From the Mail Bag (Sort of): On Description

Last week, you may remember, I made this post about minimalism in writing, particularly in the area of description and information.

In response to that post one reader, Alex Keir, posed this question:

“Is it not the job of the author to paint a picture? I think we can all agree that genre subjects, science fiction, fantasy, etc., and specialized genre, spies, wall street, political, etc., all require additional description to bring the reader into the world.”

Mr. Keir (I realize Alex could also be a girl’s name, but I’m choosing to assume the masculine here, because frankly there ain’t enough dudes in this writing game) went on to share the concern that keeping descriptions to a minimum is really a symptom of our TV junky society, trying to dumb things down as much as possible.

I answer to both of these concerns, I’ve decided to elaborate a bit more on my original post.

It is true that some worlds require more description than others. For instance, me and Ellie Soderstrom just finished the first draft of a steampunk/fantasy novel in which there are clockwork robots and insectile aliens in addition to several other quirks of setting.

Clearly, those things are going to need a fair amount of description if the reader is going to fully understand what is happening in our story. But even so there’s a very real danger in doing this wrong.

For instance the alien species first appears during “hook” of our book, the first action scene that really lets the reader know they’re in for an exciting ride. But to stop in the middle of the chase scene to describe the sun glinting off the gleam on the alien’s shell, to describe the horror of it’s multifaceted eyes, to paint every hair-like bristle on their multi-segmented arms in the reader’s mind and…

Hey, where did you go? I’m making a point here. Okay, where was I? Oh, yes. We want to give the reader a few details to give them the impression of what our protagonist is facing, but we don’t wont to overload the action with description.

Why? Because reading a book isn’t like watching a movie. The visuals aren’t the important part. Most people won’t even notice when they’re missing. In fact there are stories built around this “blind spot”, seemingly normal scenes that are only revealed to be abnormal through the revelation of previously unknown details.

You can’t do a scene in a movie where the two men talking about trying to keep an animal alive in a zoo turn out to be aliens talking about a human child. But in print you can totally get away with that stuff.

I’m not saying you should do that. I’m merely making a point. Before you explicitly state some detail about a scene, your reader is already making assumptions.

And that is exactly what you as a writer want. Because the world the reader will build in their own head will be far more elaborate and detailed than anything you can describe on paper.

The purpose of description is not to tell the reader everything about your world, but rather to give them a nudge in the right direction, so that they can create the world for themselves. After all if they’re just sitting there, might as well put them to work right?

And don’t dump it all in their lap at one go if you can help it. Remember, little details go a long way toward making your world seem more real. Scatter little tidbits of world-building throughout your story, and build on the details you’ve established already. That way your descriptions won’t become ponderous paragraphs of story-stopping information, but instead they will arise organically from the flow of the story.

Remember, description is like salt.

It can bring wonderful taste to your cooking. But if it becomes the main ingredient you might want to check your recipe.

8 responses to “From the Mail Bag (Sort of): On Description

  1. “…two men talking about trying to keep an animal alive in a zoo turn out to be aliens talking about a human child.” Great idea for a story! You probably could do that in a movie, but it would have to be done very different from how you’d write about it in a novel.

  2. Too bad you weren’t around when Nathanial Hawthorn was writing – he could have benefited from this article. I brought him up in an earlier comment (and mean no disrespect) but he described every item in a room in painstaking detail before ANY action took place, and, as I complained to a Literature teacher at the time, I knew the money was behind the mirror above the fireplace by the third paragraph – the rest was endless description of places I didn’t care about.

    To me, what you describe here is mostly common sense – stopping the story at critical moments to go into enormous detail diminishes the story. On the other hand, I think there are places where description, sometimes lengthy description – is appropriate. I have read The Lord Of The Rings trilogy several times. One of the criticisms (by others) of the books is all the description – and yet I find nearly all of it falls into the world-building category that allows me to picture what Tolkien intended. Suggestions that the reader will fill in the blanks supposes that everyone has a vivid imagination – and I know with certainty that is not the case. I am told I have a wild and varied imagination, but sometimes I want to know what the writer intended – I want to go along on the journey he or she took when writing the story. In such cases I think it is appropriate for the writer to tell the reader what he wants them to see, think, smell, taste, feel, etc.

    I guess – for me – the answer is to write what you will – keeping in mind common sense principles – and your audience (if there is one) will find you. Tolkien didn’t write what he thought people wanted to read, or to a specific audience, he just wrote. In today’s world of electronic publishing, and blogs, and flash fiction that can appear on a website mere minutes after the invite is sent, unless you are way out there – it is easier than ever for people to give your style, your vision, a shot. It’s one of the really great benefits of sites like yours – it gives people a chance to develop a following. Free story, free story, free story, and ka-ching! – they might sell one because people have read their earlier works and like their style.

    All of this rambling on my part is IMHO, of course.


    Alex Keir

  3. I just read a fantasy that was great, but it could have been better if the author had focused on describing what was going on inside his characters instead of spending so much time/words describing setting. However, I also felt really grounded in the story and I enjoyed his interesting settings/monsters/history which I never would have seen if he hadn’t added those lengthy descriptions. So, like everything, I guess it depends on what kind of story you want to write.

  4. hahaha. that’s so good. Salt indeed.

    Thanks, Al.

  5. I find that I don’t need all that much world description. I get annoyed if there’s too much. It can actually snap me right out of a story. I love description when it’s essential to the story and/or it’s really compelling.

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