Until They Cry Enough! — How Much Description Is Needed.


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.”




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85 responses to “Until They Cry Enough! — How Much Description Is Needed.

  1. Pingback: Our Brilliant, Libertarian Strategy | According To Hoyt

  2. Bryan Kramer

    I have been reading some Robert Heinlein work to get an idea of how he handled description and dialog. I was surprise to see that in a lot of his material he is very sparse in using any description. In one long short story he starts the work with pages of dialog and no description whatsoever.

    He never describes the main character. The first description of anything shows up maybe 4 or 5 pages into the story when he very briefly describes a bunk bed. He only uses description when it advances the story.

    So a very sparse style is possible, if you are another RAH. He natural style of dialog and use of a stream of consciousness are deceptively difficult to emulate.

    • I bet you if you look you’ll find description IN the dialogue. The man was tricky that way. BUT yeah, it’s possible — and he’s mostly sparse, which fits his style.

    • On the other hand, I remember reading an article about Heinlein’s style, and the details he does put in are very telling. The article pointed out an opening sentence where “The door irised open” and that little flair helped let you know you weren’t in Kansas any more. But it was dropped in so casually, instead of highlighted in neon.

      • “The door irised open” is pointed to as an excellent example of just enough detail to give an impression. It is one clever sentence that truly sets the scene in four simple words. He was very good at that minimalist-yet-efficient description.

  3. ABE

    Thanks for reminding me to use my sense of smell. Funny I should need the reminder – I’m one of those people for whom smells never fade – if you put perfume on this morning, I’ll smell it on you at dinner.

    It is such a subliminal sense – which is exactly what you’re saying: add in the subliminal deliberately.

  4. I tweeted this to my list. All writers can use a reminder now and again, from the beginner to the old hands. 🙂 Wonderful advice.

  5. I have my characters complain about things not working right. “Whaddya mean, no environmental gravity? I have to bounce around like a ball to get anywhere? What a bunch of cheapskates!” I’ve also used a shopping list as a highly compact info dump 😉

  6. Eamon

    Bryan Kramer noted RAH above, and I was thinking of other authors that work in the same vein. Elmore Leonard, for one. Part of EL’s style is shorthand, as he’s generally writing contemporary fiction where the reader can assume much from little and not be shocked later.

    But I think the bigger part, for these and other authors who can do it well, is that the characters drive the story so HARD, that you’re along for the ride and the rest is a blur. You just know there’s stuff all around you, because the characters are functioning in an environment and they’re so real and solid you believe in the rest. NOT an easy thing. And I do dig those that do it well.

    For me, generally, I prefer a bit more than average environmental grounding, particualrly in SF/F. I’m a visual person and I purely hate when an author introduces a lifeform and then plays thin with the description. Gimme a quick sketch, at least! I see this more frequently in authors trying to evoke some level of horror or apprehension. But what works in a 2 hour movie (sometimes) doesn’t have the same impact in a book. Somebody grab a big flashlight already!

  7. TXRed

    A jackdaw character is fun, too. You know, the guy who always goes, “ooh, shiny!” and goes off to see what the sparkly thing is (which may or not be a trap).

    Re. no description of the main character. Hmmm. I’ve got an MC who has always been told she’s ugly, who (in the beginning of the series) keeps thinking that she’s ugly, and, well, yeah, she’s never going to win a beauty pageant. If I don’t describe her face until toward the end of the book, just how much will that turn off readers?

    • Depends how much it shocks us…

      • TXRed

        Probably not much. She’s not “um, would you like to wear a veil with that hat, ma’am?” ugly. Just very, very, plain. Very.

        • Dan Lane

          Does she really think “plain, plain, plain” when she thinks of herself? I’m a guy, therefore this is foreign country to me, but every gal I know has stuff she thinks of as physical faults- my nose is too big, my jaw is too wide, I have a cleft chin, ears too floppy, eyes too piggy, hair a boring shade of brown and dreadfully straight etc. Even if no one else thinks this, those thoughts might be there.

          • TXRed

            Dan, she does, although as the series progresses and she becomes more confident, she stops thinking about her appearance (other than to grumble about the seasons’ colors still not flattering her). She has nice eyes, a most noble and prominent nose, thin lips, and no chin. She’s also 5′ 7″ and sturdy at a time when small and curvy are popular. Her hair is dark dirty-dishwater blond, the darkest shade of blond that isn’t light brown. To her annoyance, as she ages, her hair turns a dull yellowy gray instead of a dignified white or silver. She intends to have a long conversation with her deity about his sense of aesthetics after she dies. 🙂

    • 'nother Mike

      Just a thought, but that might be a case where you could do a mirror scene. Have a scene where several people tell her how ugly she is, and then in the sequel (response to the action scene) have her pick up a mirror and look at herself, trying to figure out just what they mean. That would make it a natural reaction, rather than being imposed so that the author can describe her face.

  8. Excellent advice.

    If the writer has the right skill with words, the description itself can be fun. This is the exception not the rule. And it is matter of taste as I happen to have a Faulkner-novel-shaped dent in my wall.

    As you sit there reading this, you are immersed in a sensory environment of which you are mostly unaware. how tight is your left shoe? or bit of breeze on your cheek? We naturally filter out everything we don’t need to know.

    I think it is better for the writer to comprehensively envision the POV character’s sensory environment then limn only the subset that s/he would make it through the filter. This varies with the circumstances with the scene. A fight scene will focus on the adversary’s fists. A prelude to battle will be more reflective.

    • If the writer has the right skill with words, the description itself can be fun. This is the exception not the rule. And it is matter of taste as I happen to have a Faulkner-novel-shaped dent in my wall.

      “The right skill with words” is very important. It’s very easy to parody a verbose writer, such as H. P. Lovecraft or Poul Anderson, but it’s very hard to write as much description as they did and have the result read as well as does their work. And Poul Anderson, in particular, was a master of description.

  9. Synova

    ” 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.”

    This is important in Romance, particularly so if there is more than one love-interest possibility right at the beginning. If you mention the hair and eyes of one fellow on page five but his brother is later revealed as the hero you’re likely to annoy your more savvy readers.

    • Yep. BUT you should be aware of it for other genres too — because otherwise some readers will expect the MOST unlikely relationships because — subconsciously or carelessly — you signaled wrong.

      • David Drake has had some interesting encounters with female romance-reading fans and their genre expectations about characters! He converted this new information into evil trolling abilities, however.

        • Ooooh! David Drake writes evil troll posts? I must find him now. I enjoy his Berserker novels, and I imagine I would thoroughly enjoy the Evil David Drake Troll Show.

          • Nah, it was more like “Now that I realize I created expectations inadvertently, I will spend the next book showing them that these expectations are so very wrong. I will also use my new knowledge to create implications of twisted romance for exactly those characters that nobody really wants having any kind of romantic life.”

            At one point, somebody must have told him about slash, because he started making innuendos at conventions about how Daniel Leary (the Jack Aubrey equivalent in his RCN space opera series) was in the Navy, and thus he was bound to end up with a guy. Since Leary battles it out with Kirk for the title of the most heterosexual man in space, and since he actually started setting up Leary with a fiancee after that point, it was pretty much nothing but trolling the female Leary fans (and any US Navy people in the room). He’s a nice guy, but his sense of humor is dark and probably not for the easily embarrassed!

            • His sense of humor sounds remarkably like that of most of my friends, actually. I wonder about myself sometimes, and the humor of the people I choose to be closest with. Of course, you can either laugh or cry at death, and laughing until you cry is the most healthy, and if you can’t laugh at sex you’re doing it wrong, because you gotta admit, it’s dang funny. So maybe I should worry more about people who CAN’T make or take dark humor?

              • mobiuswolf

                ” So maybe I should worry more about people who CAN’T make or take dark humor?”

                Truer words… at least I think so.

  10. In my latest story, Kiwi, (I put it at http://home.kendra.com/mauser/kiwi.pdf for those who don’t have DeviantArt access) I deliberately didn’t describe the main character physically because it would actually distract from the story.

    If Alex Sanderson had been described as white, it would have added an unwanted context “You have a big tough white guy and a skinny brown alien girl, you racist sexist colonialist bigot!!” But if I’d made him Black, “You racist bigot, of course you’d write a black guy as your violent criminal/rapist!”

    So I left that out, as an exercise in seeing where the reader makes his projections.

    As for Aniti’s descriptions, I spread them out through the story and changed the emphasis to show the changes in Alex’s attitude, even when he couldn’t tell what was happening to him. I like to think it’s a “read Twice” story, once to be surprised, and once to go “oooooh!”

    • By the way, I’ve been asking some folks if they know of a market for this one. I’ve kinda given up on my dream of being in Asimov’s, not that it would have been suitable for them.

      • mobiuswolf

        I really like it so far. I read about half last night and it’s your fault I’ short on sleep today.
        I’m making all sorts of wild speculations about what is going to happen. Not often you get that. 🙂
        Eminently readable too.
        You don’t want to kindle it?

        • I just might. I’m still working on my Mad Scientist as hero novel, which I had been thinking of as a debut, but perhaps putting Kiwi up would be a way to make sure I can navigate the system. I may need a little help doing it right.

  11. mobiuswolf

    “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.”

    What is that? I’m getting dejalire

  12. There’s also “sticking your motifs into description and other stuff, in order to commit Jedi mind tricks on the reader and unify the story.” But you have to do it in a Goldilocks way — not too much and too obviously, not too little and too totally unnoticeably.

  13. Thank you for an excellent post. This is a subject that keeps popping up in writing discussions with my friends. One of them swore that descriptions were to be shunned, that the dialog should give the reader all the information he needs. He read a lot of Hemmingway, so there is that. I’m of the other camp, where description is vital to setting the scene, without overwhelming the action.

    • Depends on the book you’re writing. Fantasy tends to be more description-heavy than science fiction. Mystery NEEDS description, etc. People forget Hemmingway was just ONE school of writing (minimalist) not the “one true way.”

  14. mobiuswolf

    This is really great guys. Thanks!

    Loading some Heinlein into my android now.
    And I liked Hemingway too, way back when. High school I think.
    Faulkner? Not so much. 🙂
    What’s the mirror trick? That I will shun.

    • Laura M

      Darn. The WIP has the mirror trick, where the main character sees himself (only it’s usually a she) in a mirror, and sees the shining green eyes, the long flowing auburn tresses, and the cupid bow of a mouth. In my WIP, the “mirror” is an elevator door made of beaten bronze, so her otherwise fabulous features are warped. This looks to be an obstacle. Should I weigh the risk of being mocked for using the mirror trick in an SF novel against how nicely it fit in the flow of things, or should I just absolutely, categorically get rid of it because No Good Can Come of It? I admit I’m leaning toward keeping it, but mockery is bad.

      • mobiuswolf

        I’ve just been reading The Puppet Masters and Heinlein used the mirror trick after they put on their disguises. Of course you would naturally look in the mirror at that point. Sly old devil.

        Did he always write first person? Every one I’ve looked at so far is.
        I should have asked, does anyone know, off hand, of one he wrote in 3rd?

        • Laura M

          Beyond this Horizon. Stranger in a Strange Land. I’m not in a place where I can check my books, but I’m pretty sure Starman Jones and Citizen of the Galaxy. Citizen I’m very confident of, because I remember noting Heinlein using an omniscient narrator and feeling peevish about how he got away with it.

          These have all been recent re-reads, ‘cept for Stranger, which was probably five years ago. The beauty of not having liked Starman Jones on my first read was that I remembered absolutely none of it. It was like finding a new Heinlein.

          • mobiuswolf

            I think I had the same reaction to Starman Jones because I haven’t reread it in almost 40 years. cool I have it here somewhere.
            Citizen is right here. Thank you.
            I really don’t want to get trapped in one of the later Long ones. I still have to get the wood in, between the raindrops

            • mobiuswolf

              Shoot! I haven’t got it

            • Laura M

              I liked it much better this time. I have no idea why, maybe just pure yearning for some Heinlein. I thought I’d found it with that Spider Robinson book, Double Star, SPOILER ALERT
              but the ending was like being kicked in the gut. Not my cup of tea, and I’ve enjoyed other books of his. It sure wasn’t RAH.

          • Duh. Stranger. Which I am re-reading…
            Robert’s favorite is Starman Jones.

            • Laura M

              I quite enjoyed Starman Jones recently, a few decades after the one time I read it. Growing up overseas I re-read my books to death but not that one. I noticed that my edition of SJ is American, so I got it after we moved back to the States and had more access. I do treasure the lurid British covers on my Heinlein, and the little painted ovals on my Heyer. I don’t lend either of those out.

        • Some short stories aren’t first. One of two of the juveniles might not be. But he grew into first and settled into it. I rather prefer first too, so…

      • I can’t really speak for you, but when you read it, is that scene “key” in any way? To me, what you described sounds interesting, and since you’re leaning towards keeping it, it probably is doing something for the story by being there.

        You could always cut back on the amount of description in there. ex. (and this is a weak attempt at this, just to illustrate), “She walked towards the gleaming, mirror-like surface of the elevator and saw her features morph and change like some sort of demon of chaos. Briefly, her cat-like green eyes shifted and warped to bright saucers, upright eggs, and dark ellipses. The surreality of it made her…” (As opposed to, “She walked towards the mirror and her [x] lips, [y] eyes, and [z]-shaped face warped and…”) Choosing one important feature could make it less Mirror Tricksy and help you place a mood or at least underscore the environment.

      • Synova

        The not-a-mirror mirror trick…

        “Out of habit she checked her hair and uniform reflection in the window as she closed the car door. Her blond curls were pulled back sleekly, but that wouldn’t last. Her uniform was pressed and starched into sharp creases. Her butt was still too big. “Dammit.” She took out her wallet and moved a dollar from the main fold and tucked it behind her driver’s license, payment for letting herself slip into negativity about her figure. Jackie locked the cruiser and went to work.”

        (This is part of a discarded story-start. I decided to begin in a much different place, but if I hadn’t I probably would keep this, mirror trick or not.)

        • Synova

          Ah… here it is, the new start and approx. 9 manuscript pages in…

          I only heard parts of the conversation after that. Bits and pieces like, “Pretty blond lady name of Johanson. Yeah, she’s here.” and “No, I can’t give her the phone until she’s done puking.”

        • Laura M

          How about we carve out an exception for when the mirror does double-duty? Yours is providing characterization. Mine, I will maintain staunchly, gives setting, since it’s part of the fancy office structure she’s entering. I will keep it for now, but am alerted to the issue and will never, ever, ever do it again. I don’t think.

  15. mobiuswolf

    Oh yeah, Describing my main character was the first problem I ran into.
    I figured the easiest way to start was to use myself as the main character, but I froze up on describing me or giving “me” a different look, (but what?), picking someone else to look like.
    Still spinning my wheels there. Maybe it doesn’t pay to make it too personal?

    • Actually it’s harder to use yourself as a main character. I leave why as an exercise for the class…

      • TXRed

        Because in my mind I’m 5″ taller, 40 lb lighter, have longer fingers, and look good in large prints? Naw, that can’t be it. 😉

        • Not just that, but because it makes it easier to confuse what’s important to YOU and what’s important narrative. I have a friend who when he writes himself tells us the most boring stuff about his childhood, convinced it’s significant/riveting. If you have to “create” a “other” it makes you closer to the reader’s experience.

        • Oh, and preferentially I write guys. I’ve just learned this freaks people and also there’s more market for women protagonists, so…

  16. Dan Lane

    For first-person narrative, you can slip a quick description in sometimes. Glen Cook did this a couple of times, I think, in the Garret Files novels (guilty pleasure, I like detective novels in fantasy settings- just discovered Bolg *grin*). First person isn’t always “me” narrative or Mary Sue hell, but it can get there if one’s not careful.

    Standing back at third person, I like to see the “apples and oranges” method sometimes. Pick a character and put them side by side with another one (one of them can even be a throwaway). “Where John was tall and rangy, Mary was short and curvacious. John kept a military cut while Mary looked like it took a whip and a chair to tame her wild curls. He had a craggy, seamed face that looked closed to the world, while her face was open and welcoming with bright, interested brown eyes. The two could not have looked more different.”

    People often compare themselves to others mentally in print, so that can work too, i.e. “He sucked in his gut and stood a bit taller whenever Crawford entered the room. Their rivalry demanded each be on his toes.” Have another character describe them (briefly): “You don’t look big enough or mean enough to come in here, Miss Fancy Suit.” Describe them thinking about the opposite sex: “Some gals just don’t like a skinny hippy looking guy with long hair and bushy sideburns. Others, however, ignore those things in favor of a strong jaw and wide shoulders, even if the biceps are a bit stringy.”

    I tend to err on the side of lavish descriptions (that and once I get to talking about something I like, I tend to need to be told to shut it). Doing that always slows down the action, so be careful with how you control the pace. You can have a couple of pages in the midst of a murthering great battle, but that’s probably tough to do if you’re not Weber. *chuckle*

    • First person USUALLY isn’t Mary Sue. The hatred of first person is from people who can’t write it. Heinlein didn’t write Mary Sue and he wrote MOSTLY first person.

      • mobiuswolf

        AHA! That’s what I want to see. 3rd person Heinlein I hope it wasn’t some of the later ones.

        So I guess Mary Sue looks in the mirror would be “RIGHT OUT!”

    • I like to do the contrast thing as well, along with details sprinkled throughout the narrative.
      “We walked side by side in silence, the vampire and the zombie. We were a study in contrasts: tall and skinny against medium and stout, his elegant stride versus my lurching steps, his bespoke suiting and my decaying clothes.”

  17. mobiuswolf

    Actually I think I’m going to try rewriting my first action packed chapter (snicker) in first person Heinlein and it’s all your fault. 🙂

    I think I’m a lot more comfortable with the incidental description method. I’ve been told my descriptive writing reads like….. well never mind. dry might be kind.

  18. A good excuse for using the mirror: Battle damage assessment.