The echo of automatic gunfire bounced off the gray, cement buildings, making it impossible to pinpoint the direction of the threat. Trash scuttled along the gutter in a stiff jab of wind. Sand stung her eyes.
The girl crouched in a doorway, the stench of sour cabbage and old grease washing over her from inside. She gnawed on the nail of her little finger and tried to remember the map of streets between here and the old railroad yard. She couldn’t afford a mistake now.
The rapid cracking of more shots just a block back along the street forced the matter. She darted out, along the wall and away, slipping through the rubble like a little brown squirrel, lightning quick and nearly silent.
Some of the most common questions I get from students are on the issue of description in fiction—how much, when and where?
Budding writers often receive lavish praise for description in school. Most general education teachers and even a distressing number of creative writing instructors, view almost all description favorably. It is creative, after all. It fills up assignment page quotas at a gallop and the students who use description are refreshingly motivated.
What isn’t there to love about it?
Well, lots actually.
Writing description is like playing the piano. Unlike most musical instruments, pianos make nice-sounding notes with the press of a key. All you have to do to feel like you are playing the piano and making nice sounds is to play the keys with a bit of grace and not bang on them. Once a small child learns to stop banging and to press individual keys, the sound is relatively pleasant and even pretty at times. It is motivating because it is easy and it garners praise.
But just as playing real music on a piano is a far cry from that gentle random tinkling, writing great description is complex, requires long practice and is immeasurably more rewarding than the initial experiments.
Here are the crucial questions to consider when writing description.
1. What is description and why do you need it?
After they discover that their initial descriptive prowess does not actually make regular people—who are neither their teachers nor their parents—want to read their writing, many beginning writers careen violently in the other direction. They strip all description out of their fiction and stick to action verbs and dialogue, like it’s a fundamentalist religion. Some very stereotypical fiction (and screenplays) can be done this way, but it has the staying power of popcorn.
Description is part of how we convey setting, character and mood to the reader. More importantly, it is the gateway through which the reader enters the world of your story. While a gripping plot and excellent dialogue are arguably more important on every page of a story, description opens the door for your reader.
We experience fiction primarily through our senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It isn’t the actual page we see or even the movie screen. In order for a reader to fall deeply in love with a work of fiction, recommend it to their friends and make sure to read everything else by the same author, that reader must experience the story to some degree physically. It’s description that jump-starts that process.
The reason why narrow genre fiction needs less of it is that there are already a lot of description assumptions that readers come into each story with. The entire genre aids in developing the sensory experience. Even there, description plays its essential role, only in a different way.
2. What description is not
Description is not plot or story and it never can be. It can’t even be character, though it can try.
It’s like the old adage that children do what their parents do rather than what they say. Description is like a parent telling a child to do something. If done well, it may be memorable and valuable. But if it isn’t backed up with coherent actions and purpose it won’t matter for long.
Description may be enough for a newspaper article in the features section. There we describe characters, locations, scenes and social dilemmas and leave them for the reader to resolve. But despite the literary-term “character sketch” description does not make a story.
Problems and actions attempting to resolve problems make stories. Description may help. That’s all.
3. How do I know if I put in too much description?
The grip that a work of fiction has on the reader is like a kite string. When I edit a work of fiction it feels as if I am flying a kite. The kite is the reader and the taut string is the pull that keeps them reading. The first rush of the opening must be a powerful enough burst of speed to propel the kite up. But then if the kite is driven only by the pilot running around on the ground and there is no wind (metaphorically plot), the kite would sail up for awhile and then drift dully to earth, just as surely as it would if you let go of it and let the wind take it entirely.
Tension in fiction is much like the tension in that taut kite string. It is the pull between the wind of plot events and the striving of the characters. It is the only thing that won’t let the reader drift away from your story.
All this is to say that description plays only an indirect role in the basic physics of the relationship between plot, character and tension. Description is crucial to the reader’s experience of the events of the story, but it must not interfere too greatly.
Excess description has the tendency to slacken the tension of that kite string. Too much and the kite falls, the reader loses interest and abandons the story for something more engaging.
So, as you read over your work in editing, keep that kite string in mind. Judging when the string goes slack is somewhat subjective and it certainly varies with tone and genre, but you can develop an intuitive sense for it. If you feel the line of tension through a scene slacken, look to the descriptive phrases in the scene. Too much description is not the only problem that can cause slack tension, but it is the easiest such problem to solve.
If cutting excess description helps then you have likely resolved the problem. Professionally this trimming of wordy text is called “tightening up the prose” and that refers to tightening the tension, just like a kite string.
Some writers today complain that classical writers had it easier, that they were allowed lengthy descriptions of landscape, clothing and the faces of characters, while readers won’t give us the same chance to develop depth in a story today.
There is some truth in this lament. Fiction used to be much more difficult to come by and readers were less likely to put a book down due to a bit of slackened tension. Today’s readers have a lot of distractions and even more options.
It is true that sometimes depth of description is sacrificed today to the gods of reader attention in ways that do not actually make for better writing. But the conditions of entertainment-scarcity of old were not necessarily superior. They allowed for some wonderful depth in some of our classical works, but they also spawned some very long-winded, boring drivel written by privileged white men who only got to be published and even mildly famous because of their random fortune of birth.
The bottom line is that today’s conditions are what they are. They force you to write tight, if you want readers, and that can be a good thing if you focus on honing description to be as powerful and evocative as possible.
4. How much is too little description?
There are modern examples of fiction with too little description. The plot may be snappy but it feels hollow and the reader cannot experience the story sensually. Any trend can become too extreme.
The basic role of fiction still hasn’t changed since ancient times. People read fiction to relax. While fiction often competes with various multimedia entertainments today, many readers seek out reading specifically for the quiet relaxation it offers. That means that we do need some description and quite a lot in literary, fantasy and romance genres.
All description, even in a literary genre where you can theoretically be more relaxed, should strive for brevity and power. The key is to provide a few “evocative” details that open the door of sensory experience and lead the reader’s senses to take over the task of description.
A story must have enough description, given all the circumstances of genre and readership, to start the reader’s brain on the sensory experience. This can often be done with a single phrase or even a single word if that little detail is well-known enough to the readership that the writer can be reasonably sure it will jump-start sensory memory.
If a fantasy author mentions “the smell of leather and sage” it is very likely that most fantasy readers will instantly connect to a sensory memory of just those smells and a lot of other details can be left out and assumed. This is because fantasy readers tend to be the kind of people to own leather items and to have visited places or shops that smell of sage. Such readers will start to see muted greens and earth tones in the clothing of the characters without the writer mentioning color. They may envision natural landscapes or faces roughened by weather, even if they aren’t described.
If a crime or detective author mentions “the blood and vomit spattered on the floor of the interrogation room” their readers will likely construct an entire scene in their minds complete with unfriendly, windowless gray walls, a single lamp, a bare table and a hard chair, even if they have never personally been in such a place because they read a genre in which such descriptions are very common.
This is a bit like cheating, but it is legal and in many cases desirable. You pick just the right detail and thus skip whole paragraphs of description, if your detail evokes a similar scene for your readership.
There are two methods in this kind of cheating—1. banking on reader experience and 2. exploiting genre conventions. The more you know your readership and your genre the easier it is to use details that will evoke sensory experience for those readers and thus free you from the need to provide further descriptive details.
Unfortunately, we can’t always count on enough shared experience between readers to do away with most description. This is another reason why some old fiction feels uninspiring to modern readers. Simply put, the author’s assumptions about our experience and what will trigger our sensual responses are no longer valid due to changes in our society.
There are also plenty of things you may want to describe in fiction which you can be pretty sure most readers have not encountered in physical life. In fact, if you are describing mostly only things that are so common to the genre that they don’t need much description, your work isn’t going to be very original.
So, description isn’t going out of style. Get used to it and use it skillfully.
5. How can I make my descriptions better?
Better in description generally means more “power.”
Power? Like short, snappy sentences?
Well, sort of. Shorter and more varied sentence lengths help, but when we say “power” in description it means the power to evoke and thus bring the reader into the story physically.
Fortunately, there are some fairly easy ways to increase the power of your description. This goes right back to elementary school, where you learned the parts of speech—verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs.
Verbs are inherently the most powerful part of human language. It is likely they were the first actual words, given that pointing likely took care of initial nouns for prehistoric people. Nouns are the next most powerful part of language, followed by adjectives.
The weakest of the non-grammatical, substantive parts of speech are adverbs. This is why your writing instructors and how-to books tell you to avoid them.
It is much better to use a verb that describes the entire action, as in, “The officers pounded up the steps and charged into the apartment,” rather than common verbs with adverbs, such as “The officers ran forcefully up the stairs and came into the apartment fast and furious.”
The first example happens to be shorter, but even if it somehow wasn’t technically shorter, it would more easily draw the reader’s senses into the story for reasons that go deep into psychology.
The same goes for nouns. It is better to be more specific with your noun than to use a common noun and an adjective. It is better to write “poodle” than “small, white dog” unless your narrative absolutely requires the vagueness.
Adjectives are weak enough that it is better to avoid them, if it doesn’t cause other complications in the text. Adjectives ending in -ly are notoriously the weakest of all. Many writers do a search for “ly” during editing and specifically analyze each adjective with that ending to see if they can safely cut any. This isn’t to say that you should never use them, only that it is worth looking to see if there is a stronger alternative.
If a paragraph was a savory soup, verbs would be the broth, nouns the meat and veggies, adjectives the salt and spices and -ly words would be things like protein powder and vinegar that you add to some soups when it is really necessary but would not want in any significant amounts.
This advice comes with one very large caveat, Almost every writer who has learned this step has at some point realized the wonderful tool of the thesaurus and been put under its evil spell for a time. Don’t get me wrong, your thesaurus is not inherently evil. It is a good tool for reminding you of descriptive synonyms you may have forgotten.
But whatever you do in writing, resist that temptation to go window shopping through your thesaurus and pick out a nice-sounding word that you aren’t otherwise acquainted with and stick it into your sentence because it is more interesting than its common alternative.
A good rule of thumb is that you should not use a word from a thesaurus if you have never encountered it in speech or in a written work that was not intended to describe the word itself. Your thesaurus is for reminding yourself of words you knew already, not for coming up with new words. There is nothing that screams “amateur” at readers more than a writer who appears to be using unfamiliar descriptive words.
Putting it all together
Honing your descriptions to make them brief and powerful will help your current story and boost your overall writing skills. It is also fun and just as description brings readers into the world of the story, it can transport you there as well.