Monday, May 23, 2011

Death by Description

By Julie Daines

Description. The story needs it to survive, but too much can kill it. Here are a few tips I've found helpful when writing description:

- Description should match the POV character. In my mind, this is the number one rule. Everyone sees things differently based on their own unique life experiences. Take that into account when writing description.

A girl walks in wearing a tight, low cut dress and sparkly Jimmy Choos. What's a guy going to notice first? What is a girl? An environmentalist will notice things differently than a factory worker. A person from the country visits the city--what do they see?

- There is a fine line between too much and too little. Too little and the reader is disoriented. Too much and the reader is bored. Readers only need a taste, then let their imagination fill in the rest.

Too much detail tires the reader's mind as they try to align their mental image with the detailed description in the book. Obviously some fantasy and science fiction requires more description for world building, but the same general principle applies.

- Many writers feel the need to describe a new location/character/feeling in full detail the first time it's introduced. What if you were listening to a friend tell you about a conversation she had, and she started off with, "I was talking with Jane at the beach, she was wearing a navy-blue tankini with a matching swim skirt, fire engine red flip-flops, she had her hair in a pony tail and her skin was moist with sunscreen, and she had braces, and tortoise-shell reflective sunglasses, and her green, floral beach towel was spread out on the sand..."?

All you need to give the reader is the part that's important to the POV character. You can fill in other details later.

- An exception to the above rule is when the description is needed to show the difference from the norm. A hot dog is a hot dog. No need to describe it. Unless it's different. A starving kid finds a withered half eaten hot dog in a dumpster--then you might want to describe the smell, the look, the taste.

- Break up description with action or dialogue.

- A general rule of thumb: use only two to three senses per description to avoid sensory overload.

- Avoid cliche. How many icy-cold fingers, rolling waves, and cars crunching on gravel do we need. It's a challenge, but writers have to come up with new and different ways to describe common things.


Yamile said...

I agree with you! I love writing descriptions, but I tend to skip them when I'm reading. So I'm working on cutting it our, trimming it. So hard to do, but so important!

Crystal Cook said...

I am so glad I found your blog. I have always wanted to write children's books. I look forward to reading more of your insights.

Michelle said...

Very good points. I skip long descriptions on a regular basis when reading.

Taffy said...

Thanks for the great tips, Julie! I went back through my MS and added all five senses then cut two or three, leaving the ones that moved the story along. It helped immensely!

cheyenne wright said...

thank you so much for your advice!

Scott said...

You should listen to Julie when she writes about description. Those of us lucky enough to see her current WIP have seen some good descriptions that do more than describe.

I don't usually skip description, but the descriptions that work best for me do more than describe. For example, the scenic descriptions in Steinbeck's short story "Flight" make the landscape menacing and turn the hills into the antagonist that is keeping the protagonist from making his escape. Dickens' description of Ebeneezer Scrooge, although much longer than is acceptable in a modern story, creates his character in ways that go far beyond showing us how he looks and what he does.

The best writers use words in their descriptions that create a mood and reveals more than how something looks and smells. The best writers put their descriptions to work. If your bad guy is described with menacing terms, you don't have to say "this is the bad guy."

I've only read a few writers who are really good at this. Most good writers do it sometimes, but very few can do it consistently.