Descriptions – The Devil’s In The Details

I hated writing descriptions, because I seemed to never get them to feel right. I was swaying from info-dumps to lapidary sketches and back again like a pendulum, never quite making the most effective things stand out or conveying the desired mood. Then I started to pay attention to the descriptions that worked in the books I loved most, and I realized a couple of things:

1. It’s not about creating a complete picture, but about putting the reader’s imagination to work;

2. Focus on what your characters would notice, not what would sound fancy.

The brain is a marvelous thing. Give it a finger, and it willl swallow your whole hand, your head, your family tree and the country you came from with its entire history. Your brain can work with incomplete data to create a functional representation of reality. In fact, it does so every day. For real, it does, or are you always aware of absolutely every single thing in sight (and hearing range, and smell spectrum) before you can cross the street without getting yourself killed?

You wouldn’t be able function if you required absolute knowledge or awareness to function. You’d go totally crazy if your brain would consciously process all the unnecessary crap your senses throw at it. All you need is the bare minimum, the essentials, the vital four-one-one.

It’s the same with description: only the essential bits of info are necessary for the reader’s mind to function within your setting. Only put down a handful of details, the ones that stand out, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. It will do a much better job at it that you ever can with words, anyway.

If you’re describing a restaurant, you don’t need to tell me it has tables, chairs and cutlery, or that there’s a waiter and menu, and probably a cook somewhere in the back. I already know what a generic restaurant looks like. However, if you tell me about the stuffed pheasant on the wall, the smell of stale tobacco and the old man staring up at you from a cluttered table in the far right corner as you enter, I get a very vivid and unique picture from as little description as possible.

Did you notice I said functional representation of reality, not accurate representation? I won’t go into philosophical debates about whether what we perceive to be “out there” is in fact out there or completely in our minds, whether we’re fundamentally isolated or whether all existence is one single, multi-faceted self-aware and utterly bored entity that likes role-playing.

What matters about this concept is that—in writing—you don’t need to worry about accurately describing a certain object or place. You only need to create a functional representation of that object, a simulacrum of it that works in your story at that time. If you catch the few basic things about it that distinguish it from, say, an elephant in a pink tutu playing the ukulele, you’re good. I don’t care that it’s impossible for the poor guy to put up a good performance in that outfit, especially since pink is so last season, but I can visualize it and that’s all that counts.

Of course, when it comes to writing fantasy or science-fiction, choosing only a handful of details that matter to describe a setting that is entirely unknown to the reader is practically impossible. In this case I bend toward saying that you should only describe the aspects of the setting that are alien, foreign and unexpected to the character experiencing them.

No matter how tempted you are to delve into the spawn of your elaborate world-building skills, when your socially awkward farmer boy with unsuspected magical powers walks into a full pub on the outskirts of the Kingdom of Ghzjkts, I don’t want to read about the fancy woodwork on the chairs and the symbolism of the painting hanging behind the bartender. It will rip me right out of the story, no matter how accurate it is to your world. Your shy farmer boy will almost certainly not give a damn about them. What he’ll notice are the husky bearded men staring at him with lowered eyebrows. He’ll notice the stifled giggles of the girls watching him over their shoulders, and the stomach-tightening smell of burnt meat. Along with the prickle up his spine. The tingle in his fingers. The unacceptable urge to run away to safety.

The same works for science-fiction. Stick to the things that make the setting different from its generic version, stick to the few key details that stand out. And on the absolutely exceptional and rare occasions when that’s impossible, avoid writing info-dumps by sticking to your point-of-view character.

 

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This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012

22 Replies to “Descriptions – The Devil’s In The Details”

  1. Since I only write nonfiction, I have to accurately describe things or else the CNF police will jump down my throat and accuse me of making up details. But, and there’s always a but, I don’t have to describe everything about a person. I pick a telling detail that speaks volumes about a person. The construction worker with surprisingly clean, manicured fingernails or the accountant with a Sponge Bob screensaver. (I’m making this all up.)

    Great post!

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  2. Brilliant post, Vero–you aced this hardest of all things to master in the craft of writing. We writers tend to either go overboard or give so little detail that there’s nothing for the reader to hold on to, and they’re left hanging in a blank limbo of spacelessness (is that even a word?). You did a very good thing by studying the descriptions that worked for you in others’ work–and you broke it down into succinct examples and guidelines for the rest of us. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Guilie! *beaming*

      I think spacelessness should definitely be a word. Along with headhoppery, monologuitis and deus-ex-machination. 😀

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  3. I just hopped over here today. I’m glad it didn’t take until R or X, it would have taken me longer to read from A.

    I made a similar appeal to good literature, and came to similar realizations. Another observation that came out of it was how important it is for a writer to bring an understanding of science (psychology in this case) to the art, even if the science isn’t the centerpiece of the work.

    Thank you for sharing your perspectives.

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    1. Wow Kelly, you took the words right out of my pen—bringing the science (and really, any knowledge you can get your hands on!) into writing is paramount to creating more meaningful stories!

      Thanks a lot for visiting! It’s always great to meet other sci-fi writers. Your blog is awesome! 🙂

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  4. It really is about the details isn’t it ?
    It’s true that our mind can work with the smallest amount of info given to us and is able to recreate / understand a scenario.
    I know I can definitely apply your post to the smaller details I describe to clients when explaining their dream wedding decor to them 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Dazediva! 😉 Picking out the right details is not only important in fiction, you totally got that right. It matters in any dayjob, meeting, conversation, and especially when selling something, be it a product or a service. Good luck (and loads of fun, I bet) in planning weddings!

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  5. Hi Vero,

    I love the look of your blog! Well done!

    Your observation about descriptions is RIGHT on. I think the one I struggle with the most is, “It’s not about creating a complete picture, but about putting the reader’s imagination to work.” I have to force myself not to go into detail about every little last thing. Excellent post!

    Shannon
    Shannonigans

    Like

    1. Thanks, Shannon!
      I know what you mean. When I loved something, I used to talk about it until I was blue in the face, but I’ve learned a lot about trimming down the goodies since I was a kid (though it’s still hard when I get passionate about a subject). 😀

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  6. Letting us see the room through the character’s eyes is essential. I hate pages and pages of “Laura Ashley” details – unless the story is told from the POV of Martha Stewart, it’s way too much! Work it into the action, let us see why the pink pillow with the silver tassels is important, or leave it out.

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    1. Working description into the action is indeed the best way to share information with the reader. Thanks for stopping by, Beverly!

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  7. I’ve had the same battles with description in my writing, especially in the earlier days. I think I’m still trying to find the perfect balance, but sometimes it feels different for every story (especially short stories, where you’re kind of on a word count budget).

    I’ve also found that different readers seem to like different levels of description. For instance, I like to read the key details about the setting, but with characters I prefer little to no physical description. I’d rather that description focus on details that let me know the personality of the character, what that character wants. I don’t care what kind of clothes they’re wearing (unless that tells me about the character’s personality as well). Some beta readers I’ve worked with in the past, however, have preferred greater levels of detail, almost to the point of wanting the scene painted for them.

    Obviously, there’s a nice middle ground, and you’ve done an awesome job of helping to find it! Great post!

    J.W.

    Like

    1. Thanks, J.W.!

      I agree with you. I don’t like much description when it comes to characters. I couldn’t care less about their hairstyle or clothing, if that doesn’t tell me something about their person that can’t be told otherwise.

      Writing descriptions in short stories is particularly hard to do right. I would be awful at it, I can’t imagine writing anything shorter than a novella. And even that makes me feel claustrophobic! 😀

      Like

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