Monday, April 4, 2011


Some writers find descriptions easy to write. I am not one of these 'some'. In fact, I generally fall down in the description area, being far more likely to fill my manuscripts with dialogue. But description there must be, or our stories are like a colouring page waiting to be filled in.

How to manage it?

If I had a scene with 5 characters sitting in a room, I'd have each character note something different. One might experience the scratchiness of the sofa, while another notes a thick layer of dust on a table. Another might notice the pile of magazines peeping out from under a chair, while another crinkles their nose at the distinct aroma of wet dog.

As a reader, I'm not a huge fan of swathes of description; I tend to skip them. I don't need five pages extolling the beauty of the meadow or three pages about the church steeple casting a shadow as a cat howls in the darkness. For me, less is more. I like discovering that a character's collar is carefully darned or that all six objects on their mantle lines up precisely. I don't need to know that the collar is cerulean or minute details about the mantle objects, unless it adds to the plot or the character. For instance, if it's six vases on the mantle, I might not care, but if it's six dog figurines and this is the same room reeking of wet dog, then let me know.

Writers need to remember that our readers don't know the story as well as we do...and that they're reading it for the first time, not the ninety-second. My early readers let me know when I've fallen short on the descriptions - I'm getting better, but I'm often surprised what they want described.

Some really want to know about those six vases.

If you're a writer, do you find writing descriptions an easy task? How do you feel about them as a reader?


  1. I tend to skim over long descriptive passages, so description is something I have to work very hard at when I write. I try to make sure the descriptions are done through the eyes of the character, not mine.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. I never skip anything when I read. That's why it took me six tries to finish Crime and Punishment. It was an ordeal, but I FORCED myself to get through it. Glad I did. It was a great story. As for my writing, I have no problem being brief. Less is always more.

  3. Fantastic examples of giving the reader the most telling of details instead of burying them in description. Thanks for this post!


  4. Elspeth - You really raise an important issue with this description thing. I, too, sometimes don't give as much description as I could. I think it's because of my academic background. In that world (the world of scholarly papers), brevity is a virtue. There is such a delicate balance, isn't there, between giving enough description for the reader to easily follow the story, and giving so much that the reader gets mired in it. You're wise to think of it...

  5. Terry; That's what I try to do as well - but sometimes I have a hard time remembering to actually do it!

    Luana; Wow. I'm seriously impressed. Good for you!

    Martina; Thanks for your kind words, they're truly appreciated.

    Margot; I'm glad to learn you fight the same monster! You make a very good point; it *is* such a delicate balance and so easy to go overboard in either direction. *groan*

  6. No, I never read descriptions as a reader and I have to really, really concentrate to write them. I write them the last thing, before I send off the manuscript. (How's *that* for putting it off?) :)

  7. I don't like static description, but I enjoy seeing what the character sees. There's a limit for me, though, both as reader and writer. I like it to show where the story is taking place and set the tone or tell something about the character or provide an insight to plot. It's an excellent place to bury clues, I think.

  8. Elizabeth; Thanks for sharing that; I feel a great deal better!

    Carol; You're right - it is a great way to bury clues!

  9. I think I have changed a lot these last few years - from plenty of description to very little. So like you, I have to remind myself to describe so much that the readers have a fair chance to ´see´ the place and the characters. In a cosy I believe the readers want a bit of tile roofs, old coffee grinders and such now and then. In other sub-genres I try to use some kind of need-to-know descriptions.

  10. I always find discription difficult. I need outside help to point out when it's lacking or too much. It's hard for me to go into a mindset where I'm the reader, not the writer. And yet, I would never skip a discription I was reading.

  11. Dorte; I think every genre has its own demands when it comes to the amount of description its readers want, the trick is to get it right!

    JEFritz; I don't know what I'd do without those kind people who read my drafts and tell me they need more of a description - be it of a room, or a place or a character. Good for you that you don't skip when you're reading - I find I can be a very impatient reader.

  12. As a reader, I do not like a story that makes me pause while a room or a person is described in detail. Often that one little detail, like the objects lined up precisely on the mantle, can tell so much about a character, we do not need a long discourse on how she might be obsessive about this and why. Bits of that can be dropped in as the story progresses. Nor do we need the "laundry list" of physical descriptions of characters.

    Like you, I tend to do less narrative and description and more dialogue. Must be the scriptwriting influence. When I do my second drafts, that's when I add a little description here and there to set a character firmly in a place.

  13. Maryann; You're absolutely right; it does seem to be a second or third or ninety-second draft addition.


Please leave a comment as I love to hear from you!