Yesterday on my blog someone asked how to describe things – or rather, how much description is enough. He said that he, himself, tends to skip over description and go do something else more fun. Okay, that’s not what he said, but it boils down to that.
I confess to having done both overwrought description, till it comes out of your nose, and description so sparse I was afraid of having fallen down the rabbit hole of talking heads in a sea of fog.
Neither is any good, of course.
Years ago, when I took the professional workshop with Kris Rusch, she told us not to do generic description. For instance, don’t just say “table” because people see whatever a table is in their heads. I’ve since come to realize what she was talking about. But at the time I thought “no description can be generic” so I would lovingly describe every table and the knots in the wood and… It made for some very very odd stylistic choices in the next few years.
Since then I realized she only meant this when it counted.
So, when does DETAILED description count?
1- When it’s necessary to the plot. If you just say “gun” but what you mean is laser, later on this is going to shock the hell out of the reader and pop him/her out.
2- When it adds to a feeling of foreboding/sense of something to come. Think of this as the music behind a movie. If the murderer is hiding behind the door, your sound track should give us a hint. Play it up.
3- As a form of characterization. Presumably you’re behind the eyes of a character, whether first or third person. What your character notices and doesn’t tells us a lot about who he is, beyond/around his explicit thoughts. The character who notices the poor bedraggled kitten in the corner is a different man from the one who sees the sharp knife on the counter. You know what I mean. It can be used to play up parts of his/her character your MC doesn’t admit to. The contract killer who is very nice to cats and feels sorry for the innocent, say. (This can work as foreshadowing, too.) Or the seemingly sweet debutant who can’t stop herself from noticing that knife and wondering if it’s sharp enough to kill a man.
4- As world building. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, you can’t have your character go around giving you entire histories of machinery and/or whatever. BUT you can have a quick description that gives you an idea of how far the world has come. “There was a cooker in the corner, cheap, as it was usually was in such kitchens. A machine that made at most 1000 recipes, and all of them absolutely bland.” You immediately know you’re not in Kansas (or the 21st century) anymore, and you can go from there. Little details like this BUILD.
5- To indicate attraction – this is a specialized form of foreshadowing, but you can indicate a coming relationship by having two characters really notice each other, as it were.
6- To lend verisimilitude to an otherwise thin and unconvincing narrative. Look, we all know things, like that we sweat when stressed or itch when we see an insect, or… So, you add in these details and it “grounds” your scene. It makes us believe whatever improbable events you’re trying to sell us. It’s the way to lie convincingly, actually. Tell the mark something he knows to be true, first, then go crazy.
7- To distract the mark reader from things he should be noticing. PARTICULARLY useful in mysteries. If you lavishly describe a room, from carpet to ceiling and in the middle mention the drops of blood, no one will remember the blood drops. Or five in six people won’t.
For the rest you can leave description fairly sparse. If you go and re-read Jane Austen, you’ll find she often had no description beyond “a well appointed room.” That is because she came from such a time and background that EVERYONE had a picture of “a well appointed room.” If you say “table” and your reader sees a scrubbed pine table instead of the formica one, in your head, unless you’re trying to create a specific impression, who cares?
NO ONE can create a world in every detail. Writing and reading is a collaboration between writer and reader. The reader fills in the blank spots and gives the world heft and meaning.
However, some things you do need description for:
Please describe your character. It’s very distressing to go through life in the head of someone one can’t see. PLEASE don’t use the old mirror trick. It has become conventionally accepted to allow what could otherwise be considered POV breaks in this sort of thing, just to avoid contrived situations like the mirror trick.
So, saying, “He ran his fingers through his short blond hair” is okay even if you’re in his head. Do people normally think of their hair as short and blond? No. But you’re giving the information to the reader as quickly as possible and moving on. So it’s allowed. (Also, presumably, even if not thinking about it, the character KNOWS he has short blond hair. Now the reader does too. Yay.)
Please give us a general layout of a scene. “He entered a sparsely furnished bedroom, with a bed and a prie-dieux” will do (though the first time I’d find a way to describe the prie-dieux) or “the captain’s cabin was standard issue, all gleaming grey surfaces and all the furniture from bed to dicto-desk tucked discretely against the walls.” There is a reason for this. If you miss at least those basic bits, you fall into grey fog, and we don’t believe your characters, because they’re moving through a featureless world, and no one does that.
If you really want to hook a reader, hook line and sinker, start off by evoking all five senses in your initial description. Something like “the room was sparse, clean, featureless grey dimatough. The bed in the corner was made, the cover taut over it, and looking like it too was made of glass. It looked slippery and cold. From somewhere came a scent of vanilla, so strong I could taste it.”
Clumsy, but you know what I mean. If you do that in the beginning and then every time you change scene, you’ll have enough to keep the reader going. Remember to introduce there any needed objects, so that they don’t materialize out of the ether later.
And when do you have too much description? I don’t know. It depends on your world, your work and how it strikes a reader. Remember that your world is unique to YOU and that if you’re the sort of person whom description bores, then your stories are likely to need only minimal amounts, while if you’re the sort of person who sees every raindrop and every detail in a room, your details are likely to enrich the story.
Only you – and your first readers – can judge that. However, if you’re just larding in description for the sake of it, you might want to stop. Otherwise, stop only when they cry “Enough.”