Descriptions in Writing: Love it or Hate it?

May 27, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

One thing I usually try and avoid as a reader and writer is description — character appearance and especially location.  As a reader, whenever I see a long slab of description that meticulously describes every detail of a piece of clothing or a room, I tend to scan over it or skip it completely.  As a writer, I struggle with descriptions.  I seldom know how detailed I should be, and I almost always have difficulty in choosing the right descriptors.

Having said that, you can’t exactly avoid it.  You can choose to be detailed in order to give a clearer picture, or you can choose to be sparse to allow the narrative to flow and make readers use their imagination.  Or you can be somewhere in between.  So where does the balance lie?

So is detailed description good or bad?  Why is it that I have enjoyed books at both ends of the scale?

Recently I’ve realised that I’ve been going about it the wrong way.  I was thinking about description for the sake of description.  When I wrote a scene, I would go: “Oh, I better add some descriptions in there because that’s what I’m probably supposed to do.”

As a result, I produced long, boring and unoriginal descriptions that I would be the first to skip if I came across it.  It’s something I’ve been noticing in a lot of what I consider to be ‘poor’ writing.  Okay, so we know what this person’s hair and eye colour is and what clothes they are wearing and what their room looks like — but so what?  What does that do for me as a reader?

Today in class, we workshopped a brilliant piece of writing from one of the other students.  It was fantastic because it managed to create incredibly vivid images in my mind by using just a few, but absolutely spot on details here and there to describe character and location.  It made me envious how she could pick and choose a couple of small things about a character that would give me a great idea of what they looked like and gave me clues as to their personality.

So it’s not about the amount of description — it’s choosing the most appropriate description for whatever you are describing.  It doesn’t matter if it is long or short provided it evokes the images you intend.  It’s not about how a character looks on the outside — it’s what message the appearance sends to the reader that is relevant.  It’s not about how a location looks — it’s the atmosphere the location creates and its connection to the characters that’s important.

Nevertheless, it’s easier said than done.  Some people seem to have a knack for description and I’m not one of them.  If you’re like me then I would advise putting down some basic words that reflect the images you want to convey and then come back to them during rewrites so you won’t be stuck on them forever.