The Great Description Debate

It seems like there are some posts that come up a dozen times a month on the writing boards: prologues, description, writing rules, the best POV to write in. There is no right answer for any of these things. The most successful authors in the world break all the “rules” for example (Stephen King), have prologues (Dan Brown), have books with three page descriptions of button down shirts (I’m looking at YOU, Anne Rice.)

Some people, like myself, LOVE description. Not the four page shirt kind, but the “he had orange eyes” kind. Orange eyes…that’s interesting. Anywho, the people who claim they hate description forget that 90% of the novel is the author describing stuff to you. The rest is dialogue. Read that again. Now go read a book. ANY book.

They describe how the character is walking, talking, acting, interacting. Description isn’t just hair or clothes or eye color. Which by the way, if I’m reading a book and they don’t describe the MC at all, it drives me crazy. Like, anything will do. Anything at all. If I have to make it up myself, it slows me down and then I’m annoyed. Like how hard it is to say, “He shook his tawny curls out of his eyes?” How hard is that?! We’re writers. It’s our job to paint a verbal…nonverbal?…picture for the reader. It’s our JOB. Read that again. Now go read a book.

When we describe the rich tapestry draped libraries, the Victorian lake-side mansions, the dilapidated shacks hidden down dark, neglected alleys that our homeless thirteen year old MCs live in, we’re painting a picture. When we describe the scarred, banished princesses with their tangled auburn hair and rich silk dressed fashioned into a vest and trousers, we’re painting a picture. And when we’re painting a picture, we’re immersing the reader in the story. Description is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Now, I understand the description shyness. People can over-describe (coughAnnecough) and scare you. I was scared of character and setting description for years. However, fact is, it wasn’t until I became un-scared of description, that my writing improved to that next level.

There are lots of ways to convey how a character looks though. Height for example can be conveyed by describing how a character interacts with their environment. (for example: she stood up on her tip-toes to get the plate off the top shelf of the cabinet.) Now, I’m obsessed with eyes, so I’m going to give you eye color for important people, especially if their eyes are ORANGE because how freaking cool is that? Also, it’s my book and I will do what I want.

Think about it: How many times did JK Rowling tell us Harry Potter had a freaking lightning scare on his head, dark hair like his father, and green eyes like his mother (made confusing by the fact that Daniel Radcliffe’s eyes are blue.) And all those other things she described: how butterbeer tastes, the inside of the common rooms, the classrooms, the teachers, the wand shop…all those ways she painted such a vivid picture that we feel like we’re actually there experiencing it as it happens. All of which is made cooler when we see the movie and it’s like, OMG, I really HAVE been there…kind of.

Peeta was blond. Katniss had long dark hair and steel gray eyes. The gorgeous Gale looked like a dude version of her. They lived in a dusty, sad, poor place. Her sister and mum were blondies, and they had a big fat mean orange cat. Fluffy cat. I like fluffy cats. Like, it’s okay to describe what people look like and how beautiful the beach is. People like it. And the ones that don’t can skip over it the way I skipped over Anne Rice’s three page shirt descriptions. See that? Easy and done. Don’t short change yourself and all those readers who love character and setting description because you’re afraid. And I happen to know someone that really love three page shirt descriptions. I’m actually friends with said person. Variety is the spice of life.

In the first three Chapter One versions of my current story, I had an opening in which not a single person says my MC’s name. I finally realized it and put it in there once. Lol! There’s your random note of the day.

In conclusion =^^= I hope all old and new aspiring writers realize one day that there is not only nothing wrong with description, but that the majority of the novel is description so quit hating on it because like, seriously, you can’t write a book without it. Read that again. Now go read a book. ^^

16 Responses to The Great Description Debate

  1. I read somewhere (I think it was Stephen King’s On Writing) that the best description is made up of a few small details that stand for everything else. I used to have trouble with under-describing things, so i try to keep this in mind. It’s those little details which really bring a story’s world to life!

  2. From everything I’ve studied, they say the younger you write, the less description you use. Kids want to project their own creativity into the story, however, adults are past that stage.

    For me, it’s all about the flow. I like details, but like Emma, I think you can give one or two details in just a word or three and suffice. At other times, you need a paragraph of lavish imagery to help create the feel of the scene, not just the picture. Longer passages lend to a more relaxed voice, shorter ones to a quicker pace. In that regard, it boils down to style and audience.

    • I don’t know. The only kid books I read are middle grade fantasy and picture books. I think it’s like the more we improve the less we have to think about it. When I was struggling with this I was told I was thinking about it too much. Best writing advice ever: stop thinking, just write. Viva writing. ^_^

  3. I think it was Creative Writing One where the instructor said to describe a room, for instance, describe three telling objects. I use that as a guideline–not the three objects things, cause that’s too formulaic–but to describe the important things,
    because I can either go into too much description or almost none. Now I’m going to go read a book.

    • Lol! Yes, seriously. ^_^ I think it becomes a habit over time, to know what the important things are and describe them automatically. You do a lot better than you think though. But I’m the same way, I always think things are more sparse or bloated than they really are.

  4. Good points.
    I’ve read many an article where writers claim that they “skip” the long, drawn out blocks of prose that describe the surrounding area with its forests & winding roads etc. etc.
    I suppose you DO get those stories where the writer really goes overboard with the description…

    Because I write lots of flash fiction, there is no time to go into long, drawn out details. The writing has to be sparse… lean… tight…

    • Flash fiction is tough! I have one flash piece on my computer that I wrote for an English assignment in college. I actually really like it, but it is a lot more difficult for me than other things.

      Long details about a lake house is pretty and all that, but yeah, it’s really not necessary to say all that stuff at once. Or at all. I felt like that with Anne Rice, it’s like, “It’s an old-fashioned shirt, I get it.” Lol!

  5. As with everything else in writing, I think there’s a balance to be struck. Me, I generally try to avoid the “laundry list” of descriptors* and work them in as I go along. Like in one paragraph, I’ll make note of someone’s eye color, and then a few paragraphs down, mention the hair, and so forth.

    *But in an example of breaking my own rules, in my current project, I have a scene where two characters meet for the first time after exchanging some correspondence, so I think it’s okay for the POV character to eye the other one up and down and have more of a “list”.

    Rules. Psh. 😉

    • That’s funny. Proof there’s room for everything. ^_^
      Lists can be fun. People sizing each other up is always fun. 🙂

      I like the sprinkle effect, too. Sometimes when things are lumped together I forget stuff. On the plus side, if I forget, I know exactly where to look.

  6. Krystal–I love the “stood on her tip toes” example as a way to show the reader your character is short. You’re right–description is slowly going the way of the buffalo. People have such short attention spans these days! I like knowing eye colour, body type, what the inside of the MC’s 1971 Chevelle looked like. It’s what makes the story REAL. Awesome post, sister!

    • Grazie! ^_^ It’s totally that immersive thing. You lose that when you skimp on the details. It’s the difference between just okay reads and the great reads that stick with you for days and days because you can’t stop picturing it and thinking about it.

  7. Gods I loved this. I am a major fan of description. It is what keeps me grounded in the world and holds my interest. Thus, the little quirky things mean the world to me. I’ve found the less descriptions I have, the less I can visualize the world, and the less I visualize the world the less likely I am to remember the story.

    The Hunger Games gave the essentials, but could be sparse at times, and very detailed at others. That paired with a general image from the movies, I was able to visualize the world far better.

    • Exactly! The stories that stay with me are the ones I can still picture long after I finish reading. I still remember the final scene in a horror book I read probably 15 years ago. It was so vivid. It was great. ^_^

      There’s another book I read around the same time and all I can remember is that the author used the word nonchalant about twenty five times (not joking, it was annoying.) I don’t remember the POV, the MC, anything. I do remember thinking that they weren’t a very good writer. I wish I had read that book before committing to two other books by them, neither of which I can remember anything about.

Hi! ^_^