When I was in middle school and had just gotten into The Lord of the Rings, I was shocked to hear my friends describe the books, books that I considered haunting and hilarious works of art, as dense and boring – “too much description,” they said. “Too many hills.” I was appalled. At the time, determined to love the books and with a knack for skimming, I completely missed what many of my friends had already gotten, which was that Tolkien, while brilliant in many ways, does not know when to stop. He writes about his settings in exhaustive, loving detail, and for those people who read mainly for plot and characters and dialogue and the other things that make a story exciting, this makes for a fairly dull and inaccessible novel.
Although I love Tolkien, I have to acknowledge that too much description slows things down and pulls the reader away from the action. On the other hand, a story with little to no description is also a problem. If the narrator gives us nothing as readers, it leaves us to imagine the characters conversing in an empty room surrounded by blank walls – and believe me, readers very rarely supply their own setting, and a lack of description is typically read as empty space. I’ve read, and written, stories where the world around the characters could have been a warm sunlit island or an astonishingly huge cardboard box without changing the action, and that’s a serious problem.*
So, description, essential yet dangerous.
What I’ve found works best for me, in deciding when to describe and when to exclude, is a set of three cardinal rules. If you have other rules to suggest, I’d love to hear them in the comments!
Rule One: Don’t make descriptions long for their own sake. Every word in a short story has to matter, and “but my prose is really nice here” is usually not a good enough reason, no matter how attached we get (and oh, the scenes I have written that were totally the most beautiful thing I had ever produced, and in which for long stretches the action was left by the elaborately depicted wayside, and which I subsequently had to cut).
Mostly the problem with these long descriptions is that they just slow everything down, since any time you spend describing someone’s looks or the exact texture of a curtain is time during which nothing happens, which decreases suspense and loses the story’s focus.
Instead of long descriptions, choose precise, vivid details. Using sharper, rather than longer, description will show your reader far more than a lengthy treatise on everything in sight can. Do your narrator’s legs stick to the leather couch in the heat? Does her best friend’s house always smell faintly of rosemary?** Does the clock in the background tick just a bit irregularly and therefore infuriatingly, pulling your narrator’s thoughts away from the conversation? It only takes a detail or three to set a scene and make it memorable, engrossing the reader without breaking the narrative flow the way a page of elaborate imagery would.
These details can also provide more than a simple sensory impression. They can create a mood (the difference in tone between “ice blue” and “powder blue” is significant even though the colors are the same). When you describe the room, do you mention the suffocating heat or the cool breeze from the window fan? Shadows can be dark and jagged, overlapping, twisting into shapes like lost souls or demons not quite discernable, edging ever closer, seeping in from the hidden corners of the cramped room. Or they can be cool, friendly, a soft play of shapes on the wall like shadow puppets when we were children, here a rabbit spilling from the night light and there a box turtle lifting a sleepy head behind the sock drawer, familiar from nights of drifting to sleep in the quiet stillness of the bedroom. It’s all in the details and words you choose.
Rule Two: Timing is essential. Describe things early if they’re necessary to the scene – if there’s anything in the setting that the reader needs to know about, you should set it up early. It’s easy to set up a scene and forget to mention there’s a table with a gun on it. Halfway through, when your character reaches for the gun, it will seem to the reader like a large table and a highly relevant gun have appeared out of nowhere instantaneously. So make sure you set everything up ahead of time.
Even for less dramatic details, when you describe them is always important – it doesn’t make much sense to have your characters pause in the middle of an argument or a battle scene and think in loving detail about the feathery softness of the carpet under their feet. Choose your time carefully.
The third (and maybe most important) rule will appear in my second post on description, here! It has book recommendations and even more footnotes, so you know it will be good!
How do you go about writing description? What details do you think are important? Comment here (or on the next post, once it’s up)!
*Yes, obviously, there are exceptions to both the too-much and the too-little rules of description, as we Tolkien fans and any Hemingway aficionados you might find would gladly argue. Still, as with style or anything else in fiction, before you can do something new and experimental and clever, you must first be able to do it right, and usually that means learning the basics before you experiment. And, as with everything in writing, whatever experimental styles you use should be intentional, there because you want a slow or a spartan story and not because you got caught up in the beauty of your own words and decided the description was more important than the plot, or because you forgot to describe the setting.
**As Gregory Frost, author of Shadowbridge, said at a past Alpha, “Try doing smells that are not urine smells.” In real life, we notice smells a lot (smell is really tightly connected to emotion and memory, in fact), but most books include few smells that aren’t death, decay, or blood. It’s easy to get caught up in only showing visual details (and characters in pain), but that really isn’t how we experience the world, and you’re missing out on opportunities for intense experiences if you leave out the other senses.