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Description is a weakness in my fiction. My understanding is that the first priority in fiction is to tell the story. Setting does this by providing props and indicating character mindsets, either externally (clothes; home decor decisions; behavior), or internally (how their mood colors the scene; what memories the scene triggers). However, this understanding doesn't make it into my writing. I paint scenes in broad strokes, and if I get two characters talking, I often forget to keep up with what they're doing while they're talking, which I think I would manage better if I were more description-minded. I think this ties back to how I read novels.

When I'm reading, I'm much less thorough in descriptive sections than I am in dialogue and action sections. Okay, let's get the atmosphere over with (if I identify that the section is for atmosphere at all); I already know the main character is scared, now I want to know what the bad guy is going to do. Or, I don't care what kind of fabric the princess's dress is made of, where it came from, or even what color it is! Is she going to even let him propose to her, let alone accept it? I grab the details necessary to understand the scene and forget the rest. I'll fill in the blanks anyway, so it doesn't matter if there are a few more.

I've been to a couple writing websites with articles on description. What I usually find is instructions to insert more words (albeit, more specific words) into a paragraph. What it looks like is directions on how to be more descriptive for description's sake. This makes sense since the article's purpose is to teach description for the sake of teaching description, but it does little for me as someone who wants to advance my story. Even if I need to slow the pace, I want to do it in a way that moves things forward rather than feels artificially stilting.

So I'm taking a different tack. Instead of asking how to be more descriptive, I'm asking if any of you description-minded folks can identify viewpoints or practices, both in and outside of your writing, that contribute to your descriptive ability. Specifically, I'm hoping that if I can raise my appreciation of description, I will be better prepared to pick up the words and skills I need to use it.

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4 Answers 4

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First of all:

There is an entire spectrum between telling a disembodied story and painting every little piece of unnecessary detail. Both writers and readers have their preferences with regards to this. This is why different authors' styles appeal to different types of readers.

The more you describe, the more you restrict the reader's imagination; the less you describe, the less vivid the story is and higher the possibility of your reader imagining important details wrong. So always find a balance that you are comfortable with. But if I had to take a side, I would say err on the side of less detail -- few things put off readers (like me) like too much detail. Worst of all, do not describe for the sake of description -- each description has to contribute something to the story, the character or the event. If not, just drop it.

That said, what contributes to descriptive ability? Here are my personal experiences:

  • Imagine the scene -- the surroundings, the people, what they are saying and doing, what is happening. I usually do this while I'm away from my writing desk. Later I write it down from memory, as if describing an event I actually saw. This helps me to keep the act of writing from interfering with the act of story telling. This may or may not work for you.
  • Skip unimportant scenes entirely and imply, allude or refer to them in future passages. Avoid description fatigue, for yourself and your reader.
  • Read your favorite books again, but this time concentrating on their story telling and writing skills, rather than the story itself. Pick up good habits from them (but don't directly copycat).
  • Write a short piece and let a friend read it. Now compare your mental image and your friend's mental image. If your friend's description turns out to be completely different from what you expected to convey, better descriptions may be called for.
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+1. I also get bored with too much description, and have thrown away too many books where the 1st chapter starts with describing everything under the sun. Jeez, start with the story already. :) –  Shantnu Tiwari Feb 9 '12 at 15:29

I try to describe something or someone the first time we meet them, so the reader has something to hold onto, and I do it from the POV of whatever character is in focus at the moment.

So let's say we open with a squabble between a married couple over getting the kids to all their activities over the weekend. Mary says she's going to bed; Jane says she still has work to do and will be up in a hour or so. They kiss goodnight and Mary goes upstairs.

She's still cooling down from the squabble (which I introduced as part of the groundwork that Mary feels constrained by being the keeper of the house and Jane feels put-upon by being the major breadwinner, and each wants the other to pick up more work), so she's feeling a little critical. As she walks up the stairs to the bedroom, she's looking at the stairs, the banister, the hallway, the paintings on the walls, the wallpaper, the carpet, the kids' doors, the guest bathroom. She could be noticing:

  • the tread on the stairs is worn and needs to be replaced
  • the banister is still the beautiful wood it was when she and Jane installed it when they bought the house, and the pride she felt at doing something so complicated
  • the ceiling needs dusting again to get the cobweb in that one corner
  • the cat threw up on the throw rug, but he always throws up on the throw rug, to the point where their son Victor calls it "the throw-up rug"
  • the watercolor Jane's dad gave them as a wedding gift is a little askew, so she straightens it, and that leads her to wonder if the grandparents could start pitching in for taxi service
  • the smell of the plug-in air freshener in the guest bathroom, which Jane keeps obsessively neat

and so on. Then she gets to the bedroom. She turns on the light and glances from one side of the room to the other. Set the scene briefly by describing the furniture (two cherry dressers, which stood out against the soft pink walls; the king-sized bed which Jane insisted on because she's a restless sleeper; matching antique lights on the nightstands which Mary found for a song at a garage sale, etc.), and then you could mention either that there's still laundry piled on the bed to put away, or that Mary is glad she put the laundry away earlier because she just wants to go to bed.

Now you've described a house, a history, and several relationships all in ninety seconds of walking up the stairs.

Follow the character's gaze. Think about what the character is seeing and what it could mean to him or her at that moment. Use the description as a springboard to give us additional information.

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That seems to me like too much description. It would certainly put someone like me to sleep if your book started describing everything in the house / room. Why do I need to know what bed or dressers are there in the room? –  Shantnu Tiwari Feb 9 '12 at 15:27
    
(1) so you can visualize the room. Don't you picture the scene as you're reading? (2) because the details tell you something. Jane wants a bigger bed than she needs because she's a restless sleeper. She tosses and turns a lot because she's under a lot of stress. This leads to asking more of her wife on the domestic front, which will tie back to the central marital problem, which is the point of the story. (3) you don't mention all these details every time, just the first time. Or the first time the character spends significant time somewhere. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 9 '12 at 20:27

I think the key is in what you wrote:

I grab the details necessary to understand the scene and forget the rest. I'll fill in the blanks anyway, so it doesn't matter if there are a few more.

Focus on descriptions in whose absence the scene wouldn't work. The color of the princess's dress (to use your example) doesn't make any difference; but whether the guy is proposing in an underground parking lot, or over some romantic scenery, makes all the difference in the world.

You might be able to fill in the gaps yourself when you read, but other readers need to be told what to fill in. Otherwise, the story will remain full of holes, and will therefore be unrealistic and unbelievable.

Bottom line: Start off by writing without descriptions. Once you're done, put on your artist's hat and fill the story with all the relevant details.

(Extra tip: You can practice descriptions by paying attention to details in your everyday life - whether it's an event or a sight - and practice describing them to yourself.)

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First priority in fiction is to show, not to tell.

I'm not really sure if I understand correctly what you mean with "description", but if it is

Her blue eyes followed him. She flattened her red dress with her hands. She ran her fingers through her blonde hair ...

then there are two options:

  1. It's an infodump. You want to tell your reader how your protagonist looks like and you have invented this situation, because everyone say "telling" is not good, you should "show" instead, so add some actions. The alternative would be:

    She had blue eyes, blonde hair and wore a red dress.

    Just skip both of them. It's unnecessary for your story, so skip it. If it is really important, that she has blonde hair or that her dress is read, you have plenty of opportunities to describe that. Don't invent scenes for that.

  2. It is important for the story, that she meets/seduces/whatever this man. Then write a seduction/whatever scene. But do it better, than I did above. Keep in mind: conflicts drive a story. In 90% of the cases it is totally irrelevant what hair color your protagonist has.

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