It’s Thursday, and that means time to ramble.
What’s in a description? When you’re writing a scene, sometimes you want to get all the details down. What’s the room look like? What’s it smell like? Who’s in the room, and what do THEY look and smell like? What are they doing from second to second? Who simpers playfully and who remarks with anger? What are they wearing? Is it important to know what they’re wearing?
These are all examples of describing the backdrop of a scene or the characters in the scene. Some people like to write paragraphs and paragraphs of description, so that without a doubt you know exactly what a room looks like, and where things are positioned, and where people are seated, and who’s wearing last week when she should be wearing THIS week.Others like to write as little description as is possible to get across that there are, in fact, people in a room, and not snakes on a mountaintop who happen to be able to speak.
If you’re a writer, you’ve no doubt struggled with this. How much is too much description? How little is not enough description? What are the important details to describe and what can be left out?
It’s a neverending conundrum and every writer approaches it differently, at varying levels of description.
And it’s often worse depending on the genre you choose to write in. If you do Literature, you can get away with fleeting glimpses of the scenery much easier than if you were writing horror, or police procedural (mystery), or fantasy/sci fi.
There’s a common rule when it comes to writing description: More description is needed the less a reader knows about your world.
Which is to say that if you’re writing about the coffee shop down the street, people are going to understand what your coffee shop looks like, so describing it in great detail is pretty unnecessary. However, writing about an alien homeworld from the perspective of that alien race is hard to do without delving into the ways in which it is different from any society we already know, which you can fill in with description.
So how do you describe the coffee shop, and the person or people interacting within it, without going overboard with mundane details that everyone already knows?
I’ve talked at length about one of the tricks I use in a first draft, which is the Three-of-Five Rule, or to make sure each scene has established the three most important senses out of your narrative perspective characters’ point of view. It’s a useful tool during the early drafts because it allows you to think about your characters in terms of their surroundings, and decide what THEY think is important to a scene. If it’s important to them, it’s probably going to be important to the reader.
That’s one trick, but it’s not a catch-all.
The best advice I can give, and it’s common advice, is that you shouldn’t be describing mundane details. You should be describing the things that the reader can’t know, or won’t expect. Describe the coffee shop by talking about what makes it unique. Is it a novelty shop with goofy shit on the walls? Is it a themed shop that has records hanging from the ceiling?
You describe the unexpected and the unique.
Those of you who pay any kind of attention to my writing know that I’m in the camp of little to no description. Especially during a first draft I’m as slim as possible. The only details I include are those that are important to the story, or to a character. It often means I’m flying through the narrative and dialogue and have a pretty lean first draft. Then I can go back through and dissect the descriptions I already have, cutting what isn’t needed, adding in the other stuff I realize I do need later.
Description is an amazing tool if used correctly. What you should never do is let the description of a scene or character get in the way of forward progress on the writing of the first draft. Nothing you write in the first draft is going to be the same, so why spend all that time on description when you already know you’re going to be changing and tweaking and adding and removing later?
At the end of the day, various factors come into play that determine the level of description that is right for you. Personal preference, genre, age range of the intended market (young adults, teenagers, preteens, etc. often don’t have all the experiences that help them know everything you’re talking about, so more description in key ways can be good for them).
You have to decide how much description is right for you and your work, and always remember to write the hell on.
I’m in the just enough camp.