Monday, June 3, 2013

Writing Shop Talk: How To Use Description

So I've decided to start a new feature on the blog—Shop Talk! I've given out a lot of advice on this blog, some good and some bad. But people seem to like advice at times, and I really need to update my opinions on some topics now that I'm a more seasoned writer.

The other perk? You can ask any questions you have about the Shop Talk topic of the day! So if you want to know more, please ask! Also, if you want me to cover a particular subject, let me know.

I'm starting with something I still hate: description. My first drafts are usually quite sparse on details because I just don't like writing them, but I've learned how important description is and I do work to improve it. Both in my first drafts and through revision.

You've probably all heard the standard Description Advice. Use multiple senses. Try not to use cliche phrases. Pick details that stand out. Etc.

The issue with some of this device is that description is one of those things in writing that everyone has a different taste for. Some readers despise long passages of description, while others revel in it. Some love a more artistic flare, while others prefer a stark touch. So it's hard to give specific advice because description is a lot about style and balance and picking up that instinct through practice.

But as I've critted for people over the years, I've noticed a few things about description as I've looked at how others either handle it well...or not so well.

Time for subheadings!

Description is one of those elements of writing that I call a "floater." It can go anywhere, really. It's not like the plot, which unfolds in a mostly linear manner. But it supports the plot and gives it meaning and depth when placed properly. When it isn't, it weighs down the plot and can make readers lose interest. 

So how do you know where to place description in your story? I use the rule of the "need to know basis" most often, meaning I describe something only if the reader must absolutely know it at that moment (which is an instinct you have to hone over time). Describing a character in detail long before you meet said character, for example, would be improper placement. Describe the character when they enter the novel—that's when the reader needs it. Description tends to look superfluous unless it's in the right place.

There is also the concept of foreshadowing, which is often accomplished through description. This may motivate a writer to place description or backstory before it's immediately relevant, but when you do that you have to realize you are giving the reader a cue—you're saying this information is important somehow and you better make good on that later on.

Another important function of description is establishing mood and setting. When settings change or you want to establish a new mood, this would be a good time to implement some description to direct the reader.

I alluded to this when talking about placement, but a big key to using description properly is understanding what details are relevant. Relevant to your story in general, and also what is immediately relevant to each particular scene in your novel. Writers always know more about their books than what ultimately ends up in the text—think of it as cropping a picture in photography to get the maximum impact. You have to figure out what kind of lens you'll be using for the novel, and therefore what belongs in the picture and what doesn't.

There are a few places to look when deciding what description is relevant to your novel. My first go to is always the main character (or the pov characters, if there are more than one). What would they notice? How would they describe things? Think about what your characters find important—for some it might be clothing while others it's the architecture or foliage or food. Direct the description to build understanding of your characters when you can.

Another way to determine relevancy is if certain elements are central to your novel's plot. If there is a city that hangs in the balance—it'd be good to know about that city in detail. If there is an organization or rules or whatever that the reader needs to understand to follow the plot, those are things you should describe. That's different for every book. In one novel it may be appropriate to explain the intricacies of the politics, while in another it detracts from the story because it has nothing to do with politics.

And finally, when I write my own description, I constantly ask myself, "Is this immediately relevant?" Does the reader need to know this right now to continue the plot? Will it clarify my story or make it more obscure? Am I getting infodumpy? Would this information be better to hold back? Better to establish upfront?

Choose wisely. Or at least as wisely as you can. Getting a grasp on relevancy was something that propelled my writing to the next level, but it took a lot of trial and error. It still does, really, but now I'm more conscious of my choices.

I won't tell you how much description is too much, or how little is too little. It's all relative to the story's style. But I will tell you my one rule: The amount of description on a certain topic/item/person should be proportionate to their role in the story.

Oftentimes I see newer writers making the mistake of describing everything and everyone with the exact same amount of detail. This means they are describing the cashier as they would a major character. Or they are describing a room as if the entire novel might take place there. Or they just aren't describing anything.

This can bring a reader confusion because humans are natural comparers. When we spend more time describing one item than another, we're telling a reader that item is more important. To the character, to the plot, etc. So if you're characters are just driving through a city, maybe only a few details are enough. If they are staying in that city for the duration of the novel, maybe there should be a lot of detail about that place and how they navigate it.

This goes for characters, too. If you describe the school janitor in great detail, you are saying that the janitor will be important to the story. If they are—great! If not...that's confusing. Characters who are important can handle more description than those that play minor roles. If minor characters are overdescribed, it can be potentially frustrating to the reader because it will feel irrelevant.

So those are my personal rules on description. I hope they help you, and if you have additional questions please comment! I'm happy to clarify or add more.


  1. Thank you for posting this! I’ve been struggling with the opening scene of my story for a while now, and I think you just helped me understand a bit better why it doesn’t feel right.

  2. Great advice Natalie, thank you for posting!

  3. I also have trouble knowing how much description to include. But I love this rule: "The amount of description on a certain topic/item/person should be proportionate to their role in the story." My question is knowing when to remind the reader of certain the details of a character. Let's say the story is told in first person. The main character has already mentioned the love interest's brown eyes early in the story. Should the eye color be mentioned again or should we trust that the reader will remember the eye color?

    1. Lin, great question. Reminders can be good—not constantly, but perhaps a few at important moments in the novel (if the character has time to notice, of course). Readers tend to lose those kinds of things...or not notice them much at all. Sometimes you can clearly state Brown Eyes or Blond Hair and still the reader will form their own vision of the character without those features.

      Even I have done this. In MIND GAMES I *know* that James is blond, and yet my brain always wants to give him dark brown hair. It's weird.

  4. Hmm, I wish I'd read this about a year ago - over the past year or so I've learned a lot more about what to include/describe. And I've learned that "world building" isn't enough of a reason to include things that you just absolutely love, no matter how sad deleting them makes you. *sigh*

    But thanks for the great post!

    Also, I was re-reading the early Harry Potters when I realized that J.K. Rowling is an absolute master of awesome descriptions. Now there is one person who could actually get away with describing just for the sake of world building - b/c it's such a cool world! (Although maybe it's just that works all these cool things into relevancy just so she can describe them.)

  5. I've emphasized certainly more the description of main characters than a passing character- even if, for a short time, that passing character is the one whose point of view is driving a part of the narrative.