to author, based on the type of story the author is telling, the author’s stylistic choices and personal preferences, and the importance to the story of the thing(s) being described.

If the writer has chosen to keep descriptive details to a minimum (for stylistic reasons, or because they’re writing a seriously action-oriented story where too much description would slow the pacing unacceptably), then spending an entire paragraph describing a small black statuette of a falcon signals to the reader that this statuette is going to be very important to the plot. If, however, the writer has chosen a more lushly descriptive style for a comedy-of-manners or atmospheric drama, spending a little more time in detailed description of one place or thing may not signal much of any significance.

There’s also the matter of viewpoint to consider. If the writer is using first-person or a strongly filtered tight-third-person viewpoint, every detail of every description tells the reader something about the kinds of things the viewpoint character notices. The author may not be able to give a detailed description of the portrait hanging on the wall just above the murder victim because the viewpoint character is a geologist who is focused on the granite stones of the fireplace…and the description of various details about the granite is likely to be more of a characterization thing than description.

And finally, there’s the matter of the writing process itself. Quite often, I’ll mention some throwaway detail when I’m describing a place, person, or thing early in a story (like the chip near the handle of the tin cup), and only realize ten chapters later that I can use it as a clue or a vital bit of backstory. Or I’ll have a detailed mental picture of a bridge, but when I first describe it, I leave out the crumbling stone at one side because I don’t think it’s important and I don’t want the description to get too long. Then ten chapters later, some character falls through that gap in the bridge, and it seems to come out of nowhere because I’d left out that detail in the written part, even though it’s always been there in my head.

What it boils down to is that you need to know your own process and preferences. Some writers are best off writing extended, detailed descriptions in the first draft and then cutting most of them in the rewrite, once they know what is actually important and what isn’t. Other writers are best off keeping their descriptions spare and lean, knowing they will have to add details in the rewrite in order to set up plot points that showed up in the first draft. Ultimately, you want as much detail in your description as your story needs, and no more – but that, too, is a matter of authorial judgement.

  1. I remember those writing exercises – I think I might still have one about an orange in all of my old schoolwork. Great thoughts!

  2. Oh, how I HATED those exercises!

    I should probably turn in my writer’s card…

  3. One writing exercise I recall went something like this:

    Describe an old barn as seen by a man who just learnt that his son was killed in the war. Do not mention the son or the war.

    To do this effectively calls upon some rarefied skills in observation and the portrayal of mood. I wasn’t up to it the first time I tried, but I think I could do it now.

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