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.
That 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 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.
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.
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).
Well, 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!