This month our editors are tackling Fatal Flaw #10 – Description Deficiencies. Too many manuscripts are lacking essential description–of characters, setting, time or day and year, how much time has passed from scene to scene. These make for weak scenes and weak novels. Today, editor Rachel Starr Thomson begins our examination of this very fatal flaw of fiction writing:
I love description. Yes, I know, lots of people quit reading in school because the books they were forced to choke down had “too much description.” And I like a fast-moving plot as much as the next girl. But even so, there is nothing I like better than to be immersed in another place or time through words.
More than any other element of fiction writing, description creates immersion. But too little description leaves readers either confused or unengaged—or both. And too much irrelevant description bogs down pacing and kills tension. So how’s a writer to know just how much is enough? And just what kind of description is best?
This month our editors will be examining this topic from various angles. I want to concentrate, in this post, on visual details and what they can reveal—not just about the physical characteristics of a person, place, or thing but about the story underlying them.
Beginning writers can easily make the mistake of thinking the best way to describe something is to convey every last detail about it. Actually, back in the day, experienced writers did this too. Victor Hugo in Les Miserables gave us what feels like hundreds of pages of architectural notes about Notre Dame, and the Victorian greats spent a lot of time on noses, cheekbones, hairlines, and complexions (to say nothing of L. M. Montgomery’s endless flowers).
Actually, it’s right around here that many of those students may have jumped ship. But like most aspects of novel writing, description has grown sharper over time. The most important lesson we’ve learned? Make it personal.
Making It Personal
Another way to say “make your descriptions personal” might be “use description to reveal character.” First and foremost, use it to reveal your POV character, whose eyes, mind, and heart we are looking through. But use it as well to reveal other characters, even the character or mood of a place, and finally even the themes of the story.
Don’t just look on the outward appearance, as the Bible might say; use description to open up the heart.
Quality vs. Quantity
A common pitfall in visual description is giving a laundry list of physical characteristics; ticking every box, so to speak. But it’s hard to pick out important details from a multitude of unimportant ones—and readers will fill in a lot of gaps themselves, so much so that they can find it annoying to have every feature of someone’s face spelled out for them.
The key with visual description, then, is to give just a few details—but make those details count.
April heard the sound of a window being pushed open as Richard climbed out of the second-story lookout. He made his way gingerly across the shining shingles and sat down next to April, handing her a warm travel mug.
They made an odd couple. Richard was a six-foot-two black man with a neatly trimmed beard that outlined a square jaw beneath intense brown eyes and fine eyebrows. His hair was close-shaved. He wore a well-tailored black suit, polished shoes, and a red tie. A ring on one finger was a gift from his father many years ago. His features were chiseled yet gentle. Beside him, April was a five-foot-two blonde, her hair light gold. She was slender, with pretty features, but had a toughness in her face that spoke of a past. Her hair was up in a ponytail, and a grey wool blanket was swathed around her shoulders.
The coffee warmed her quickly, and she shed the blanket, revealing black track pants, an orange tank top, and blue Nike sneakers. A rose-vine tattoo inked across her right shoulder made her look even tougher, yet with a feminine grace. Warmed by the sun, April’s shoulders and arms were well-muscled—she had the frame of a runner.
April heard the sound of a window being pushed open and a grunt as Richard climbed out of the second-story lookout. He made his way gingerly across the shining shingles and sat down next to April, handing her a warm travel mug.
They made an odd couple, April thought—the six-foot-two black man with a neatly trimmed beard and close-shaved hair, wearing a suit, and the five-foot-two blonde with her hair in a ponytail and a blanket swathed around her shoulders.
The coffee warmed her quickly, and she shed the blanket. The sun warmed her bare shoulders and brightened the rose-vine tattoo inked across her right. She wore a tank top and track pants and sneakers. Ready to run.
The After example (from my novel Exile) gives far less detail about these characters. But it zooms in on important ones, heightening the contrast between them and hinting at aspects of their character: Richard’s professional, self-controlled demeanor; April’s mix of tough and vulnerable. Details like the color of their clothing, specific facial features, and muscles just distract us from seeing what’s important in this scene.
When you’re describing setting, things get even more interesting (borrowing from Exile as well):
Reese stood in the living room of a small cottage on a cliff, looking out over the ocean. The room was longer than it was wide, with low sloping ceilings. Windows covered three sides from a foot above the floor to just below the ceiling. The fourth side sported faded wallpaper patterned with fishing boats and nets. Cobwebs in the corners made it obvious the inhabitants didn’t clean much. Stacks of books and old magazines sat on the shag carpet next to a worn-out plaid wool couch. They were dusty. The air in the room was warm and smelled slightly burnt from the old electric space heater positioned behind the couch.
Outside, a storm raged over the water. Black tumultuous clouds. Forked lightning and thunder. Rain pelted across the water in sheets. Waves whipped up in a whitecapped frenzy. To the right she could see the town and the masts of boats in the harbor, bobbing in the storm. Far below, the headlights of a car winding its way along a cliff road streamed through the wet darkness.
With windows on three sides that covered nearly the whole wall, Reese felt enveloped by the storm. Black tumultuous clouds. Forked lightning. Thunder that shook the walls. Pelting rain. It was a classic coastal storm, wind slamming the cliffs and churning the sea in a white frenzy she could just see from here, despite the darkness.
She stood by the window, placed a hand on the glass. Thunder cracked, and the glass strained against the wind howling up the cliff and battering the cottage.
Surrounded by the storm—except that she stood behind windows, in the warmth, smelling the faint burnt smell of an old heater, wrapped up and clean and dry except for her hair.
She sighed and leaned her head against the window as if it were too heavy to hold up on her own.
The Before passage is perfectly good description; I like the atmosphere it conjures up. But it focuses so much on various details of the room that it fails to use the setting effectively to reveal character and mood. Rather than revealing the story, it leaves it behind for a while.
The After passage, on the other hand, focuses on the storm, on the way Reese feels swallowed by it, and on the strong contrast between the turmoil outside and the warm atmosphere within . . . all of which mirrors what’s happening in Reese’s own heart and in the plot of the novel.
In this example, yes, we’re getting a setting. But we’re also getting insight into a character and forward motion in the story itself.
(Most of those other details, by the way, do show up in the book—but in a different scene, where the focus is on revealing things about the characters who own the cottage.)
Enhancing Theme and Creating Mood
Well-written description doesn’t just create a setting for your story, it can also contribute to theme and, of course, mood. If you’ve ever read a story that felt dark, or light, or gritty, or weird, or mythic, chances are that mood owed a lot to the author’s use of descriptive detail.
Here, too, quality is more important than quantity. The key isn’t in tossing out every possible detail about a setting or character, or crafting clever similes or turns of phrase (there’s nothing worse than a misplaced simile—“White hair like fluffy clouds” on a chillingly evil villain, for example). Instead, you want to use descriptive detail to create atmosphere and underscore thematic elements—the seen revealing the unseen.
Both the example passages above contribute to the themes and mood of the story: light clashing with darkness; the sun rising over the gloom; companionship in a place above the world; a storm brewing; the meeting of new world and old (represented by that old burnt smell from the space heater); turmoil and the search for a place of safety and peace.
One final word on the subject: While you’re writing, try not to overthink description. Throw yourself into the scene and write what comes. The example passages in this post do strongly reflect the themes of the book, but I didn’t think about that while I was writing them. In fact, it’s overthinking that’s more liable to get you writing laundry lists. Steep yourself into the mood of the story. Write. Then go back and make sure the details are doing what you need them to do.
Where do your descriptions stack up in quality vs quantity? Does any book in your reading history stand out for its ability to immerse you through description? How have you found description to bring out the mood or themes of your own work?