Description–Your Best Friend or Worst Enemy

When writing you need to build an image. Create a world and an environment and characters and… It’s all a lot of work. And of course, in that, you need to make the reader see all of these places and people, which is not as easy as it sounds.

During my time writing, and editing, I’ve seen a lot of different descriptions used and I’ve seen a lot of really wonderful writing. I’ve also seen descriptions that made me want to beat my face into my keyboard just to try and erase them.

The best descriptions are both intelligent and brief. Neil Gaiman, in American Gods referred to one of the characters as being “the size and shape of a refrigerator”. How beautifully simple is that? It’s witty, hilarious, and you can entirely picture the character in your head with relative ease. It stands as one of my favorite lines of all time.

On the other hand, despite its popularity, The Princess Bride (written by William Goldman {S. Morganstern is a pen name of his}) spent an absolutely grotesque amount of time describing the exact shade, length and excruciating detail of Buttercup’s hair. I couldn’t actually read the book because after about four pages about the main character’s hair I decided I’d better spend time shoving an icepick under my fingernails.

The key to description is balance. Fill the world, make it lush, inviting to a reader’s imagination, and breathe life into it – but don’t overdo it. I suppose the best way to do this is by example. Since I’m currently staring out my window at a rain-soaked Wednesday afternoon, I’ll describe what I see.

Bad:

My bright blue 2009 Toyota Corolla is parked in the driveway, dripping with the remnants of today’s rain, the patterns of water on its surface remind me of tears. Beyond that, I can see the field that once held lazy, grazing horses but now is empty and simply holds an overabundance of grass, shrubbery, weeds, debris, and birds. I don’t so much mind the birds, but every so often the red-winged blackbirds get too noisy and I don’t particularly appreciate their singing at all hours of the morning when we decent writers are all asleep. Closer to me is the driveway, rimmed by more debris and weeds, and finally we have the graceful, ancient maple that is shading our driveway. The branches twist and knot like sailor’s rope and the early spring leaves are just starting to cause them to droop a little with the weight.

Good:

My driveway struggles to hold both my car (an almost fluorescent blue Toyota) and the weeds. And I think the weeds are winning. Beside it grow the gnarled old maple trees that have been here since the house was built. They stand hunkered under the weight of spring leaves like old men grumbling about their wives. Beyond is the field, thick with more weeds and with the ghosts of grazing horses. It is home to an abundance of wildlife – some welcome, some not – and the rain has turned it an almost unreal shade of emerald green.

Okay, now we have our two descriptions. What is the difference? The first one, for example, tells far too much. Do you need to know what model and year my car are? No, no you don’t. Unless that kind of thing is an important detail or somehow relevant (say, for example, your character is using a specific handgun or caliber that is appropriate), feel free to leave it out. The comments about the rain patterns reminding me of tears is kind of cliché and God-awful, to be honest. Again, unless that kind of thing is relevant – I’d say leave it out. If you’re describing a really, really morose scene, you might get away with it. I say might because it’s really cliché.

In the first description, my commentary about the blackbirds is, again, not really useful or insightful. All it tells you is that I have a lot of them near my house. And, again, unless that’s somehow relevant to the plot, it’s not necessary. Also, again, some of the description of the maple trees can be left out. I say something similar with less verbosity in the second description.

A good litmus test is called “Chekov’s Gun”. It was put out there by Anton Chekov, a Russian playwright. It can be used both in regards to foreshadowing and description. While I don’t advocate taking this to extremes, I’d suggest considering it when you write a scene.

A good quote that encapsulates the totality of the principal is this:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” From S. Shchukin, Memoirs (1911)

Now, personally, I don’t think that should be true of everything, but if you spend any serious time describing something in your character’s environment you should consider that it ought to be something important. Don’t spend a lot of time describing places, people, or situations that make no difference to the plot, character development, or overall story in the long run.

This also can help with pacing, too – if you aren’t spending extraneous words on describing things that aren’t relevant to the story, you’re spending more time, words, and focus on what is.

Another common mistake in description (and writing in general) is the tendency to try and use a whole lot of “impressive” words. These words are often large, taken from a thesaurus, and used improperly. For example, I had a writer I was talking with at one point describe a character’s curves as “cantankerous”. Which, to be frank, made no sense but it sure sounds impressive if someone doesn’t know what the word “cantankerous” means. That kind of thing is certain to not only turn readers that don’t understand the words off (who wants to have to sit there with a dictionary when reading a novel?) but it’ll turn readers who do know off – and probably with more intensity since we’ll likely start swearing and throwing things. Well, I know I do, anyway.

For a “tl;dr” breakdown of this, I think I’ll give you a few bullet points:

  • Don’t describe unimportant things in great depth.
  • Don’t try and be “impressive” with your vocabulary unless it’s real and fits the scene.
  • Be brief, where possible, without losing poignancy: “Jesus wept.”
  • Chekov’s Gun.
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3 thoughts on “Description–Your Best Friend or Worst Enemy

  1. mike says:

    Editing is such a subjective talent. For instance, I’ve taken the liberty to edit your descriptive paragraph. I don’t care who you are, (really though, I do) it stings like hell when someone puts your work under a microscope.

    I’ve got to find something to do with all this excess time I have on my hands!

    FYI: don’t forget about me and my little novel. I’m still interested. The company transferring my hard drive to the new PC screwed it up. They think they can fix it. I’ll give them one more week. About four months ago, I sent myself an email with the novel attached, that’s why I was able to send you excerpts. But in the interval, (since mailing myself the book) I rewrote the first two chapters hoping for a better hook. I don’t want to start allover again, so I’m trying to be patient.

    Anyway:

    My driveway struggles to hold both my car (an almost [do we need to qualify what shade the car might be?] fluorescent blue Toyota) and the weeds. And I think the weeds are winning. Beside it [Beside what? The car or the weeds? Let’s go with Car.] my car grow the gnarled old maple trees, which that have been here since the house was built. They stand hunkered under the weight of spring leaves like old men grumbling about their wives. [The analogy is a non sequitur, half the equation is about the weight of leaves and the other half is about old men complaining.] Better might be- They stand hunkered under the weight of new leaves like the slumping shoulders of an aging cop. [I’ve decuded it’s a cops and robbers story.]Beyond them is the field, thick with more weeds and with the ghosts of grazing horses. It is home to an abundance abundant of wildlife – some welcome, some not – and the rain has turned it the field, florescent blue. an almost unreal shade of emerald green.

    Altogether then:

    My driveway struggles to hold both my florescent blue Toyota and the weeds. I think the weeds are winning. Standing beside my car, grow gnarled, old maple trees, which have been here since the beginning of time. They stand hunkered under the weight of new leaves like the slumping shoulders of an aging cop. Beyond them is the field, thick with more weeds and with ghost of grazing horses. It’s home to abundant wildlife—some welcomed, some not. And the rain has turned this field, florescent blue.

    This might be what some would call excessive editing. Yep.

    Best-
    Mike

  2. remarkablyrenee says:

    I’ve found your post on Chekov’s gun! This is actually really helpful, as I tend to over-detail meaningless things just to add to the atmosphere.

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