There are few things in the world of writing and revision that drive me truly crazy. The first of these is simply that You Are Never Done. Which I will no doubt explore at some future point. But I’m not here to talk about that quite yet.
The second thing that drives me absolutely bats is description. Writing it, rewriting it, reading it. Anything that has to do with description really gets me into a bad frame of mind, because there are so many ways to approach description, and almost every way has merit to somebody.
Before we get started, just what is Description? Merriam-Webster defines it a couple of ways, but the one I like is the very first:
Description – Noun: an act of describing; specifically: discourse intended to give a mental image of something experienced (link source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/description)
The Wikipedia article also has some interesting bits that fall more in line with Description as it pertains to writing, being one of the four Rhetorical Modes. More specifically, for writers of fiction, it is one of the Fiction-Writing Modes in the greater Mode that is the Narrative.
The purpose of all those links above is to illustrate that description is not just “communicating the senses through words”. It is that, but not only that. When writing description, you as an author are dictating what specific elements of the world/story you’re writing that you wish your reader to experience, and which you want him to imagine for himself. What the reader experiences in the descriptive narrative can have a profound impact on what he takes away from a given scene or story. It is up to you, as the author, to figure out what is important in the description of your world, its characters, and the fantastical elements that may exist.
And this can be where you bog down the reader, because you’re so concerned that she understands the vile nature of the boggy swamp that the action grinds to a screeching halt while you describe the swamp for three pages. Or you can confuse the reader, because you’ve left the world too vague and she has nothing to even start drawing upon in her imagination to fill in the gaps.
And this is why I hate description.
Taming the Senses
Don’t get me wrong, though; I also love description. I’ve read things that so perfectly describe a setting that I feel I have a really good vision of exactly what the writer intended me to see (The Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of the Shadow War). I’ve also read descriptions that were so spare that my mind ran away with the narrative, and I had a completely unique visual experience in my head based on that lack of description.
In the case of The Lord of the Rings, it was a fantastic element to be treated to the author’s specific vision. It was immersive. In Chronicles of the Shadow War, it was a hideous slog because it was just so long and told from a dry, bland, omniscient perspective. On the other end of the spectrum, with spare descriptive stories, sometimes I find myself wishing they’d given me some indication of what a person looks like, or what the afternoon was like. Description can be just as important to setting the mood and tone of a scene as anything else in the narrative, and in some cases it is heavily-dependent on what you as a reader see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
I myself have written description on both ends of the spectrum, and a few places in-between, and I think there’s merit in most of the levels of descriptive narrative depending on what you’re writing and what you’re trying to convey.
So how do you write description that fits what you’re trying to accomplish?
The Three-of-Five Rule
I’ve created a mostly arbitrary rule that I abide by in most cases, especially for a first draft. This is a personal rule and not one you’re likely to find in a creative writing textbook, but I believe it has merit. It is called the Three-of-Five Rule.
The rule basically states that in any given scene, you use the three most important senses for description, and those three are dependent on the scene. The main two senses most people will always use are sight and sound, with touch being a close third. The colors of a bird in flight, the sound of its chirping, the hair-ruffling wind its wings create when it flies low over your head.
When I’m writing, I usually know what tone or mood I’m going for in a particular scene, and from that jumping-off point I can make more educated and, more importantly, quicker decisions about which senses I feel really evoke that mood best.
Often it comes down to “Well, what is most important in a scene to get across?” and you describe the senses based on that. In a battle you might see smoke rising from a crater, feel the grit of dust and dirt as it works its way into your boots, smell all the awful things that create that battlefield melange, taste blood and mud, hear the ring of steel clashing, etc. But if you go into great detail about every sense every time you describe something, you’re just going overboard and people lose interest because nothing is happening but pages of description followed by more pages of description.
In writing a first draft, I use the Three-of-Five Rule as my starting point for any given scene. I break it from time to time, like any writing rule, but probably 99% of the time I start with this. Instead of agonizing over description for a first draft, use the Three-of-Five Rule to quickly gauge senses and move on, because description is the least important part of a narrative in the first draft, and the one you’re most likely to change drastically in editing phases.
You may ask why I say it’s the least important part of a narrative when I talk about how important it is earlier in this article. It’s not that it’s unimportant in a first draft. It’s that maintaining momentum when writing is very important, and getting lost in the description when you should be focusing on character and story progression is a great way to suddenly and completely halt your progress because you can’t decide exactly how to describe the shield of the warrior that just appeared.
Description is largely an end-user experience versus the one doing the writing. Whatever you describe, no matter how detailed, will come across differently to different people. The less you describe, the more a reader supplants her own imagination. The more a reader uses her imagination in interpreting your story, the closer she may feel to it in the long run. There is the risk of running too descriptive and boring the reader, just as there is the risk of running too spare and confusing the reader. If she has to completely invent every descriptive element in your story, she probably just lost interest in the forward progress because she’s focusing on something else.
Finding that balance between your vision and letting the reader create his own vision is hard to do, but that’s part of the Three-of-Five Rule, too. It helps to keep you moving forward and gives you a good median to start with when you begin editing in earnest, but it also tends to leave some stuff to the reader’s imagination, and that’s a very good thing.
When is it most appropriate to use the Three-of-Five Rule? The earlier in the stages of development the better.
First draft? Absolutely. Getting that first draft written is hard enough without adding in “but the description has to be perfect!” I use it all the time in first drafts.
Second draft? Sure. You’re still refining the sequences of events, you’re still gauging what’s important and what isn’t, you’re still making a lot of cuts and removing unnecessary bits. But you’re also changing and adding, and the Three-of-Five Rule is great for that.
Third draft? Probably starting to consider specific descriptions as opposed to a more generic “here’s what the scene is” in order to convey the emotional and tonal quality of the scene. I’ve typically stepped away from this rule and have started to dissect the scenes more fully in order to understand “What do I actually need here?”
Beyond Third draft? It gets more useless the further you get in the revision process. By the time I look through my stories a fourth time and beyond, I’m very unlikely to give the Three-of-Five Rule even a passing thought.
The overarching goal of these Brain2Page articles, if you haven’t figured it out, is “getting the ideas out of the mind and onto the page”. In order to do that, you have to devise methods that keep you moving. If you let yourself sit idle while considering the specific shade of lipstick your main character is wearing, you’ve already broken the momentum. You can focus on the details later.
The descriptive details don’t matter until you have a story/characters that your descriptive details can support.
If you like this writing rule, let me know in the comments.
And reply with any writing tricks you find helpful in the descriptive process!