On Description

So, I suck at description. In the previous round of querying and beta reading, poor description was the #1 complaint. It's not that I don't know how to do it, it just doesn't come naturally to me.

But I'm learning. And the fact that it doesn't come naturally to me means I'm a good person to teach it.

Because, of course, I have an algorithm:
  1. Imagine the scene. This sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many times I just don't care what a scene looks like as much as what happens there. So the first thing I often have to do is decide on stupid details like what color the walls are or what meaningless collection of items is on a desk. (It doesn't help that I'm not much of a decorator to begin with).
  2. Write down whatever you can think of. What does it look like, sound like, and smell like? Use all five senses if you can (more if you're writing a paranormal).
  3. Choose 1-3 telling details and cut the rest. Telling details are those that do double duty. They imply something about a character, rather than just tell the reader what the scene looks like. It's not always the detail itself that is telling either, but sometimes the way the narrator perceives it.
So instead of saying someone has a gun, you can show how the narrator feels about that and/or what it says about the gun-slinger. "He held the gun like he was some kind of God damn gangster, except I could still smell the perfume and massage oil on his hands. Who was this guy?"

What tips would you have for description? I need them.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

doesn't help that I'm not much of a decorator to being with

So there with you.

I'm a serious underwriter on first (even second) drafts. I've come to accept that it's part of my process, because eventually I get there with the telling details and the five sense descriptions. But I'm not an overly descriptive writer, so that's what I have to work at.

And that telling detail with the perfume? creepy

Matthew MacNish said...

We should write a book together some day, because I'm the Osensei of over describing. My descriptions are good, the problem is that there's just too much and too many of them.

Heidi W said...

I wish I could help. Honesty, I don't think about it. I probably should because reading this, it occurred to me that in all the years of critiques and beta readers, I've haven't received many comments regarding description (positive or constructive).

I do dream about my WiP almost every night, so that might help with some of the description. I also often close my eyes and set myself in the scene and then write with my eyes closed (I have to peek every once in awhile to make sure my fingers are set on the keyboard properly).

Joshua McCune said...

I am a happy underdescriber...

Which is a bit strange considering that I read mostly epic fantasy growing up. But not that strange, b/c I tended to skip all that boring description (Hello, Robert Jordan... RIP)

All that said, description gives me fits. I want it to be enough to paint the picture, kind of pretty and useful (or at least not sucky), but to be no longer than a sentence or three - (which is a real pain in the tuchus when you're trying to world-build in a sff setting).

Myrna Foster said...

Hmm. Ben and I had a wee argument about this, just last night. He thinks I use a lot of description. But I don't.

Victoria Dixon said...

Your algorithm is pretty good. The one thing I try to do whenever possible is to get as close as possible to a real sample of your settings. For instance, my opening chapter is in a Peach Orchard in the fall. So I took a road trip to a nearby peach orchard. I closed my eyes and walked among the trees to get an idea of what it might feel like to race through those trees with the moon above and clouds scudding past. The odors and the feel of the fruit underfoot all made it into the scene and people always comment on how they are transported. Walked around on ship decks recently? :)

Adam Heine said...

@Heidi: LOL. That's what the little nubs on the F and the J are for ;-) I think the fact that you don't get comments is good. If people don't notice it, you probably have enough.

@Victoria: That's a very good tip. I do love it when I get a chance to do that. Unfortunately my options are limited (esp. when it comes to ship decks :-).

Sarah Ahiers said...

#3 is the really important one that i also have to work on as well. It's easy to forget

amber colleen said...

The main thing that helps me is to remember who's POV you're in (even if it's 3rd person, there will be a specific character that is prominent) and then describe it as though that character was living it. What would he notice? What would stand out to him? You want description to be natural, not sound like you're trying to describe something. It should flow with the plot and mean something other than just showing the reader what the set looks like. The set is secondary to whatever advances the plot or adds meaning to a scene.