Describing The World

*Sorry to be so horribly late.  Today there are some health things we’re dealing with, and I guess I was really tired yesterday, because I slept very late.*

It was a blue night, stretching, velvet smooth above the Earth.  Silence swathed the garden like a cloud.  Here and there, now and then the shrill chirping of crickets rose.  Fragrance of roses surrounded Guinevere, and made him wish it were less pronounced…

You see, Guinevere was a cat and rather more interested in the smell of tuna.  (Apologies to my son for borrowing Guinevere, the oddly named Siamese from Cat’s Paw.)

Right.  (Picks up glasses from lectern.)  I’ve been asked to do a post on how much description is enough.

This is sort of being asked how much water it takes to make you wet.  Depends on what you’re wearing, how the water is applied and what you mean by “wet” – wet all over or just your head?  Your feet?  What?

Description is hard, but then everything about writing is hard.

I started out, I think, like most people – putting no description in at all.  This was a problem since I was dealing with what was essentially an alien civilization (it was modified humans, in the far future, but it comes to the same.)  That meant when I said “table” the reader would fill in the usual table and then when my characters sit or kneel on the floor to use the table, the reader would be scrambling like mad to change the mental picture.  (This is why even if I find/get those files, rewriting will happen, at least of the older ones.)

EVERYONE kept telling me that I needed more description.  So I started putting it in with a trowel.  (Read my Shakespeare series sometime, though arguably there I already a glimmer of what I’ll call “the secret to description.)

Like with every writing defect I try to correct, I way over corrected, and then had to walk my way back to a reasonable use of description by rough road and slowly as such things must be done.

So, what can I share form my journey.  Look at my example abroad, does it cue anything, until I mention Guinevere is a “he?”  Of course it does.  You think Romance of the more traditional form of fantasy, or at least a fantasy with a poetic streak. Of course it can also be used the way I did, to bring a sudden and startled laugh when you hit the end.


Rule one: Description is a tool.  There is no correct way of doing description, do it in the way that will carry your story forward and bring the reaction you want in the reader.


But what if you just don’t have any description?  Well, I can’t imagine that being appropriate to any but some of the more post-modern of experiments in story telling (Yes, I suffered through some of those in school.)  Before you do that be very aware that the reader will fill in everything you don’t describe with whatever is standard for HIM for that particular place/person/object.  Say you mention Winston Churchill, we’re going to see the iconic picture of him addressing the nation, not Winston Churchill as a young war correspondent.  If you mean the latter, make sure you describe him.


Rule Two: Not describing is also describing.  Your reader will “see” something when you say nothing.  Be aware what that something will be.  (Sometimes you need beta readers for this.)  If they’re not seeing what you want, use more description, targeted at the important points.


When is description too much description?  Well, if you are describing every detail of, say, the sand on the beach, unless one of those grains of sand is poisoned, you’ve gone too far.  Everything you give that much attention to will be illuminated and made central.  So unless it is essential to you that your reader sees EXACTLY what you want – leave well enough alone.


Rule Three: if you are going on and on with description, make sure it is about something that matters to the plot.  Because the reader will assume it does.


What if you just have the wrong description?  By which I don’t mean you’re not describing what you see in your head, but what you’re describing is causing the wrong reactions.  Well, it helps again to remember that not every reader is you.  People have certain built in reactions.

If your characters are going to make sweet, sweet love in the morgue, you might want to soft pedal the smell of formaldehyde and all the toes with tags.  Mention them some distance from the arousal (But what if it’s a really BIG arousal?  Well then you’re bragging.  Shuddup now.) and when you’re leading us to the love making, concentrate on describing his/her soft skin, beauty, etc. and perhaps the chill as pertains to the other/s partner/s in this folly warming him/her up, etc.  Sensations and all, but very little about the corpses.  Most people don’t think “dead bodies make me hot” and those who do are likely to be locked up.  You aren’t angling for fan letters from Levenworth.


Say you want the reader to realize how hungry the character is, describing the taste and smell of things is good.  But if you want the reader to be charmed, don’t describe the taste and smell of a charnel house.  It’s not rocket science.  You’re presumably human or you can at least pretend to be.  Other humans react similarly.  Usually.  (Unless you’re in Levenworth for killing people and engaging in necrophilia.  Then assume other humans react DIFFERENTLY.)


Rule Four: Suit the description to the reaction you want from the reader.


Sometimes description that is not strictly needed can be used to “anchor” a scene.  Most of us have seen cups of coffee.  You could just tell us that Joe and Mike are drinking coffee, and then go on for pages of dialogue.  Two problems with that.  A) the pingpong of he said, and he said gets really boring (besides getting confusing.)  B) it’s easy to slip into almost non fiction reading mode, and following the argument in the discussion while forgetting that it’s two characters having this discussion and that we care about these characters (presumably) and that they’re “real” human beings with feelings, etc.

Anchoring the dialogue with actions helps.  Joe pours coffee.  It is hot and scalds his tongue.  Mike passes him the sugar.  Etc.  Just every few lines of dialogue, it allows us to know who is talking.  And it gives us a sense it’s a real scene, not just a dialogue taking place in someone’s head.


Rule Five: Little seemingly irrelevant bits of description can act like anchors, and remind us the character “exists” in the middle of long stretches of dialogue or exposition.


Which brings us to the end – this is for advanced describers only, so you want to start practicing now, for when, you know, you get there – using little bits of otherwise irrelevant description as a way to convey information and advance the story.  If Joe loves his coffee black and slightly burnt, that tells us something about his personality – or at least most people will assume so.  If Mike spills coffee all over the table and then tries to mop it with his coat sleeve, it tells us something more.  If Mike comes to the meeting with egg on his tie, it tells us yet more.  If Joe’s hair is perfect, not a strand out of place, it also tells us something.


Rule Six: Feel free to put in what might sound like irrelevant description if, at a crucial point in the story it gives us a clue about what the character is thinking, how nervous he is or simply who he is.


That’s about all I can tell you.  As with everything in writing, all I can promise you is that practice makes perfect.  I’m one of those people who has trouble with this, trouble believing the simple act of doing something over and over makes you better.


But having gone to the Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Museum of Art and reading about his method (which was basically exactly that, doing things over and over again, trying to get better and experimenting to see what works) I can tell you it works.


Go and do.






  1. But, but, but!

    Description is one of the remaining joys of writing. It is where YOU are unique. It is where the writerly language (Sol Stein’s way of describing language that gives pleasure to the writer AND the reader) goes.

    In everything else, the writer has to work hard, but there sort of are rules: Make your dialogue sound real, but don’t duplicate actual speech. Pick a few details to give the flavor of a character, but don’t detail his clothing – you’re not a clothing catalog. If it’s a thriller, pick up the pace – if it’s a love story, slow down at the important bits.

    But in description (here I’m assuming you mean places, events, stuff necessary for the reader to construct a mental picture of where this is all happening) you get a chance to be precise, accurate, specific, and WRITERLY.

    ‘The cafe was cold, dark, and abandoned on this Christmas morning.’ is generic. ‘Impressions in the cafe’s banquettes from heavy customers packing in the world’s best pies was all the evidence of humanity left on this Christmas morning.’ is more specific.

    At least you get to stop and think, look for a detail only you would notice, put it in words that flow. And that only you would come up with.

    I don’t know about you, but that kind of detail is what makes me love certain writers – and eschew others.

    For me as a reader, bad or generic description makes me feel I’m doing too much of the mental work of reading – and I get tired being responsible for decorating. Somewhere in on of Stein’s books, he recommends halving the work: writer provides half the mental experience, reader creates the other half (which will be different for every reader), and both have contributed to the work.

    1. ‘Impressions in the cafe’s banquettes from heavy customers packing in the world’s best pies was all the evidence of humanity left on this Christmas morning.’ is more specific.

      Not disagreeing in general, but I will in the specific.

      I have an excellent and extensive vocabulary. What the eff is a “banquettes?” After much thought I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re talking about “empty chairs covered in stretched vinyl in the shape of inverted butts” which, I do agree, is splendidly evocative.

  2. I have two description stories. (That I relate all too often, but…)

    The first… I had submitted my story to my crit group. Everyone said that I had too many people in the first scene. Instead of taking people out of the scene I added descriptive tags, so and so had red hair, so and so could have been his twin except for being a foot shorter… I added so little that no one noticed, but everyone agreed that I’d fixed the problem and most assumed that the scene actually had fewer people in it.

    The second… doing a crit on someone else’s work; the author was upset because her beta readers all wanted a secondary character to be the romantic hero, or at least they *thought* he was the romantic hero. I’m convinced I was right about the cause… she’d described the secondary character too much, mentioning his eyes and specifically his curly hair. Particularly the eyes and the hair. Eyes and hair are code words in romance.

    Description isn’t just about letting the reader know what everything looks like.

    1. You are right in both cases. THAT’s what I was trying to get across. It’s more than saying what things look like. It’s pacing and mood too.

      On your first story — if you read Dwight Swain’s book on characters you’ll find you followed his advice.

      A funny story of my own — when I first wrote high stakes, my entire group TOLD ME it was boring and slow and blah. And I was going “But she kills someone and hides the body FIRST TWO PAGES.”

      Then I realized EVERY sentence was passive voice.

      Technique matters to reveal the story.

  3. Ages ago, back on usenet news misc.writing I think it was, there was an episode of “if description doesn’t *do* something, take it out.” The absolutists were out in force. And it’s tough, especially when you’re a beginner and wanting to know the rules or if you’re intimidated or if you know something is wrong but don’t know how to explain why it’s wrong.

    I remember an example and I think it was my own, trying to explain and not doing well, that if my POV character wakes up and looks out the window at some birds, that the birds did not have to be significant. But the absolutists were all, if it’s not significant take it out.

    And now, older and much wiser, I realize that none of it had anything to do with birds. It had to do with having the process backward. The question wasn’t “are the birds significant, take them out” but “WHY are the birds significant.”

    An author I know (in a virtual internet way) would say “trust your back brain.” But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t demand answers, like, “Birds? You just gave me birds? WHY are there birds?”

    1. Well, it could be a desire for freedom or the mark of a poetic soul. If you ask someone like me halfway through a book “where are there birds?” I might go “uh, what?” BUT by the end of the book, I could tell you. (Which is why I don’t let anyone but people who KNOW my process read when it’s not finished.)

      Of course some stuff– kicks mind — doesn’t make sense till I have the whole series…

      1. That’s why I thought it was wrong to insist (for the people doing so) that if something didn’t have a purpose or didn’t “serve the plot” that it had to come out. The author might not know why something ought to be included.

        Since then I’ve talked to several people who say they’ve gotten toward the end of a book and figured out a twist or sub plot or complication and then realized that they’d already included a lot of hints back through the story without realizing it. (I’ve never gotten far enough to find out if that works for me or not.)

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