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