A Question of Description

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Photo by Sophie Masson.

Description, writers are often told, holds up action in a novel. Modern readers have no patience with it. Limit it, we are advised. Pare it down. Or even dispense with it altogether.

I don’t agree. I think description is indispensable for a story, any story, to really feel alive. And not just ‘limited’ description either. We humans are sensual creatures and sensual images are what we need to evoke emotion and to plunge into fictional worlds as much as real ones. Settings, characters, action itself, in fact, all need description. Or the emotional power is lost. Story without description is zombified, numbing the reader. But it’s also true that story with too much description is suffocated. So description needs to be the right sort.

But what’s that? Sometimes, you’ll be advised to cut out adjectives, or adverbs—the poor old adverb often has a rough trot of it, in authorship how-to books. I think that’s another case of a poor reputation being unfairly tagged on a very useful part of language. Used judiciously—see the adverb working!–they can be excellent. As with any part of language, though, they need to be in the right proportion. For example, verbs, which are often hailed by minimalists as the best ‘descriptor’ can be misused too and in large numbers weigh down the text just as heavily as too many adjectives or adverbs.

The thing with description is, it’s got to be ‘alive’, if it’s going to capture the reader’s attention. And modern readers are every bit as keen on that as readers in the past. But they also mostly like to be put right into the thick of a story right from the beginning, rather than read a leisurely descriptive introduction which sets the scene. Though that’s not always a hard and fast rule(as you’ll see below), it is a common preference.

And so in view of that, it’s my advice that you don’t abandon description, but the main rule of thumb is to scatter it throughout, at the right moments, for maximum emotional and sensual effect. And to set every part of language to work: nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, simile, plays on words, onomatopoeia, and metaphor—and more! It’s very effective, as well as fun, to experiment with all these elements to create different feelings, and to focus on different things.

Here’s a few concrete examples of what I mean, from various books of mine:

Description of a setting, where I’ve mostly used verbs:

I love the freedom I have here, where you can run barefoot in long summer grass or whoop as you race a sleigh across snowy fields, or get ink on your fingers and your nose, and nobody cares. Nobody that is apart from my sisters.

Description of a character and an emotional atmosphere, which uses adjectives and adverbs:

This wasn’t the everyday Luz, lively, argumentative and sometimes annoying, but a big-eyed, alarmingly quiet and gentle version of her, and almost more than anything else his cousin’s transformation made Emilio realise how much his whole world had shifted.

Another description of a character, using carefully chosen adjectives to build a simile:

With his cold beady eyes and his spindly legs in their dusty black trousers, he reminds me of a bedraggled elderly crow.

This very immediate snapshot scene especially uses nouns and adjectives to create a sensual picture:

Just as it had looked, it tasted wonderful: caviar on croutons, lobster in tarragon cream, fresh young steamed asparagus with a lemony sauce, tiny pheasant pies, some anchovy eclairs and a preserved artichoke salad which tasted of the sun. It was the kind of thing I could only dream of, normally, and I did not bolt my food but took time to savour each mouthful, each separate taste and texture and smell, rolling them on my palate, my tongue, in seventh tastebud heaven.

And finally, just to show you that you can break that ‘rule’ about no description right at the start: We’d been travelling for hours. The rain that had dogged us since Euroa had eased and was now a mere soft drizzle that was hardly perceptible in the dense forest we were now going through. Mrs Gill was asleep, along with her three small children (thanks be to God). Miss Davies was reading a novel. The taciturn old man opposite me who’d avoided giving his name had his eyes closed, but only, you felt, so he didn’t have to look at anyone. Papa was writing up his usual notes on our travels—a heroic undertaking, in our present cramped and uncomfortable circumstances—and as to me, well, I was just sitting there, thinking. Not about anything important—or anything that might have served as premonition—or anything uncanny at all. No, I was just thinking drowsily about how odd it was that April was in autumn here instead of spring, when all at once the coach gave a jolt—greater than any of the others we’d had to endure on this atrocious road—and stopped dead.

That one was the very first paragraph of a very successful novel of mine which young modern readers—supposedly the most impatient of readers!–apparently had no trouble with at all. What I did with this scene was to combine that ninenteeth-century feel of ‘setting the scene’ (the book is set in the mid 19th century)with the modern notion of ‘cutting to the chase’–taking you right into the thick of the action—in this case, an ambush on the road. It worked really well, because the reader is then feeling both the uncomfortable, stupefying nature of long-distance travel, and the abrupt change which is just about to plunge our hero and his fellow travellers into a very different world. You also get clues about the characters and setting: such as April is autumn rather than spring, so clearly it’s set we are in the southern hemisphere—but the narrator is also clearly from the northern hemisphere, judging from his comment. There’s a lot packed into a one short scene—and it could not have been achieved without description.

So don’t be afraid of description. Experiment with it, play with it, and value it as an absolutely essential part of the writer’s craft.

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. says

    One of the writers in my group kept saying she was skipping over the boring parts — description — and would have to fill it in. My response: If you think description is going to be boring, then it probably will be that way. Description isn’t boring unless it’s written that way.

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  2. says

    I think it depends on the genre also. When reading thrillers, I like my prose tight, tense, with the descriptions giving me the bare minimum of what I need to know. The action takes precedent.

    But I’m also a huge fan of Southern fiction, where the prose and descriptions seem to drip off the page. I love to feel the dense humidity, hear the mosquitoes and crickets in the twilight, smell the the orange blossoms and jasmine drifting over from the neighbors’ yards. Setting is almost a beloved character.

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  3. Maureen Ungar says

    Description is the salt of a story. Descriptive passages are one reason I fell in love with reading and why I write. For instance, I was immediately charmed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s colorful opening, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell…’ Removal of such passages would be a story’s greatest loss.

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  4. says

    I’ve always LOVED description and tend to use a lot of it in my novels. I’m also a dialogue junkie, though, and pepper my descriptions with it. My novels tend to be littered with lots of both and the books I favor while reading do as well, I’ve noticed.

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  5. says

    My editor excoriates me for inadequate description. Description is context and important to the story. How extensive and when provided can be debated but not the need for sensory orientation.

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  6. Judith says

    What a tragedy that would be if one writes without description! No adjectives, no adverbs! How sad,

    In university one of my writing professors, took a naked, bare bones prose poem of mine and wrote across the top of the page, “YOU FORGOT THE MINUTE PARTICULARS!” In other words, ” Where is your description?”

    My poetry soared after that little bit of instruction!
    Judith

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  7. says

    Sophie, thank you! I love description in a story – no, not the boring kind. I love sounds, smells, and physical attributes of characters. I focus on crime fiction now and understand that these readers are even less patient with description. I recently cut a chunk out of my first chapter – going against my instincts − because a critic insisted that it weakened the suspense. I wanted the reader to empathize with the victim before she was murdered. She would remain a prominent figure in the book long after her second chapter demise.
    On the flip side, I’ve had my readers say they pictured the characters and the scenes so well, it increased the suspense. You’ve restored my confidence! Without description, the reader will never feel they are a part of the story.

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  8. says

    I am a very descriptive writer, but also class my work as fitting into the thriller genre, which can be a difficult balance to strike. I agree with Maureen completely, that description is the salt of the story, and is the one of the reasons why I just fell in love with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when I read that. But, like most things, there is a time and a place. Description for me is the difference in me believing in emotion and character development, or finding it flat and transparent. The descriptions are the details that our senses pick up in real life, what we see, taste, or a smell that reminds us of something from childhood for example. But, and it’s a big but, when the story hots up and somebody is in a chase or a precarious situation, all senses except for the most relevant go out of the window, and it’s important to reflect that in written passages and dialogue. Nobody in real life would wonder how it was that the clouds bumbled along lazily like candy floss in the breeze if there was somebody chasing him with a gun!

    Great post!

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  9. Denise Willson says

    Like everything in life, it’s all about moderation.

    Thanks, Sophie.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  10. says

    This is an outstanding post, Sophie (I just tweeted it as I have a lot of indie writer followers).

    Description can be used for a writer to “show off,” or it can have an important purpose in prose, to pull the reader into the world of the novel and make them believe they are right there, with the characters. I always ask myself, “is this organic”? If it’s there for a purpose and if it’s believable in the moment (as Michelle Muckley wisely writes, above), then a really vivid description can be as vital to a story as action.

    In my new novel Reality Boulevard, my agent asked me if I really want to open the book with a description instead of action:

    “The Muse had been debauched.

    At the pinnacle of Hollywood’s Highland Boulevard, the towering Muse of Music hugged her harp against her gown, almond eyes pressed tight, sweeping cheekbones barely visible under layers of bird droppings the color and consistency of cream cheese and nutella. Shrubs and weeds crept, untamed, toward the sandaled feet of her grafitti-flecked handmaids, Drama and Dance. Three magnificent Muses, born of silvery polished granite, now ash-black, dulled and stained by the blasts of a thousand angry exhaust pipes merging on and off and on and off the 101 Freeway. Bone dry, their fountain beds gaped like slack-mouthed sleepers, reflecting a white hot, empty light, like everything else that lay too long under the Los Angeles sun”

    But this description (and the statue that it describes) is emblematic in the novel, and also sets the tone for everything that happens after. It also reflects the mindset of one of the main characters, who we meet in the next sentence. One thing my agent’s admonition did force me to do, however, was to pare the description down to its most basic elements. The final description is about half the length of my original draft. Thank God!

    I love hearing how other writers handle this stuff, as I have just returned to fiction after a long hiatus.

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    • says

      Thank you, Melissa. It’s often the way, isn’t it–a keen reader’s eye who you can trust can whisk foggy words away and make you see things more clearly–and so also make the description much sharper and with more impact.

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  11. says

    This is an aspect of craft I know I need to work on. Thank you for the concrete examples, Sophie, and the clear evidence that rules have their time and place. (And that ain’t always and everywhere.)

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    • says

      It’s my weak spot too. I love descriptions, love writing them and could probably spend hours tinkering with a paragraph until it becomes a live teleporter, but I’m very aware that I’m still far from writing captivating descriptions throughout the length of a novel…
      This post gives such great examples, it makes me envious. :P

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  12. says

    Wonderful post! it is going into my arsenal! It’s a breath of relief to know that when Stephen King says “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”, I can disagree with him by using said hellish device wisely.

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  13. says

    Anyone who takes issue with description, claiming that it drags the action down and tries the patience of modern readers, should read Stephen King’s short story “1408.” Usually setting is just the fuzzy backdrop for the star characters, but in “1408” the setting IS the star character. (The first half is a bit slow, but when you get to the meat of it…Let’s just say you shouldn’t read it alone in the dark at night :D)

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  14. says

    Description helps set the scene. Unfortunately, too many don’t know the fine line between giving too much(thus denying the reader the use of his or her imagination) and giving too little(thus making the reader wonder what is really going on). It’s a delicate balance between not making your book boring or overwrought with superlatives, and painting just enough so the reader can properly fill in the blanks.

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  15. says

    I love this post. I spent so much time paring down description in my novel, and one of the first things my editor has asked me to do is put it back. There are so many places where she couldn’t “see” things, as she put it. When I would hear, over and over, to get rid of “unneccessary description”, I took that to mean all but the bare minimum of description was unneccessary.

    Now I understand how important meaningful description is. When it is woven in as part of the story rather than clogging up passages in giant unweildy blocks, it’s a wonderful thing. Love your passages. I’ll be checking out your books :)

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  16. says

    True, sometimes too many rules spoil the set. I feel the description of a place does just that…creates a sense of Place. The Place sets the stage of the story.
    J. K. Rowling, for example…

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  17. says

    I couldn’t agree more! It took me a long time (as a YA writer) to realise that the books I loved didn’t scrimp on the details and used similar techniques to the last example you provided in making sure action and description were merged. I want to be able to “see” books as I read them. It’s not having that visual picture in my head that makes my attention falter. Which book of yours was the last example? I’m already hooked!

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  18. says

    Blame the grapevine effect for some of the confusion.

    Stories are primarily created via descriptions.

    I definitely agree with Sophie.

    The only time I don’t like CERTAIN kinds of descriptions in a story, is when it’s irrelevant, it’s common knowledge, or it’s redundant without a purpose. Great detail is not needed for an average street appearance unless it’s a clue for something. I think the same thing goes for adverbs. Haphazardly, (buahaha) throwing the “ly” at the end of a word can be irritating. Some words have enough syllables and adding an extra “ly” gives an awkward feel to a sentence.

    I love descriptions when they provoke feelings and add tension to a story.

    This is also an area I need to diligently work at.

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  19. Lucy Flint says

    One of my favorite writing professors pushed us to write the *telling* detail. “Take lots of notes on what you’re going to describe, and then sift through and use only the telling details.” I always took this to mean those minute details that capture this moment, this time, this place, and none other.

    Skipping the general details in favor of the most exquisite. It’s extra work, but it makes me feel more like a craftswoman.

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  20. says

    Thank you so much for writing this post, Sophie! I am not a fan of minimalism, either, and while one does have to be wary of being too overwrought, descriptions make things live!

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  21. says

    I’m currently reading a book by an acquaintance that suffers from a lack of compelling description, especially in page upon page of dialogue that would be VASTLY improved with some good description to break it up. If some authors of days gone by failed to break up description with dialogue, our generation seems to have the opposite problem.

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  22. says

    Absolutely, Sophie, description has to be “alive.” I do a conference workshop on “experiential description” that addresses writing narrative description filtered through the lens of how the protagonist perceives thing–more than a snapshop, settings, people, and action are described with the flavor of a character’s experience and feeling. Good show. Thanks.

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  23. says

    Description doesn’t bog a story down–but badly-written description, or large chunks of description–certainly will. You don’t pour a large glop of seasoning on a piece of food; you scatter it, in small doses, as you go.

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  24. says

    Description pleases an introvert like me, someone who sits and notices. I understand that there’s the constant drumbeat to develop the character and advance the action, but the look, feel, and smell of things and people around a character can show very much about him or her. As for advancing the action, there’s always inclement weather, a treat to describe.

    Description is the anaesthesia that can either send the reader into a long dark slumber or a wonderful world of dreams. Yes, it should be used sparingly, but so should everything. I would treat it as far more than a seasoning — a pasta sauce maybe.

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  25. says

    I prefer description to be juxtaposed with action or dialogue to keep it interesting. I usually enjoy description in first person the most, but I am not closed off to others. I don’t think all descriptive passages are boring. If your story isn’t boring, then your descriptions don’t have to be either.

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