To describe or not to describe: an author’s question

meeting-table-1443821-mDescription in creative writing is a tricky concept. In a lot of ways, I feel that it is becoming a lost art: at least, I feel that in general we care less about it now, and pay less attention to it, than people used to do.

Though this is certainly debatable, I’d say the conquering medium of our time–the art of our time–is  cinema, and that has affected what people look for in a book and how they read a story.

Compared to, say, the Victorians, we have lost the art of physical description to to some degree–description of backgrounds, of objects, of setting. There are, of course, books written today with wonderful and beautiful descriptions. I’m not denying that.

But read anything by Dickens, and you’ll understand what I mean.

Now, description is largely an issue of stylistic choice–what to tell and how much to tell. Less description does not necessarily imply poorer writing or less gifted storytelling. Like all of writing, description is a balancing act.

  • Tell enough to give your reader something to build on. Some kind of foundation. Some way to avoid an interpretation of setting or events that will cause problems later.
  • Don’t say so much that you bore or annoy your reader.

There are SO many things we can choose to describe, or not to, when it comes to setting. In the end, description comes down to a matter of choice and to questioning your intent:

  • Is this aspect of the setting important enough that I have to describe it?
  • Why is it important? Does it set a mood? A tone? Is it an object, perhaps, that a character will use later on and that the reader needs to visualize? To be able to recognize? Is it important, say, that a necklace is not just any necklace, but THAT one we saw three chapters before?
  • Would describing too many aspects of something de-emphasize what I need readers focusing on and thinking about? What I’d like to guide them to consider important?

I never really considered all that we COULD describe until I read Stephen King’s “On Writing.” He really got me thinking about all the characteristics we could use to bring an object or a setting to life, and all we generally choose to leave to the reader’s imagination. Think of a simple table. There’s:

  • MATERIAL COMPOSITION. Is the table made of wood? Granite? Plastic? Metal?
  • DECORATION. If wooden, say, how ornately is it crafted and carved? Is there a tablecloth on it? Other things on or around it?
  • COLOR. Is the table white? Black? Brown? Mahogany? Some other color we wouldn’t usually associate with a table?
  • SIZE. How large is the table? Though not the same thing, size is related to:
  • SHAPE. Is it a circular table? A square table? Rectangular? How thick are the legs?
  • CONDITION. Is it dusty or polished? Stained at all? Scratched or gouged, or in mint condition?
  • SMELL. Not the most obvious condition to describe for a table. Which means it makes a LOT of sense to note that a table smells a certain way, if you imagine it does. The best things to describe are often the counter-intuitive or odd aspects of something. Things your readers would have no way to guess or to assume.

Obviously, there is no way and no reason to describe all these characteristics for every object your characters come across. No one wants to read that.

The fact is, we readers enjoy taking part in the creative process. We like hearing nothing more than “round table” or “wooden table” and filling in everything else the way we believe it should be.

This is why reading is so fun and so challenging. This is why reading causes people to think and to evaluate in ways that watching film just can’t. It’s always a memorable experience to read something, make an assumption as though the facts were spelled out, and then be shown later that I was reading into what was on the page, not reading what was there.

Some things to consider about description:

  • It doesn’t take much to set a tone. One or two well-chosen adjectives (or even better, verbs) are generally sufficient.
  • I try to give my readers something, but not everything. For instance, I mention that the table at the Crimson League’s headquarters is round, and also that it’s wooden. That’s enough to go on, to set a scene that a reader can then embellish as he or she wills. I love the fact that different people will end up with different visions of that table….
  • Sometimes, it can be powerful to describe just enough to make a change that occurs shocking and poignant. You’ll get readers contemplating the reasons for the change. Such changes can be philosophically or emotionally deep: in the case of my books, a regime change, or the passing of a room from one person’s use to another’s.

So, do you have a policy or a standard for description? Do you go with your gut? What writers do you feel are masters of description?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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49 responses to “To describe or not to describe: an author’s question

  1. Very interesting question, and answer. I had never considered the points you bring up. I typically write just enough description to set the atmosphere or the mood of the scene. If it’s an uncommon object, like a dirigible I incorporated in my steampunk novel, The Golden Disk, I do give a little more description, especially of the cockpit and the controls if the MC is going to have to fly it. I think you gave a very good explanation of the topic and it should be helpful to many when they’re considering describing their settings.

    • thanks Cornell! I think I go about description in a similar way to you. I love the examples you gave of things that merit more description than what you concern your “norm.” Every writer needs that norm as well as an idea of when go beyond it.

  2. Miss Alexandrina

    Great post! I agree that description is an art we are losing. But then I love the way writers like Dickens and Hardy wrote 😉
    I guess I never consciously realised the different characteristics to describe. Going through, I know I’ve used them all at some point, but I don’t tend to stop and think as I’m writing “is this the element of the object I want to draw to attention”. I’ll definitely say I go with my gut – but whether my gut is right or not is a different question entirely.

    • I know some people are planners, but I personally like trusting my gut, at least during a first draft. It’s not always dead-on, but when it’s not I can always fix things up later. Also, sometimes it is! I feel like when my gut inclination is to describe a certain thing a different way, there’s a reason for that. Like you, I try not to overthink it 🙂

  3. I pretty much agree with everything you said. A few well-placed descriptive sentences can be plenty to evoke the image of a place or a person for your reader. I probably usually err towards the side of too much description, with the thought that I can always cut it back later, but recently somebody left a comment on my blog saying that he thought description was pretty much unnecessary, full stop. I found that odd – surely that leaves your reader wandering around in a void? Not to mention it seems a bit sad to cut it all out. Description is one of my favourite things about writing and reading, as long as it’s done with a deft hand.

  4. I always try to remind myself that it is the author’s job to create a world that is believable; and that includes defining a context within which the story is told. Whether this is achieved by explicit detail or mere suggestion will depend on what the individual story requires but I try to aim for balance: the contextual description should never overwhelm the characters or make the story drag. And finally, where the story permits, I try to let the contextual description build – in the same way that the central characters build – rather than hit the reader with it all in one place.

  5. Fantasy seems to be known for long, detailed descriptions. Tolkien is a great example, but I hear a lot of younger readers complaining that he’s ‘too wordy’. In fact, they spout ‘show, don’t tell’ a lot, so I think that phrase has something to do with the change. I remember having it hurled at me time and time again with not explanation of what I was doing wrong. It makes me think that some people mistake a detailed description as nothing more than info dumping instead of a path of immersion. Do you think it’s possible that the ‘art’ of description is being watered down because many vocal readers are claiming it to be ‘wrong’? So newer authors are avoiding such things to appease what they hear?

    • oh my GOSH, I was thinking about “show, don’t tell” a LOT while writing this piece, even if I didn’t mention it!!! I think you are so right: I was also blaming it for part of the fall of description. Great minds think alike!!!

    • I have also heard people complain that Tolkien’s work is “too wordy.” Though I believe that his description plays a factor in how well the movies captured many scenes in the book. (Okay, I can only truly say that for The Hobbit since I have not read the others yet.) Personally, some moments in the movie felt like deja vu to me. Without question Peter Jackson gets some of the credit for that as well. Another example would be Fitzgerald’s almost painterly description in The Great Gatsby. Of course movies are NOT a reason to chock full your story with description, lol.

      To me, it isn’t necessarily about how much or how little description there is, it is about how it is arranged. You can have two rooms of the same size with all the same furniture, artwork, trinkets, and other random items, yet one could be very comfortable and the other unbearable. The difference is that the first has everything well organized and displayed, while the other has everything scattered about the room and in cluttered piles. The items of the first room set a nice tone and can be used to decorate and draw attention to and away from other certain characteristics of the room. The same items in the second room make the environment overwhelming and distract the viewer- like a living iSpy game.

      • I think the ‘too wordy’ works come from a time when movies weren’t as common. At the very least, books still had a lot of respect and reading was taken as patient activity. So the authors of those days were more encouraged to paint a vast world that readers were more willing to step into.

        I’ve met a lot of people who criticize a book for being too descriptive and state that they can simply ‘wait for the movie’. It’s an odd mentality that I don’t quite follow.

      • WOW, what an awesome point you make here! You are so right in what you say about the rooms. WOW. I hadn’t considered that in that way!!! And thanks as well for mentioning Fitzgerald. he’s a wonderful example of a talented “descriptor”!

        • I definitely haven’t mastered the art of description though. I had a friend who is a professional writer read two of my pieces for which I won a Distinguished Artist Award in creative writing. One was an excerpt from a short story I started a few years ago, “A Bequeathed Death” and the other was a compilation of journal entries of a Christian fictional survivor during the Burning of Rome in 64 A.D., under the reign of Emperor Nero.
          Anyways, he said that he really enjoyed the latter, but felt that my first piece had too much description and that at times it pulled the reader away from the story. He also said that I sometimes used more than one adjective with similar meanings to describe something when one would have been sufficient. So I was excited to take that advice and try to improve the piece.

          And yes, Fitzgerald has so many lines that just dissolve into your being.

          “He looked at her the way all women want to be looked at by a man.”

          ^Here he doesn’t describe in detail how exactly his face looked…how his eye brows were positioned, or his mouth, or intensity…yet we still all understand that “look.” We all have an idea of this “look,” though it may vary from each reader, it still produces the same emotion.

          And I’ll never forget reading this one and whispering “Wow.”

          “So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star.”

  6. Great post! I think modern readers bring a lot more of their own imagery with them, built from (as you noted) movies, TV shows, photography, and more. Victorian era readers almost relied on the author to paint the picture for them, as they had a much smaller spectrum of reference to work from. Imagine how many styles of wooden tables a person could see in a single trip to IKEA, versus how many wooden tables an average reader would have seen in their entire life in the 1850s. Pretty wild.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing though. It frees us up to keep the story moving forward, and when we want to, really slow down to intricately describe something that is crucially important to the protag/plot.

    • I agree, it isn’t a bad thing necessarily. It’s just a difference, a stylistic evolution over time that definitely makes sense given all the reasons you’ve outlined. It just really fascinates me to consider!

  7. PaperbackDiva

    Reblogged this on Being an Author and commented:
    I’m so in agreement with this post! Not necessarily that we should write more of it, but that what we do write can accomplish so much in a story.

  8. A really interesting topic. I struggle with description, not because I can’t write it, I just forget to add it 😀 I focus on story and character development and then realise the reader has no idea what the place or person looks like!

  9. This post is great for firing my imagination, thanks Victoria! In the novel I’ve just finished, I also found that description varied depending on what mood my protagonist was in. At one point she saw the same image twice, but at very different points in her mood and I altered the description completely the second time. Very interesting!

  10. I just came from a writers’ conference where the presenter in a workshop on “21st Century Fiction” suggested that, like 3rd person omniscient and prologues, description as we have know it is on its way out.

  11. For my English 1010 students, I present an activity where they have to describe a police car. After the initial descriptions of what it looks like, I then have them tell me what it sounds like, feels like, then smells and even tastes like. They have to submerse themselves in an experience–either real or imagined–and try to come up with something for each of the senses. After just ten minutes we have a massive list that’s quite interesting (such as tasting that metallic gumminess in your mouth when you know you’re in trouble).
    I try to do some of this in my own writing, try to identify snippets from all senses to create a full-body experience, so to speak. It’s easy to go overboard (as in Thomas Hardy–blech), but describing a scene by using unexpected senses can, I believe, make for a fresh reading experience.

    • What an AWESOME point!!! I think Charles Yallowitz has mentioned here once before that he does something similar, trying to play into all five senses. Before you guys, I had never really thought about applying EVERY sense to description. That police car exercise is awesome!!!! Thank you so much for sharing!

  12. I think long winded descriptions tend to bog down the story but a few bits and pieces inserted in the right places can do wonders for the story and the writing. Great post, as usual!

  13. I think description can still be useful – we need to know where we are and what is going on. When writing description, I think of it as painting using broad strokes vs. small strokes. The broad strokes are for when a table is just a table, an object in the background to interact with, versus small, detailed strokes for important objects and settings.

    • I agree completely! That’s a great point: how important something is, and what role it plays, looms large in determining how many words and how much space it is worth using to describe.

  14. I like description, especially when experienced through all five senses and to set a scene or a mood. I have found, though, that today’s readers have a very short attention span…

    • That attention span is a direct effect of so much television, so much screen time, and so much instant gratification. It’s sad but true, and very important to keep in mind!

  15. Hi Victoria, you present an interesting topic. Over on Scrib, showing vs telling has devolved into a religious debate (emotion wrapped in logic), just as adverbs and semicolons evoke enormous passion.
    In the twitter era, we are given so little time to get into the story. We hear action, action, action. So, setting the tone is delicate. We dare not do it too early, or wait too long. Silent

  16. The use of description by the writer may be a factor of the writer’s age. I grew up reading Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel DeFoe and other authors who DID use a great deal of description. Perhaps that’s the reason I try to immerse the reader into the world I’m seeing as I write. The prologue of my middle grade novel, Lost in the Bayou, is a perfect example of allowing description to set the mood. It was intentionally done specifically for that reason. In fact, since this story takes place in an area that is probably unfamiliar to the majority of my readers, I used a lot of description throughout. Also, the scene in the cellar is loaded with description, but it was included for a similar, atmospheric reason. Summarily, it may be that our technology has evolved to such a point that young readers today are so used to having all of that “descriptive narrative” included for them in their videos, movies, etc., that they don’t really realize how critical it is in the written word where it’s the only input they get to give them an understanding of the environment in which the characters find themselves.

    • I think what you say here is very true, and very important to keep in mind. It’s the video generation…. people don’t get the distinctions between art forms sometimes. They don’t see how description contributes to the written word in exactly the way you say here.

  17. Your blog post is timely for me. I am currently struggling to write a scene describing a creature emerging from oozing slimmy sludge that is crawling after my character. I want to make it creepy without being laughable. Still trying. Great post and I am loving your blog.

  18. Part of the challenge must be that readers have different tastes. Some want more description, others want more freedom in imagining; I don’t imagine it’s easy to find the right balance. A big factor must be flow. When the description interferes with the flow of the story, the writer has been too long-winded. 🙂

    • You are so right, Chris. We can never please everyone…. Personally, I just try to write a level of description that I would like to read. One that grounds me while still leaving room to build up. Finding a balance is tough when everyone has different tastes, like you say!

  19. for me description is pretty important (tho equally not too much!) but I think my bugbear is the technical descriptions approach. As we read most of us are absorbing information at quite a fast rate, we need words that feed our sense of an object’s value and give us a feel of its effect/impact, rather than its actual specifics. Like I have one book where food is featured heavily – I use certain words to get the tastebuds working, even tho in actuality it involves food I can’t stand! Like honey – yuk! – but it always sounds delicious.

    One exercise that is quite interesting is: take the physical dimensions of a person – say 5ft 2, blonde, blue-green eyes, 110 pounds, pale skin – and then describe them without altering the specifics, but each time try and alter the readers perception. So in one instance make them sound attractive, in another frumpy.. and so on. Its fun 🙂

    • WOW, what a great exercise!!!!! Thanks for the suggestion. I would never have thought to try that but it sounds amazingly useful and productive!!!!

      And I have to admit, I love honey 😉 I’ll make sure never to send you baklava!

  20. yes it would be wasted on me I’m afraid 🙂

  21. chrispearsontx

    I tend to imagine the scene for myself prior to writing it. Most of the time I pick out the first 4 physical attributes of that seen as I see them and use those to describe the “setting.” I then continue onto the characters who will appear in that scene. Their appearance, in my process, correlate with the personality traits to be portrayed. e.g. A woman-warrior on a path for revenge will have stark, lean muscles, deep, vibrant eyes like small flickering flames, and continuously look for a fight. The setting she falls into, well, that depends on the conflict to take place.
    Enjoyed your post!

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