description for description’s sake

If there is a certain breed of writers who can insert useful description flawlessly into their story-telling, I want to know what their secret is.

I struggle when writing descriptions. I’m a big plotter, rushing from drama to drama, making sure the story twists and turns as much as possible. I don’t have time to stop and smell the roses. I forget that readers can’t see into my head. I forget that they don’t know the world as well as I do, or indeed at all.

It’s a weakness I’m well aware of, and is something I struggle with day in and day out. I force myself, when on the tube, to describe the person opposite me, to take note of the small details, and build a story up from them rather than shoving those observations in at the last minute.

Yet this awareness of my own deficiency is also a curse, because I end up writing description for description’s sake. I get so caught up with the fact that I, too, can churn out a pretty phrase (with some effort), that I forget about the story. Then I have to go back and edit OUT descriptions.

A prime example is the original opening paragraph of my work-in-progress serial DarkSight:

The woman sitting opposite Maeve had the classic pursed, miserable expression of a long-time early morning commuter. Everything about her was severe, from the sharp ironed folds of her suit, to the tight clasp of her hands. Her cheeks drooped on either side of her mouth; even her red leather heels were frowning. It didn’t help that a large dog had slumped down right by her feet, his drooling mouth mere inches from her shoes.

That’s a yawn-y beginning if there ever was one, especially considering DarkSight is meant to be a seat-clenching horror serial.

The image is classic; too classic. And it’s boring, creates no empathy, does nothing to draw the reader in. Not to mention, that woman will be dead in a couple pages. Spending a whole paragraph describing her is, quite frankly, silly.

Needless to say, I’ve struck out that paragraph and am working on a catchier start.

But my problem remains. If I focus on the story, I end up with no description. If I focus on the writing, I end up with too much. Whichever way I work it, I end up editing the descriptions.

Do you have this problem, and if you do, how do you strike a balance?

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About A.M. Harte

A.M. Harte writes twisted speculative fiction, such as the post-apocalyptic Above Ground and the zombie love anthology Hungry For You. She is excellent at missing deadlines, has long forgotten what ‘free time’ means, and is utterly addicted to chocolate.
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8 Responses to description for description’s sake

  1. Najela says:

    I’m not sure if this helps, but I just give the character a quirk. A lot of my characters will use body language like if they are nervous or bored they’ll run their fingers around their hair or depending on their personality they may look at their reflection in mirrors and reflective surfaces any chance they get.
    “Takun knew he was going to be late to class, but he couldn’t help but look at himself in every window he passed. As he passed the library, he saw his white and black hair. Near the physics building he saw his yadda yadda clothes. He couldn’t help but admit that he looked good. He caught the eyes of the girls passing by and figured they thought so too.” or something to that nature. (I’m only using IAR characters because I know them so well.) Or conversely they could avoid the mirrors. Maeve could be looking at the woman, then catch her reflection on the grimy subway window. Does she admire her reflection or look away as soon as she sees it?

    I guess you have to analyze why the description is important. Are this woman and the dog important? If not, you might just want to skip to the characters that are. I think in the beginning you can mention things and drop little reminders every so often with that little nervous quirk.

  2. karenwehrstein says:

    I actually enjoyed that snippet of description, but for a character who’s going to be dead in a bit, yeah, it’s too much. The number of words used in a description of a character on first appearance should be directly proportional to the importance of the character in the story. If Maeve just entered this woman’s office for an interview for a job she absolutely has to land, the description in and of itself, since it is so evocative of the woman’s personality, and thus is also characterization, would be not only description, but a hook.

    Where you are describing something relatively ordinary but still useful to create a visual image in the reader’s mind, you need to use is what in my old writers’ group we called the “skillful brushstroke” — that is, just a phrase or clause, only a few words, of description worked seamlessly into the narrative. I suggest only doing more extensive descriptions when it’s something extraordinary or striking to the character — or that you know will be to the reader — so you really want them to see it vividly.

    Hope this helps.

  3. V J Chambers says:

    You know what I say? Screw description. Some readers like it. I don’t. I’m the reader that skims description in books. Nothing BORES me to tears like description.

    Hence–I can’t write it, because I don’t read it.

    So, as a writer, I write minimal descriptions. I used to stress about it, and think, “Geez, I need to get better about this.” But now, I just look at it as my own personal stylistic choice. Sure, sometimes when another writer reviews my work, they say, “There’s not enough description.” But I don’t care.

    I just write the good parts versions of my stories, like William Goldman’s Dad’s Princess Bride. And in my good parts version, no one spends several paragraphs telling me what the kitchen looks like.

    • a.m.harte says:

      I think I’m somewhere inbetween. I’m not going to read several paragraphs on what the kitchen looks like (who would?!) but I do enjoy reading descriptions, and think they’re useful in breaking up dialogue or making time pass in a scene.

      But you raise a good point: I should pay more attention when reading description I like, so I can try copy it! :-P

  4. Najela says:

    I agree with Karen. If something extraordinary is about to happen, then you can keep the mundane description (albeit, it’s very well-written) until you get to that point to shock the reader when something does happen.

  5. V J Chambers says:

    Holly Lisle says that description is useful in pacing. In other words, if you’re trying to write a scene that moves, like an action scene, limit the description and write short clean sentences with descriptive verbs and nouns, but few adjectives and adverbs (Which are my big downfall. Adjectives and adverbs plus said-isms. I am always going back and turning my mumbleds and exclaimeds into saids, but never enough, never enough…), but if you want to slow down a scene to crank up the description.

    Here’s the article: http://hollylisle.com/fm/Workshops/pacing-workshop.html

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