What makes a story stick in your mind as you read it? More specifically, what makes a scene jump out at you? Witty banter and emotional punch are definitely large parts of that equation. However, another important element of scenes is descriptive details, those tricky little things that can either trip us up or make our writing soar.
I’m not a fan of huge chunks of description, partly because it eliminates white space and partly because I’m not particularly visual. Other people may enjoy it more, and every author will handle their descriptions a little differently. There is no perfect rule. As with most things, though, I’m in favor of a moderate approach.
- Pick the important details – Sure, you could describe every aspect of the character’s bedroom – trust me, I once spent hours researching colors and 19th century styles just so I could do that very thing – but does any of it matter to the story? If the color of the chair helps explain some facet of your character, then go ahead. If it’s just another word to add, though, be careful. Sure, giving an idea of where things are is good, but I’m personally more in favor of a sketch than a detailed drawing. In the same story as I referenced above, I was very exacting with measurements and the like. As a result, those scenes were bursting with boring, unnecessary details. Mentioning a chair by the window and a bed across the room is fine, but what’s more important? The delicate, fairylike curtains or the music box on the dresser? The answer to that would vary by story. For a tomboy character, those curtains could highlight either a mother’s unwanted influence or an unexpected facet of said character’s personality. The music box might be unimportant in a room full of pretty things, but it may be the highlight for a child who has very little. Mention the things that have meaning in the setting. In addition, when describing people, focus on the distinctive details – the scar across the brow, the pale complexion, the unusually colored eyes. Most people form their own image of a character anyway, so there’s little need to be specific down to the last detail.
- Don’t dump everything at once – I often skim description when it extends for more than a few sentences. So, if you tell me everything about the ranch house and then go on to paint the hills, sunset and far-flung herds as well without mixing in any action, you may very well lose me. Description becomes infinitely more interesting when intertwined with action and dialogue. So, to replace:
The dark-stained, irregularly-shaped oak boards led her gaze around the house’s exterior, where she took in dark green window shutters against brown frames and a plethora of potted plants. Three wide steps were contained by ivy-covered railings. They looked old but sturdy. In front of the door, a carpet greeted guests with a faded “Welcome.”
Perhaps instead we could say:
Charlotte’s hand trailed along the railing as she stepped up to the porch, catching on thick ivy. Staring at the dark-stained siding, her mouth turned up. “Those aren’t even.”
Jackson passed her. “That’s ‘cause they were made by hand. They’re plenty sturdy, despite the look.”
She moved to the door, glancing at the faded “Welcome” mat. “The potted plants kind of ruin the rustic image.”
Winking, he unlocked the house. “Don’t tell Mama.”
See the difference? Of course, my examples aren’t perfect, but I think they adequately show the difference between a detail dump and a pleasant introduction to a scene with character interaction and scene movement. Blocky descriptions encourage skimming, especially with the ever-increasing use of digital screens.
- Don’t be afraid of modifiers – One of the pieces of writing advice that I’ve had hammered into my head aplenty is to avoid adjectives and adverbs. While I understand the reason for that advice – to avoid bloated prose that doesn’t use strong nouns and verbs – I’m afraid it fosters an atmosphere where the use of any adjectives and, especially, adverbs, is criticized. Modifiers add immense depth to writing when used correctly. The keyis to use them for enhancing what’s already there instead of hiding what’s not.
- Make your details count – This is similar to the first point, but, while that one was more character-focused, this deals with plot. Even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, we still leave clues for our readers. And, while we don’t usually tell them everything up front, it is important, in my opinion, to be intentional about what we do show them. If Carol goes to a party and her diamond earrings later become the center of a smuggling investigation, I’d better have been told about her wearing those earrings, or at least owning them, earlier. If a valuable book is lying on my main character’s table and is then stolen, I’d like to have seen the book at least once. These examples don’t apply to everything, and there’s always an exception. The principle, though, is this: if something about a scene is important to the story, mention it somehow, even if you don’t assign any particular importance to it at the time.
Ultimately, as writers, we usually have a grasp on what things look like and how they unfold in a scene. Readers have only what we give them. So, every now and then we need to step back and look at a scene from our readers’ perspectives. Do the details I’ve included give an accurate picture of this person, room, or object? Are readers given access to things that will prove important later, detail-wise? Are they being overwhelmed and lost in prose? This story is for them to read and enjoy; I just want to make sure they can.
Do you like writing and reading description? What kind of details do you focus on? Let me know in the comments!