Description can be overdone like Girl Scout cookies, sunny days and reality television.
In our fiction writing, description can play a key role. It can make the details of the story come alive vividly. Good description engrosses the reader in the story. But like fine wine, news in an election year, and most pork products, if you have too much description, you may regret it.
Many times writers get a little too excited with their descriptions of the people, places and things in their story.
As much as I loved the beauty and genius of Les Miserables, I totally skimmed through dozens of pages describing the sewer systems of Paris. With apologies to Victor Hugo, he could have cut that description and the story would have been just fine.
Take a lesson from Monsieur Hugo: When you are drafting your manuscript, and you get to the part where you really want to get into detail, consider these six things first.
Description May Be A Kill-Worth Darling. If you’ve spent years and years on your manuscript, it is easy to get too attached to details. Are you obsessed with your world-building? The heroine’s eyes? The arrangement of the house? The description may be slowing down your pacing. You may be boring the reader. Your description may need to be toned down to make it stronger.
Description may be overrated. Authors are often in love with their own poetic words. To the reader, description is much like seasoning in a main dish. Good detail enhances what is featured, not substitute for it. If you think you have too much detail, take it out, read it aloud, and judge which version is stronger. And if you suspect that you are a little too attached to those purdy words you wrote, you’re in good company.
“In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”― C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children
Description can be spread out. Your character can show details in their actions. Put in the descriptions into the dialogue. When your character bolts through the door, maybe she needs to knock over that Ming vase. When her lover goes after her, confused, have him run his hands through his raven black hair. By sprinkling specifics in the actions of the character, you are making it more palatable to the reader.
Description can be tied to narrative voice. Your point of view character tells the story. Weigh carefully how much he or she would notice in their world. Certain personality types notice detail. Some don’t care a bit about it. Generally speaking, a female character will soak up their environment much more than a male one. Generally speaking, a sensitive character will pay extra attention to an environment. A colder one may not. Reread your manuscript with this in mind and see how you can make things more consistent.
“For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.” — Stephen King
Description is stronger with the right noun. The more specific you are with your nouns, the clearer the picture can be for your reader. A Douglas fir is a more vivid picture than a tree. Keep your pacing consistent by choosing the right noun.
Description is even stronger with the right verb. For the same reason, a precise, active verb carries the weight of a sentence and creates an interesting picture. Search for weaker verbs: is, was, are, had, has, have, walk, said, went, etc. Then, substitute stronger, more clear verbs. And while this task does sound tedious, it would be worth it to go back and make the sentences stronger.
There are no original plots, so writers must depend on the details to make a story interesting and readable. As you revise your story, keep these suggestions about description in mind.
And go easy on the Cheese Doodles, you might regret it later.
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.