Well, I haven’t done too many posts on writing, so a few weeks ago I decided to write up a post on description in fiction. … A post? More like three. The whole subject on description in writing is huge. There’s so much to talk about and so much different aspects to cover. This blog post series might end up like a bunch of writing research essays on my part, but it’ll be useful information and hopefully helpful for those of you who write.
I used to think that description and detail was the one only thing that makes a good story; I wrote this way until it got boring. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I finally decided not to pay attention to detail at all. How can you paint pictures with words without causing your readers to skim? Have you wondered why books written in the last two centuries have more description than books today? In this post I’ll talk about the pros and cons of description, why books today have almost eliminated this art, and how you can write your story well regarding the right amount and correct usage of description. Let’s begin with the good and bad sides.
Writing detail is indeed an art; using words, the author paints a picture to convey to the reader. “The man walked into a room” vs “He walked into a small and cozy room with walls made of wooden planks and framed pictures of fish, casting an eerie reflection from the dancing fire to one side, lighting the whole room with a comfortable glow.” When we read the first sentence, “The man walked into a room,” we immediately are seeing what, in each of our minds, is our own default picture of a man and a default picture of a room. Each one of our defaults are different. Depending on what time and place the story takes place in, my default picture of a man could be a British grenadier or a man in a business suit. If it is in mundane modern times, my default “man” would be some average guy wearing jeans and a T-shirt. As for the room, if I just read the words “a room,” with no context at all, I’d automatically think of an office with a desk, computer, and bookshelves (of course). We each have our own default we go to when there is no description to inform us specifically otherwise. This is why description is so important. You don’t want your reader to picture your little beach shack as a modern suburb or your old fisherman a Santa Claus grandpa, depending on their own default, it could be anything other than what you’re trying to convey. You want to tell them what it’s really like in your story.
There is a such thing as too much and too little description. When it comes to too much, the reader is lost in the setting, and is trying to take in every single little detail that is written on the page so that he/she can understand the place. Of course, this easily gets tiring after the first five sentences or so, and the reader starts to skim. Whoa, hold the phone. Skimming? Skimming my writing, my art, the words I’ve laughed and cried over for years? Yup. Skimming. Your reader doesn’t want to know all of that, they’re reading your book for your characters, their problems, what they’re going to do. They read it for the drama, the emotion, the twists in the plot, the circumstances your characters experience, not how the curtain falls just so past the windowsill, or how her four red curls line up exactly with her left ear- I admit, I can tell when the author loves his character or setting so much that they pour their all into it, but I can’t help but skim it.
A little description is not a problem, but no description can leave readers wandering through their own default mazes, trying to picture their default characters, and feeling or seeing nothing. There’s something missing. The reader will ask, “Where exactly am I now?”, “What does he actually look like?”, “Is there really grass in this wilderness, or should I see it as a windblown, dead plain?” There is no picture painted for the reader; the reader will come up with something himself, hoping it will suffice.
How do you think description is important? Why? Do you like writing or reading it? Leave your thoughts below, I love hearing what others think. Stay tuned for the next post comparing the use of description in older classics and today’s bestseller fiction.