Thursday, February 14, 2013

Descriptions in Writing

Happy Valentine's day to all of you! I hope you have a wonderful celebration! I guess I could have written a blog about valentine's day, but I figured there would be plenty of them today. So, back to the topic at hand: Description. A friend of mine requested this one.

Description, as my writing coach used to say, is the most important part of the story, and her favorite. This is where you have to be careful about what needs more and what needs less. You can find yourself over doing it and your readers will be skimming.

The other problem is if you're not painting a good visual and the reader will get confused. And, of course, not enough and the reader is disappointed.

So how do you determine where and when, and how much? This is not a simple question, but I will try to narrow it the best I can.

First, you have to go back to the old adage and ask yourself these questions with each scene. Did I describe this thoroughly and is it important enough to add more detail? There are several places where you need descriptions and some where you need to leave it to the readers imaginations.

1. Describing your characters and what they are wearing.
    You do not have to completely describe your characters. I have seen where the writer just said 'when he shook his hand, he noticed the freckles that laced it'. That gives you a visual of how the person looks. Probably of Irish decent and has a freckled face and red hair. Your main character cannot describe himself, since you are in their point of view. You can add little bits such as: She ran her fingers through her long blonde hair.

    You really don't have to describe the characters in detail, unless they are an alien, or an extreme paradox to your other characters. In my book, the Djen needed more description because they weren't like the people Stevie and her friends were used too. And, the reader needed to know the differences. My writing coach used to say the easiest way to pick out a new writer as if the put their main character in front of a mirror and described themselves. You can add little bits of their looks through dialog.

    Dressing the characters: This is the same as describing what they look like.  If you are introducing a new character, you can add a little about what they are wearing. There is no need for every detail. Your reader can discern this on their own. Example: She walked toward me in her pale evening gown, carrying her three inch heals by their straps.

    Again, if it is an unusual character, such as someone from another planet, or your character is being brought in front of the king and you character only wore rags, then there is quite a contrast. 

2. Describing a scene.

    This one can be tough. You know if you are describing an important scene, such as your main character seeing an alien city for the first time, you want to add more description, but you don't have to write two pages worth. Just enough to give the reader a visual. 

    If you want to describe a room, or a house, unless this is really important to your story, such as the character finds themselves in a dingy cell, then don't over do the description. If it is a room that is pertinent, then add more otherwise, just a little is enough.

    If your scene is an action scene, then you want to describe as much as you can to give the visual, but this is usually a fast moving scene, so choreography is important here. If your reader can't see how your characters were killed, they will be stopped in mid-read and reread it trying to figure it out. This is where a critique partner or beta-reader really comes in handy! Another set of eyes are always helpful.

   A trip can also be tough to decide what is important. When I took Stevie and her friends on their quest, they had to travel across the country. At first I had detailed every part, and luckily for me, my critique partners told me there was no reason to add every detail, such as where they stopped for gas, and food, and what road they took. You only need to show a little of this and unless something important happens along the way, then get them to their destination. Once there, I did have to add more description of the lay of the land for effect. It was in an area that most people do not travel, Princess Royal Island. This area is protected for one, because of the spirit bear, and is a difficult terrain. 

3. A love scene.

    Since this is an area where, even though I have kissing scenes with Stevie and her love, I don't have a lot of experience with. I have read these scenes and one thing that sticks in my mind, is I don't need a whole lot of detail here. For me, how many different ways can you describe two people having sex? I have seen writers go overboard here, and I don't believe you have too. I think sweet love scenes are better for descriptions, but that's just me. But, to describe 'every' detail is a bit much, if you know what I mean?!

4. Descriptions between dialog.

    This is one I see done way over the top. I know that internal thought is important, but there is no reason to add it in between each line of dialog. A little is enough. Example:

Katy couldn't wait to hold Jim in her arms. She ran to him and he pulled her in. "I've missed you so much," she cried. She looked deep into his eyes and remembered what he had said to her the last time they were together. How he would come back to her.

"I'm so glad to be home," Jim said.

"I had hoped we could spend the evening together," she added. The last time he came home he had gone straight to work, and they had no time together. She needed to be alone with him. It had been a long time since they spent a quiet evening. 

I hope this helps you to understand what I'm talking about. This is just a little example, but I have seen where writers continue this through almost every dialog, it's a little annoying. 

Well, I hope this post helps. It is hard to tell you what is important for description and what isn't. You have to look at each of your scenes. The one example that always comes to mind for me is in the book The Secret Garden. There is a scene where the writer describes a flower for several pages. Now I don't know about you, but I don't need that much description about a flower. Of course, if it's a man eating plant like in Little Shop of Horrors, that's one thing, but that should give you an idea of what not to do. 

Until next week, I hope all of you have a wonderful weekend and I look forward to your comments! Monday will be about Point of View.

Love, Lisa


  1. You're so right about not describing every little detail about your character/setting description. It is not only laborious to read, it takes all the fun out of your reader's imagination. Besides, readers are smart. They can fill in the extra details on their own. :) Thanks for such a great post, Lisa.

    1. thanks for commenting RJ! i haven't talked with you in a long time! How's your book doing?

  2. For the most part I'll go with the old adage "Less is more". I can picture things fine in my mind and don't need laborious details. If certain descriptions are essential to a particular understanding of the story then fine, otherwise spare me the details. Likewise the details of sex scenes are only necessary if I'm reading pornography and I choose not to read that. I like the old film techniques of panning away, fading to black, or some symbolic shot like waves on a beach. Don't need to get explicit.


    1. I agree with you Lee, I like having to use my imagination. I have read books whee they describe something a certain way, and then they make a movie and it is nothing like the book. I guess that's nothing new, but it still sucks.

  3. There's a bit in Lolita which always makes me chuckle when Nabokov writes about if you give a character a descriptive characteristic like a limp or a small dog then you always have to remember to stick in the limp or the dog every other time you mention that character.

    1. So true, that's consistency. Not to mention, keeping an outline to your story so you don't forget those kinds of details!

  4. Description is the reason I stopped reading Return of the King (I know, sacrilege). There was simply too much of it by the third part of the Lord of the Rings that I just couldn't continue. If it's long and laborious to read, it's long and laborious to "imagine" and equally hard to remember. If it's succinct, I remember it clearly without issue. It's easier to remember if it is your own creation in your mind from a few brief words than some elaborate and painful construction based on pages of words.

    It occurred to me recently, while plotting, that I do not have any record in my notes of one character's hair colour (chances are there are others whose basic details like that have gone unmentioned). Chances are, it's never come up, and since it was never a particularly relevant detail, it went unmentioned in the narrative. Now I have to go back and scan through all three books to make sure it's never mentioned before I go bringing it up in the next book. That's my lesson. Sometimes less is trouble. I may not consider those details relevant, but sometimes they make themselves relevant.

    One might also argue that story is the most important part of a story. Without story, description would have nothing to describe, characters would have nothing to do and nothing to talk about, etc.

    Joe Konrath once wrote a horror short story written entirely in dialogue called "The Confession." It's available in his collection "Horror Stories." It was frankly quite disturbing, but that's what you get from a horror writer. Good story, though, if you can stomach it.

    1. Not just the third part, the whole tome. I call it that coz it's huge lol! I would find myself skimming a lot through those parts. I did read it from beginning to end though and all of the extra stuff too. As far as the hair colour issue, that's why I keep an outline so I stay consistent throughout. It is really easy to forget those kinds of details when you're on book 3.

      On the horror, I don't like horror or romance for that matter, both are too predictable.

  5. Hi Lisa, Your Blog gives an accurate overview of what all writers experience, (I myself included). You have given some very useful advice, as I have fallen into this trap many times. I am a descriptive writer, and find that sometimes less is more... Still because I write Fantasy, it is the description that helps the reader become part of my world. I write about a time and place not known, and in order for the reader to become involved, it is important to describe certain aspects of my books in detail. That being said, when a time an origin is familiar, too much can distract the readers attention away from the story. I believe that you have a keen understanding of what works, and what can damage an otherwise great story. As for myself this is advice that I intend to follow...

    1. Thanks for your comment Michele, and your kind words! I write Fantasy also, and you need to make sure that you describe what the reader needs to 'see'. It is much more difficult, but you still need to be thorough in this aspect. If they aren't human, then you need that extra description, the same with a different world then the one we live in. In some cases, you need to add more.

  6. I agree--a little goes a long way. It just has to be the right little. :-) Finding that right detail, that's the fun of the creative writing process, isn't it?

    1. Yes, I agree. But, it does depend on what genre you write in, and if something is important to the story, make sure to add the detail the reader needs to understand and to 'see'. Thanks for your comment Jagoda!