Too much description is one of the biggest faults a book can have. Too many details that distract from the story’s plot or its characters will cause readers to become bored, to skip over sections of description, and perhaps even to give up on reading the book. As author Elmore Leonard has famously said in his “Ten Rules of Writing”: “Leave out the boring parts.”
But how do you leave out the boring parts while still providing the details necessary to describe the characters or the setting? Here are a few tips for creating effective description.
Hook the Reader Now. Describe Later. The Victorians did not mind a lot of description. But they had a lot more time to read than us because they had limited entertainment-no movies, no computers, no virtual reality or video games to play, not so much media competing for their attention. Their novels tended to run to three volumes and they didn’t care how long it took them to read a book because often they didn’t have many books to read. Today’s readers are different. They want manageable stories-ones they can read in a few hours, in a sitting, and ones that keep the pace moving forward.
The trick of good storytelling now is to hook the reader right away. Victorian authors might have spent the entire first chapter describing the house where the characters live or the peculiarities of the main character, all in third person narration. Today’s reader will rebel. Instead, begin in the middle of the action. Write an attention grabbing sentence to begin the book, such as, “Nobody knew just how Joanie had died, but when her body was found with a green skin color and exuding the smell of rotting fish, it was very clear that she was dead.” This kind of sentence immediately makes the reader curious what happened so he will read on. Beginning with a line of dialogue, a question or statement that raises questions, is also a good idea, for example: “What makes you think I would do a crazy thing like agree to a green card marriage with you?” Judy demanded. The question grabs the reader’s attention, making him want to find out just what this situation is all about.
Neither of these examples has anything really to do with description, but that’s my point. Avoid the description until you have the reader’s interest. Keep that first chapter a page turner and save the description for later. Begin in the middle of the action, a pivotal moment for the main character, and then in the second chapter, after you’ve hooked the reader, you can go on to describe the character and the setting.
Describe Only What is Significant. Want to bore the reader? Describe everything. Nineteenth century authors were good at that. Victor Hugo would throw in an entire chapter in the middle of the action to describe what Notre Dame Cathedral looked like, while all the while the reader is saying, “Let’s get back to the Hunchback and Esmeralda.” Often these old authors would have a scene where two characters meet. The first character enters the room where the second character is seated, and before a word is out of their mouths, we are given a description of the room-perhaps the office of the second character-that goes on for paragraphs. It’s possible that knowing about the dusty bookshelves in the room, the peeling wallpaper, the cracked windowpane, etc. all bring up atmosphere and help us to get to know that this second character is an unsuccessful lawyer. But a paragraph of that at most is sufficient. We don’t need to know about the broken clock, the Victorian light fixtures, the mahogany desk, the swivel chair etc. And unless this room is to be the setting for several more scenes, there’s no point in bringing all this information before the reader’s eyes.
Rule of thumb. If an item or character is significant to the plot, describe it. If not, ignore it. For example, a family heirloom wedding ring that is lost but must be found, and will have the plot center around it, is worth describing. The wallpaper in a room is not, unless its pattern is actually the disguise for a treasure map. Same with people. The girl at Kinko’s who makes copies for the main character does not need to be described unless she’ll be in multiple scenes and a recurring character for whom the main character has feelings, or she’s someone with feelings for the main character who is going to act upon those feelings, which will make her significant to the plot.
Again, “Leave out the boring parts.”
Give the Character, not the Narrator, Descriptive Power. Which of these two passages is most effective?
- Mark was a tall young man of twenty-three. He was a bit on the skinny side which made him less attractive than his beefier male friends, but in another few years as his friends put on weight, this thin exterior would serve Mark well. He wore a button down shirt and glasses and had the appearance of a nerd, but his pleasant manner, good looks, and piercing blue eyes still often made the ladies pay attention.
- When Mark and Trevor walked into the room, Sheila’s eyes were instantly drawn to Trevor for his muscular build, dark hair and eyes, and his sexy saunter. It wasn’t until he left the dance floor that his friend Mark came under her radar. As Sheila saw Mark smiling while laughing with another girl, she instantly felt a surge of jealousy because she could tell from his honest look that he was the real thing-and he had better genes. He was tall and thin, while Trevor’s muscles would soon enough turn to fat. Sheila badly wanted a baby. She was tired of playboys, and Mark had that responsible look-a dressy button-down shirt as opposed to Trevor’s black skin-tight t-shirt-that made Sheila think she might have just found the father of her child.
Which description is better? I hope you think it’s the second one. What makes this second description better? It’s more engaging because we learn about more than one character-actually three characters are described here. The description is more effective because the two characters Mark and Trevor are compared to one another and a judgment is made about them. We don’t have an omniscient or indifferent point of view; we have the viewpoint of the main female character, and in learning how she describes to herself the men she sees, we learn something about her character as well. Best of all, the description furthers the plot. We have character motivation for the events about to happen in the novel. We know where the plot is headed. Sheila is going to try to win over Mark, and we even have the possibility of a love triangle since Trevor is Mark’s friend but also a player who might end up being interested in Sheila. A lot of possibilities exist with this passage and the reader becomes curious just what will happen.
Putting the description in the eyes of another character is also effective through dialogue. Sheila could next ask her friend Veronica whether she knows Mark, and then they can have a discussion about him that adds to the character details and description. It’s far more interesting than straightforward description.
Description Challenge: Pay attention to the novels and stories you read. Do you find yourself skimming passages? Stop and ask yourself why. Is it because you want to find out what is going to happen and the description gets in the way? Are you bored? If you were writing the book, how would you do it differently?
Look at the descriptive passages in the story or novel you are writing. How can you tweak them so places and people are described through a character’s eyes rather than your own as the narrator?
Good writing means having control over the descriptive passages. Failure to make the description effective will bog down the story and turn off your readers. Transform your description into part of the plot and character development and watch your story metamorphose into something remarkable.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.
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