Ah, description. Beloved of Victorian novelists and fantasy writers everywhere. How I loathe it.
What? But why?
Because mostly it doesn’t do anything, just sits there looking pretty and forming no useful purpose. It’s wordplay, which for its own sake does not make a gripping read. Yes, yes, deep literary novels. But I’m not kidding myself that I write those. I need to entertain, to paint a picture in fast order so my reader can understand what’s happening, and move on with the plot.
I have a few personal rules for description.
- Only put it in if you have to. In other words, if your character would otherwise be standing in a featureless grey void, mention their location and a key point about it. The station platform, in fog. The bedroom, which was decorated to suggest a dungeon.
- Describe everything once. If you’ve already painted a picture of the mysterious tunnels in chapter 3, don’t go over it all again in chapter 29. You’re back in the tunnels. It might be a bt worse than before, or not, but you don’t need to describe them as if the reader has never seen them before: she has.
- There’s a separate point here about readers’ memories. Readers have excellent memories. If you’ve set up Bob, Judy and their daughter Mary in chapter 1, then when Mary reappears in chapter 13, you don’t need to mention all their relationships again. If you are worried that Mary might have been forgotten in the maelstrom of secondary characters you’ve introduced between then and now, ask yourself – what was the point of those characters?
- Back to description. As well as location, use it to create an immersive experience for the reader. That means, be specific. Mary is standing on a railway platform, great. We all have a vague idea of those. But by mentioning a few key specifics, the reader is forced into our version of the platform. Mention the weird tulip-shaped litter bins they have at stations. Mention the corporate primary-colour paint on the toilet walls, and the artificially cheery greeting signs. Mention the noise of the glass ticket barriers, one of which is broken. Make this location your own. But bear in mind –
- This isn’t any old station, it’s the one where something is going to happen and you need to set up the specifics you’ll need for that action. A line about the nasty railway decor is great, but don’t go on and on about the slippery floor of the toilets unless Mary will be thrashing about on that floor later, fighting for her life with the demon that had camouflaged itself against the Welcome to Swindon sign.
- Use description for tone. This isn’t a tourist guide. So having established the location in enough detail that the reader understands where Mary is, and added just the specific, grounding details which will immerse the reader and allow the action, make sure the tone matches the purpose of the scene. Mary’s time at the station is an unhappy one. You know that because of the dreary bins, the toilets and the broken ticket barrier. (And the demon.) If I’d mentioned window boxes stuffed with spring flowers, a cheerful ticket inspector and a chuffing train – all of which might exist at Mary’s station – then I’m not getting the full benefit of description. If the scene is going to involve a demonic attack, let the description reflect that. (Yeah, maybe there are spring flowers. But the reader must nonetheless know that something is very, very wrong.)
- Avoid descriptions of feelings. “Something is very, very wrong,” thought Mary. She hated it when things felt very wrong. Under the Show-don’t-tell regime, both those sentences are a no-no. Show Mary realising that the spring flowers have no scent, or finding that the ticket inspector touches her palm just a bit too long as he takes the ticket from her.
- Be metaphorical. If the toilet floor is slippery, well, fine, but that’s quite meh. What exact kind of slippery is it, what does it make the character remember or feel? Call up pictures in the reader’s mind. The demon’s head leaked fluid, slippery and slow like a cracked egg.
I avoid long descriptive passages as a writer, because as a reader, I tend to skim over them. My reaction to most lengthy descriptions of rooms, landscapes and so on is So what? Now don’t get me wrong. Done well, description can bring the setting to life and make it one of the book’s characters. But done badly, it smothers the story and wastes the reader’s time on details which have no bearing on the plot.
What do you think of description? Do you love it? Do you avoid it? Let me know in the comments!
I’ll be back tomorrow with E, Experience and how to get some.