Description in Action

A writing student of mine recently asked me to share some thoughts on writing setting and character descriptions. Here’s what I told her.

In general, less experienced writers tend to make one of two mistakes regarding description; they either write too much of it, or too little. Both can be problems.

With too little description, readers are left feeling disconnected from your prose or, worse yet, confused. Stories with too little description can come off like bland newspaper copy, just a string of facts and events which, compelling as they might be, are unlikely to transport readers into a story or kindle an emotional connection.

When writers include too much description, the prose feels bloated and overly dense. If you’ve ever tried to hike through the woods where there’s no path, you’ll know the sensation. You soon become bogged down in thick underbrush and get stuck. We’ve all read stories that start off by spending five pages describing the countryside, or devote whole paragraphs to listing a character’s physical traits. Not only is that boring, including all those excess descriptions can distract your reader from what’s important in the story.

So how do you achieve the ultimate “Goldilocks” balance of detail and description, not too much and not too little? The goal is always this: include as little description as possible, but make it EFFECTIVE. Try to find one or two details or an analogy that cut through your subject like a bullet. Here’s some homework: pull out five or six of your favorite books and read the first few pages. Most likely, they will include the description of a character (probably the protagonist) and a setting. Examine how this author handles the descriptions. How many words or sentences does she use to describe the character and establish the setting? Is there a word, sentence, or phrase that cuts to the heart of the subject, evoking who that character or what that place is in a way no other description, even one many paragraphs long, ever could? Study those examples, and learn from them. Remember, if you’re looking to get your story published, editors and agents will demand that your protagonist and setting are vividly established as early as possible– ideally in the first paragraph or two, and certainly on the first page.

Now, let’s examine some traits and tricks particular to describing people and settings.

Describing Characters | Here’s the biggest secret to describing characters: don’t describe them. Okay, okay, that’s not completely true. There are a few traits that we need to know, and know right away. How old is the character? What is their defining characteristic? Does he have a port wine mark on his face? Is she albino? Is she 600 pounds? Is he miraculously average looking? These things you might state outright, either in the character’s internal dialogue if you’re writing from his/her point of view, or if not, from the point of view of a character seeing them. But often, we want to examine subtler aspects of a character. The best way to do that, and the biggest key to character description, is to have the character DO something and let their character be revealed through ACTION. Here are two ways of describing the same character:

“She had very large breasts, and always felt embarrassed by them. She felt that they made everyone think of her as a sex object.”

“Only when she leaned down did he notice a seismic shift of flesh beneath her loose-fitting top. When she saw him looking at her, she crossed her arms over her chest and looked away, the color draining form her face.”

See how these two examples contain the same information, but in the second one, the information is revealed IN ACTION? In the first example, the story has stopped for the author to intrude with a comment; in the second example, the character description is imbedded in the action. The story is moving forward, rather than stopping, plus we learn more about the characters and their relationships that we would if we were merely being fed a description by the author. This technique, description in action, is an indispensable hallmark if sophisticated writing.

Describing Settings | The same technique, description in action, can be used for describing setting. See the two examples below:

“The house was abandoned and creepy. Every surface seemed to be caked in dust and cobwebs.”

“Carlos yanked a white cloth off the dining room table and a cloud of dust ghosted up from it, filling his nostrils. He gagged, and his coughs echoed through the abandoned rooms, sending black spiders and sharp-eyed rodents scurrying for cover.”

Notice how both descriptions contain essentially the same information, but the second one is so much more vibrant, and keeps the action moving forward.

Setting is very important in establishing tone. Look around the room you’re sitting in. If you described every single object around you in minute detail, it could probably fill twenty pages. So how to you pick what to describe and how to describe it?

First, consider your character’s point of view. What do they want? What state of mind is she in? If she is suicidal and walks into the kitchen, you might describe the block of kitchen knives. If she is trying to lose weight, you’ll ignore the knives and describe the delicious-looking chocolate cake sitting on the counter. Your character’s focus is your focus.

Second, describing your setting is the perfect place to use word choice to convey your piece’s tone. In the example above, we established in the first example that the setting should be creepy. We’re creating an eerie tone. So notice the word choices I made in the second example:

“Carlos yanked a white cloth off the dining room table and a cloud of dust ghosted up from it, filling his nostrils. He gagged, and his coughs echoed through the abandoned rooms, sending black spiders and sharp-eyed rodents scurrying for cover.”

Now, imagine this is a character exploring an empty house in a happy love story. You might write it like this:

“Carlos yanked a white cloth off the dining room table and a cloud of dust wafted up from it, filling his nostrils. The sound of his sneeze filled the sun-brightened rooms, sending the tiny field mouse that watched him from one corner scurrying for cover.”

The setting and the actions in both passages are very similar, but notice how different word choices and details can turn it into an entirely different world. Also notice that in both examples, because of my careful word choices, the setting is well-established in only two sentences.

For both characters and settings, once they are established it is sometimes necessary to reinforce them in the minds of the reader, but again this should be done in the context of action, and should provide some deepening understanding of character, rather than just repeating what the reader already knows.

You might be wondering, how do I know what details to include, and what word choices to make? Before you can make choices that serve your story, you have to know what the story is. If you’re describing setting, how is your protagonist feeling when they enter that setting? How do you want your reader to feel? For character, ask yourself: who is this person? What do they want? What is most important to them? What is his defining characteristic? Only after answering these questions will you be able to make word choices that create the right tone for the story and illuminate the characters.

Finally, for a reminder of how a little description can go a long way, I suggest you read some Hemingway. He was a master of trusting the reader and allowing her to fill in her own details. Take this sentence:

“The girl and her grandfather walked down the stairs, into the grandfather’s basement.”

This sentence is devoid of description. And yet, a reader left to her own devices will fill in many details. You have either been a little girl or have known one. You have either had a grandfather or known one. And you likely have walked down stairs and into a basement. In the absence of other instruction, a reader will construct a scene from his or her own experience, and sometimes that can be very powerful. My grandfather and his basement have much more emotional resonance for me than any fictional grandfather or fictional basement you could ever construct. So unless you have a compelling reason for making the basement or grandfather in your story specific, why not let my (the reader’s) subconscious do the work? Sometimes this can be an incredibly effective technique, but you must be careful to use it mindfully, so that it doesn’t become simply lazy writing.

Much more could be written on this subject, but that’s all you get for now. Go forth and write some brilliant descriptions! I hope my thoughts will help.