Monday, May 23, 2011

Death by Description

Weather Check: Nice and sunny. Perfect for my bike ride. And with any luck it will cloud over and rain the moment I get home. I have a lot of writing I need to do today.

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.

**Incidentally, the word of the day is: longueur - a dull and tedious passage in a book or performance art. Hmmmm....


  1. It's sunny there? Here it's pouring. Perfect for writing, but not so perfect for traversing campus all day...

  2. @Brooke: Don't fret. It's pouring now, and also shortly after I posted--during my bike ride.

  3. Nice post. I love how you pointed out that it's the character's POV that determines what you should describe.