A few days ago, I received a message, via Twitter, about a serious problem that writers often face. I decided to use this week’s blog post as an opportunity to answer it it. The message was as follows--
"People have told me that I over-describe in my writing. They say it’s intrusive. Do you mind doing a post on how not to overdo description? I read your post on interior monologue and a lot of that applies too, but I think I have followed those guidelines, and yet, there is still a problem."
Over-description is something a lot of authors struggle with. It’s important here to understand the root causes of the problem. You can describe A LOT without it being an issue with your readers. Here’s an example, “Clouds of mist rose from rusted sewer grates in the cool night, and John, without any idea why, began, once again, to think of Carol.” There is absolutely no problem with this sentence because it doesn’t interfere with the reader’s imagination. It’s only when you try to control the minds of your readers that you are accused of over-description. If you follow the tips below, you might find that this kind of feedback simply disappears.
Don’t Describe Your Characters Too Specifically
People like to imagine that their characters are like themselves or the people they know. If you say too much, you can rob them of that illusion early on.
Read the following, painful segment: “Jane, 5’6”, entered the room, flicking her lengthy brown hair. Her long legs drew the attention of several men as she strutted in wearing the faux-leather boots her mother bought her last Christmas. The twenty-five year old was wearing also, a custom made pink top, and a short pink skirt to match.”
If you look close enough, the content isn’t awful. We actually get a decent feel for who Jane is. We understand her cockiness, and we get a good sense of what she looks like… but what we gain in clarity we lose in the ability to fill Jane in with our own minds. Jane couldn’t be like Beth, the girl you spent hours dreaming about in Russian class. Jane is Jane. Period. That’s it. Door closed.
Here is the segment re-written with less definite descriptions: “Jane flicked her hair as she entered the room, and for a moment, it seemed that the only sound for miles was the tap of slender boots as she made her way across the floor. She didn’t look at the people around her, but down, at her shirt, to make sure it properly accentuated her breasts.”
Let’s take a moment and look at what I DID NOT describe:
Her hair color
Her hair length
The type of boots she is wearing
Despite all these “missing” descriptions, in only two sentences, we have a far better understanding of who Jane is as a person.
Side Note: In my novel, Tiny Instruments, which is over 85,000 words long, the only definite description I attributed to Timothy was that he had “flaky brown hair”. That’s it.
Don’t Force Description
In the first example above, “The twenty-five year old” was blatantly forced. It was as if the author, me, felt the information needed to get across, and just did the best he could…
To be honest, no description “needs” to be there. There is no reason we, the readers, need to know any specific details of a character. If it doesn’t come across naturally, don’t include it.
This piece of advice still applies to description. As I said in my post on interior monologue, if a character is running away from a clown zombie, it doesn’t really matter how eerie the wind sounds as it blows through the trees! If description distracts, it doesn’t belong!
Sneak Descriptions In!
So, how do you write description without it distracting? Sneak it in!
“Grasping the cold iron, he attempted to pull himself up, away from the thing that clawed at his legs… but his arms were shaky, and sometimes, no matter how hard we fight, the darkness still wins.”
Here, “cold iron” isn’t remotely distracting.
Here’s another example:
“Supporting her limp arm, she walked across the street to her car.”
This one might be more obvious because you’re looking for it, but, ordinarily, it would be a perfectly fine way to get across the fact that she has a limp arm.
Here’s another example:
“His long fingers slid under her shirt as his breath, hot against her skin, snaked its way around her neck. She looked at him with wide eyes, but she wanted him so badly, she couldn’t tell him to stop.”
Other than the realization that I could write pornographic novels if I chose to do so, I hope you picked up on the well-placed descriptions. In all three examples, the description was able to be snuck into a scene of ACTION! Remember, there are few things more boring than description in the place of action.
If You Must Describe, Don’t Do It All At Once
This is what it sounds like. If you believe that a setting or a character warrants specifics, that scene or character will probably be around for a long time. There’s no rush. Take your time.
Pick A Few Key Things To Describe
If a character walks into a room, you don’t need to describe everything in the room - just a few key items for us to get a feel of what the room is like. It’s no different from the description of Jane above. Give our minds the outline, and let us color it in!
View Passing Settings Like Minor Characters
If you go out of your way to describe a character that is only present for three pages and is never seen again, you’re wasting your time. Most people are familiar with this concept, so I wonder why people don’t translate it to settings. I’ve seen several pages devoted to describe alleys and fields that were briefly present and never seen again.
--Less Is More--
I’d like to end with a story about the longest chapter of my novel.
When I was first writing Tiny Instruments, I used to read each chapter to my writing group. I had grown accustomed to useful tips and suggestions from the excellent writers that fill those tables, but never before or since have I learned more than when I read the first draft one of the most well-known segments I have ever written: The Ladder and the Wall.
Despite giving out tons of advice on writing descriptions, I included several logistical descriptions about how the artificial being, TC5, managed to push a ladder off the top of a shed onto the other side of a wall. It felt like they were important. After all, didn’t the readers need to know how far away the wall was from the shed? Wasn’t it important that Timothy used his right hand to climb up onto the shed and not his left? If I didn’t include it, people might accuse me of not knowing these important details, and lord knows, I do FAR too much planning to tolerate that nonsense!
When I concluded, I received a fair amount of praise for the conclusion of that chapter - but one of the authors whom I respect the most, Steve, told me something I’ll never forget. “I loved the chapter, Mitchell,” he said, “but you’re killing my imagination. It’s enough for you to know the details of how something works. Be careful. The more you analyze something, the more you invite readers to look for errors in what you’ve written.”
Pay special attention to that last line: “The more you analyze something, the more you invite readers to look for errors …” After that reading, I went straight home, and whipped that chapter into shape. I realized that I'd wanted so badly for readers NOT to question the logistics of what I’d written, that I'd not only “killed [Steve’s] imagination”, I broke the cardinal rule: for God’s sake, don’t ever interrupt the action!