Tips & Tricks: Description -- The Good, the Bad, and the Unnecessary
Tips & Tricks
Description -- The Good, the Bad, and the Unnecessary
When asked, I discourage the use of excessive description in both fiction and non-fiction. Regardless of what past writing instructors have said, there is no right or wrong way to write a book. There's only effective and ineffective -- and that changes over time as our audiences change.
People who lived in early 19th century England had no television or movies -- and there were no planes or automobiles. Travel between cities took days if not weeks. Imaginations were limited to what readers saw around them, so authors spent many pages setting a scene for them. Oh, and Charles Dickens got paid by the word.
We live in a world where everyone has seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower and football games grace widescreen hi-defs in every bar. News and comedy shows last exactly 20 minutes plus commercials -- and commercials are fully-produced dramas complete with dogs barking the theme to Star Wars. I don't need a detailed description of Times Square. Just telling me that the action will take place there is sufficient for me to get the picture.
Now, pardon me while I get up on my soap box and repeat my mantra: A story should be as long as it needs to be -- not one word longer or shorter. For today's audiences, pages and pages of "painting" makes your work tedious -- especially when it has nothing to do with the story you are telling.
As writers, our job is to "manipulate" the reader. He/she should be happy when we want them to be -- or terrified on cue. Love scenes should make their hearts beat faster -- so should fights and car chases. They should sweat when we say sweat and swoon when we demand it. Techniques that make these things happen are "good" -- and those that don't, well, maybe we shouldn't use them anymore.
So what techniques for imparting information about people, places, and things work better for today's audiences? Here are a few:
- Dialogue - This is my favorite technique for giving the reader information about what a character is seeing and about the character himself. For example, you can TELL your audience that a guy is cocky, oversexed, and rude -- and you can TELL your audience that a girl has blue eyes and great legs. Or you can have the guy drive past her and say, "Hey, Blue-eyes! Love those gams! Bring them over to Tony's bar and I'll show you a good time!" With only a few words, your character reveals himself and describes her.
- Internal Monologue - This is what your main character is thinking, so it can take on his/her biases, interests, insecurities, and language. It works well with dialogue. For example, maybe our guy from above is driving past the girl. "Hey, Blue-eyes!" She was smoking hot. "Love those gams. Bring them over to Tony's bar and I'll show you a good time." He'd make her dreams come true. Maybe. Note that while his thoughts are not in quotations, they do reflect his style of speech.
- Naming - Just by how you name your characters, you can hint at who they are. Perhaps you call your over-sexed guy "Jock." Within our culture, that appellation brings all kinds of images to mind -- someone who is brawny, or someone who plays sports, or someone who is aggressive. Maybe you call the girl "Dolly" or "Barbie" to imply her fragile or traditional features. Then think how differently your reader would imagine them if their names were "Seymour" and "Natasha."
- Action - How a character behaves delivers information to the reader too. Instead of saying that Jock is rude on the outside but insecure on the inside, you could modify the above passage this way: Jock slowed when he saw Dolly. He chewed his cigarette. She was smoking hot. "Hey Blue-eyes!" She looked at her shoes. "Love those gams." She tugged at her skirt. He gunned the engine, but she turned to say something to her brother. "Bring them over to Tony's bar and I'll show you a good time," Jock muttered as he watched her walk away in his rear view mirror. He'd make her dreams come true. Maybe. Note how his actions belie his sassy words and her behavior shows how his unwanted attentions make her feel.
- Extended description. A technique that works well is to take your time with your descriptions. For example, in chapter one, you might mention a picture over the mantel. In chapter three, you might have one of your characters notice that the corner of the picture frame is chipped. In chapter five, you might mention that the lady in the painting is wearing pearls. In chapter eight, you can have a character named Pearl talk about her great grandmother. Then in chapter nine, when Pearl discovers a safe behind the painting, you have already prepared the reader for what she discovers in the vault. Remember though, if you go to all of this trouble, what Pearl finds must be important to the story in some way.
- Inferential descriptions - This is another of my favorite techniques because it can be a subtle but powerful. Instead of saying that Bill is short, have him react to his environment as a short person does. He reaches but everything is just beyond his fingertips. He uses a foot stool to kiss the girl. He wears a size six shoe and there aren't any that small in the men's department at Walmart. His buddy's Stetson is too big for him, etc.
These techniques should be used INSTEAD of description. Redundant descriptions are useless and can be annoying when we read for the fifth time that Bill is short. Mention it only if it matters to the plot.
Finally, when you use all of these different approaches, you can indulge in a little "painting" now and again without it slowing the read. What makes the eye dance over pages of text is diversity. Breaking up long blocks of copy with dialogue balances white space with dark areas. Interspersing internal monologue during action sequences can add point of view and humor to your work. Letting your characters be themselves allows your readers to get to know them naturally. They aren't taking your word about the folks who people your work. They are learning about them like they learn about acquaintances at a party -- by observation and by listening to what this new friend has to say about the world and themselves.
Some of these techniques work for those of you who write non-fiction -- especially memoirs, biographies, and histories. Although most of your book will be narrative, it still pays to minimize straight description. In this format, you can use maps, photographs, and other illustrations to help your reader better appreciate your topic. Dialogue is equivalent to quotes. Who can better describe a battleship, than an admiral or a ship's designer? Their natural excitement about the subject will excite your reader much more than you can -- and it breaks up the monolithic nature of a long passage.
In non-fiction, you have other tools to clarify your points and make your subject come alive. Techniques like side bars and footnotes, while formal and stringently-formatted, can further engage your readers and provide them with entertaining information that would be distracting or inappropriate in the main narrative.
Finally, regardless of your genre, before you engage in a long descriptive passage, decide:
- Do you really need to mention this topic/item/person to tell your story?
- Does your audience have basic knowledge that you can use to reduce the length of your description? For example, are you writing for experienced pilots who know exactly what you mean when you say DFW or are you dealing with people who have never been to that airport?
- Are there alternative ways of providing this information that will be more entertaining or easier to read?
- Do you really need the description at all? If all of the men in your story are chasing the same woman, the reader will infer that she is attractive -- and/or rich.