Chapter 4: Description
We’re going to talk about description in this chapter. I promise.
But first, we have to talk about the ending of Star Wars…and by Star Wars I mean episode IV, A New Hope. Don’t get me started on those prequels…
So, imagine you are in the theater, watching the big space battle at the end of the movie, but we’re going to change how you watch it. First, you have a shot of Luke and what he’s doing, then split the screen and put up an image of Biggs. Try to keep track of both of them. Then split it again and add in Red Leader and Gold Leader. Keep splitting that screen. In no time at all, you’ve got way too much going on and you can’t really tell what’s important.
And to really drive this home, let’s make our Star Wars scene a little more urgent. Put yourself in the movie. Imagine you are an X-Wing pilot who is trying to get through a swarm of TIE fighters to destroy the Death Star. What are you going to concentrate on? Will it be the fire from the laser cannons on the space station? How about your friends who are flying close alongside you? Maybe you should focus on the incoming fighters and the dog fights that are starting to take shape all around you.
The thing is, your attention can’t stay on one thing. If you focus only on getting into and down the trench to the exhaust port (Yeah, I’m showing my geek stripes here, aren’t I?), then you won’t see the fighters coming up behind you. And if you pay attention to everything going on, then you’ll never get to take your shot.
What you focus on has to change as things play out. There are times when you have to pull away from the fight to see the big picture. And then there are times when you have that target in sight and that is the only thing in the galaxy that matters. You pick what’s important at that moment.
That’s what you have to do when you fly an X-Wing and that’s what you have to do when you write descriptions in your stories. You pick what’s important in the scene and describe that to your readers.
With the mandatory Star Wars reference done (for now at least), let’s get our writing hands dirty. We don’t have to talk about what description is. It’s not a hard thing to define. But what we describe and how we do it as authors are the real questions.
So, what things are we describing? The first and most obvious description is the setting of our story. We let our readers know if it’s familiar or something that they have never seen or imagined before. We describe our characters. We describe what they do.
In general, we describe anything that the reader can see or hear in our story. But, when we get into the other senses and emotions and feelings, things get a little trickier.
When describing the interior life and experiences of our characters we run into the question of point of view. Are we writing in 1st or 3rd person (sorry to neglect the rare 2nd person)? If you use the I pronoun, then descriptions of the character’s thoughts and emotions are generally a snap. The reader is experiencing things directly through the character, so adding in the details of what they taste, feel and think is very natural.
But when you make the jump to 3rd person and the she/he pronouns, it gets much more complicated. Are you omniscient or limited to just one POV? Maybe someplace in between? 3rd person limited, especially to one character, gives you about the same access to what your character experiences as 1st person does, but when the audience has access to multiple 3rd person POVs…well…you could soon drown your readers in too many descriptive details.
Remember the cake example from chapter 2? Imagine reading what the cake was like from every character at a party. Suddenly, you’ve binged and aren’t hungry for cake anymore.
This is the big question. How much do we describe? How much do our readers need to know about what our characters look like? What is actually necessary (and this can lead us into discussion about the big C meaning of the word Character) and what elements are better left to the reader’s imagination?
This question applies to every element that we can describe and the quick answer is that it is up to you as the writer. But don’t make the decision too quickly or without weighing your options.
We’ve all read stories at either end of the description spectrum. There are some that are so sparse that we are left adrift; wondering what is really going on. Others delve into scene setting so complete that we can forget what is going on in the story. Ever read Tolkien and his page-long descriptions of the color of the grass?
Let’s get some perspective on how important the issue of good description is. In the broadest terms, you have two elements when writing a story: dialogue and description. And depending on your writing style, description will usually make up more than half of your writing. With Tolkein it’s more like 90%. There was apparently a lot of grass in Middle Earth.
If we go too far in either direction: too much or too little description, we really risk not giving our readers the best story we can. And here is why…
Remember those two rules of writing from Chapter 2? They are pretty simple and they apply completely here. If you don’t describe the elements that are absolutely necessary to a scene…how the action is moving, a really important object, how a character physically reacts to something…then things aren’t clear to the reader. And if you load them down with every detail, then boredom kicks in. How important is that grass anyway? Yes, some of the trees are main characters, but not the grass. (And please don’t set the orcs on me for ranking on Tolkien. I love those books and have read them multiple times. It’s just..come on, enough already!)
So, it’s your job as a writer to constantly make the decision about what details really need to be included in every scene. If you are creating a world that no one has ever imagined before, then more description is probably necessary. In other situations you might need to only mention one detail.
Think about the Harry Potter books. How much time does J. K. Rowling spend describing Hogwarts? Do we get the details on how everything is laid out and which rooms are next to each other or how exactly to get from the great hall to Charms class? No. We hear about moving staircases and then details in the individual classrooms when we first see them. Yet, do you feel like you are missing out? My guess would be no, because instead of telling us every tiny detail, Rowling shows us the important things and lets us paint our own picture of Hogwarts.
And on the character side, how much do we really read about what Harry looks like, or Ron, or Hermione? When you check, it’s not much at all. And yet, these characters are incredibly vivid. And that’s because of what they do, not because of the physical traits that Rowling tells us.
Depending on which approach you choose, there are many different techniques that you can use to tackle descriptions. If you need to give more information, you might want to start with a broad overview, like a movie opening a scene with a wide establishing shot. On the other end, you might want to pick vital element and focus on it, maybe giving some unusual and little known bit of detail about it to get your readers to looking at things closely.
And, in this giant sea of description, there is one Bermuda Triangle that sinks more stories than anything else…description about dialogue. Remember back in chapter 2 where we talked about adverbs and how they are shortcuts that can deprive the reader of an opportunity to see something important about the character? Well, when you are describing dialogue there are other shortcuts that take even more away from the reader. When we follow our dialogue with phrases like he shouted, she snarled, she growled or any of the countless other verbs that might apply, we move very firmly into Telling territory. And if you add in the adverb after the verb: shouted angrily, snarled furiously or growled menacingly…well, you are giving your readers some details, but there might just be a better way.
We’ve already talked about one of my favorite authors (and I’m starting this section out by telling you how much I love her books so you don’t send the Deatheaters after me), but she is fairly notorious for this. In just one part of one chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling writes that one character or another muttered furiously, shouted, roared, sputtered, said eagerly, said gratefully, said excitedly, said keenly, reminded bossily, whispered, said mournfully, said nervously, said knowledgably, said cautiously, gasped, said sadly, said proudly, said bitterly, said darkly, said hurriedly, shouted, said hopefully, said urgently, or began awkwardly.
That is a lot of different verbs for how people might say something and a whole ton of adverbs. Now, Ms. Rowling gets some slack because, well, she’s awesome. But what if she had skipped just a few of those shortcuts and given us just one short sentence about what the characters were doing when they said or asked? What if she had shown us how Hermione had crossed her arms and tilted her head back to frown at Harry and Ron instead of just saying she was bossy?
The big problem with these dialogue descriptors and the adverbs that often follow them is that they are too easy to breeze past as we read. In fact, they are really meant to be that way. Their primary function is to show us who said what. That’s all they are supposed to do. And if a writer starts trying to use them to tell us how things are said, the useful information gets discarded by our brains as well. But if the author keeps the who-said-what part simple and shows us how the characters do things, our brains take a moment to create the scene and it all gets more engrossing.
So, if the dialogue descriptors are things that readers generally gloss over, what do we do? Basically, stick with words that are already disposable…and there are two of them.
Said and asked.
With just those two words, you can let the reader know who is saying what (unless you are Cormac McCarthy and are too cool for letting your readers know who is talking) and then you can add in the necessary description to show your readers exactly how the characters act when they speak.
Now, there is one more major element of description that we haven’t talked about: exposition. We discussed it in relation to dialogue in the last chapter (and there is a definition of it in chapter 1) but it is just as important to consider in your descriptions too. You may have to plant vital clues, there may be backstory or important information about the characters that you need to get across to the reader. But, the way you give this information to the reader in key.
If you start your story with a concentrated info-dump that has backstory of every sort imaginable, your readers will zone out fast. Even if the story behind your story (that’s kind of what exposition is really about, after all) is fascinating, if you tell it instead of showing it, you are going to lose the good will of your readers.
Instead, think of different approaches to showing your readers this necessary information. Can you turn it into a scene? Can it be incorporated as details that the characters experience? If you can come up with ways to sneak in your exposition, your readers are going to love you.
Like everything else in writing, dealing with description well comes down to practice. Don’t get trapped into thinking that your descriptions will be perfect when you are beginning. Somehow, Luke Skywalker survives a giant space dogfight and blows up the Death Star…the very first time he jumps into an X-Wing. But I guess he has the Force (And yes! Like the Death Star 2, the Star Wars reference comes back!). For the rest of us, we have to practice and practice to hone our craft.
What else can you do? Read the best books and stories that you can find and see what you like about the descriptions there. See how Cormac McCarthy writes a whole book without telling you who says what in The Road. Test your descriptions out on readers and get input. Then keep going on your rewrites. These are your stories. They are worth the effort.