Description 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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