Description Issues

There are two main description issues that I’ve been seeing in manuscripts. As I said in my post on Mimetic Writing, the writer uses description to curate the story and direct the reader’s attention. Description is a tricky thing to pull off in writing, and it’s also a very subtle thing.

Done wrong, it either draws not enough attention or too much. Done right, it becomes a critical part of the prose. While description is rarely the star, it does make up the stage upon which the action plays out. Here are the three things that usually go wrong:

Underdescription

A lack of description is a small but potentially fatal flaw. The reader may not notice a lack of description — it’s usually difficult to acutely notice something that isn’t there — but their experience of your story will not be the same.

When I read things that have little description, I get this fuzzy feeling while reading. That’s instead of the mental clarity I expect when reading something that really gives me something concrete to imagine. Things without description are hazy. Things with enough description really make the writer’s words gel in my head. Without description, the reader tends to skim through your prose, unanchored. Readers go too fast and don’t really revel in the details of your writing.

My rule of thumb is that we need a description of every character that will help us see them (and also provide characterizing detail, like that they only paint the nails on their left hand…which tells me they’re a bit offbeat, or whatever), and we need some carefully chosen descriptions of each setting. (There’s a big catch to both of these, see below.)

Overdescription

Where prose without description tends to go too fast, prose with too much description tends to go slowly. Gone are the days when lavish pages of description can keep a reader’s attention. The important thing to remember about excess description is that it will slow down your pacing, so you need to choose when to include description carefully.

Know that when you stop to describe something in detail, you are giving your readers a great mental picture, but action usually stops. And realize that you don’t need to describe every single thing about a scene, or every action taken in that scene, or everything about a character (if you describe character traits, you’ll usually fall into the trap of telling, so do physical descriptions of characters and then let their characteristics come across via showing, in scene).

Misdirection

In real life, “misdirection” refers to knowingly diverting someone’s attention in order to sneak something by them, usually a magic trick or your hand into their pocket to steal their wallet. In writing life, I’m going to revamp the term a little bit. When I say “misdirection,” I mean that the writer is unknowingly shifting the reader’s attention to the wrong thing in a scene. How do you do this unwanted thing? It’s usually a description problem.

Imagine a dinner scene. There’s a lovely turkey on the table. The family gathers around to smell its velvety aroma, rich with thyme and rosemary. The butter under the skin has put a crackly golden glaze on the breast. The knife slices right through the tender meat. There are large chunks of fleur de sel sprinkled on top. The parents are talking, meanwhile. You take your first bite and the savory juices, the crunchy skin, the tang of the salt almost overwhelm your taste buds! Oh yeah, the parents just said they’re getting divorced.

Say what?

In this paragraph, the writer (me) got obsessed with describing the turkey on the table (probably because I haven’t had breakfast yet) and totally skipped over the real point of the scene: the parents have gotten the family together to make a huge announcement. Whenever I read a scene the spends way too much time describing an insignificant detail when something else much more important is going on, I usually think, “You’re talking about that right now?”

Like, you just heard that the ogres are storming the castle and you have time to detail the inlaid crystal on the hilt of your sword for us? Really? Ya think you might want to either shorten that description or put it elsewhere, a time when there aren’t bloodthirsty monsters on your tail?

Lavish description at an inappropriate time is probably a signal that you need to kill some babies. (Translation: cut some of your favorite passages, not actually go down to the nursery and go on a spree.)

Therefore…

Your goal when describing either scenes, actions, or characters is balance. Plus you need to figure out when to describe. Just because you need to describe each character and scene doesn’t mean you have to describe it in detail the first time we encounter it.

This is one of the biggest problems I see in novel openings because, well, everything we encounter in a book’s first 10 pages is new to the reader…every place and character needs describing. But if we did describe everything in detail in the first 10 pages, there’d be no room for plot or scenework right at the beginning of your novel, where it matters the most to hook your reader (or an agent).

You don’t have to do all of your descriptions at once. Just like you layer in the plot, you should layer in descriptions to keep adding to our understanding of a character and their scenery. Give us a physical trait in one scene, a new element of the environment in another scene, etc. Resist the urge to infodump with your descriptions, and really pick the right time and place. And watch out for ogres…it is Monday, after all.

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  1. Anita’s avatar

    Thank you for this very informative post. I constantly wonder if I have too much or too little description in my writing. The way you explain it makes perfect sense.

  2. Andrea’s avatar

    I hear a lot about the dangers of too much description, but it’s great to know about some of problems with underdescribing and how it relates to the reading experience. Thanks for a valuable post!

  3. Erica Rodgers’s avatar

    Great detailed post, Mary! I’ve learned to look for over description in the scenes/chapters where I get ‘stuck’ for a bit. I tend to over do it when I’m not exactly sure where the characters are headed. :)

  4. Adele Richards’s avatar

    I think I’m naturally inclined to underdescription. Having said that I heard somewhere that children’s books tend to have less description than adults (because children are more imaginative?). What do you make of that comment?

    Also, you are writing BEFORE having breakfast? I am all kinds of impressed.

    :-)

  5. Emily Hainsworth’s avatar

    I have never drooled so heavily for turkey in the month of April…

    Also, I SEE what you did there!

    Happy Birthday to Mama Kole! :D

  6. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Buffday? Who’s buffday is it? Mary’s? Or Mary’s mother?! Happy birthday!

    Eeerg, description. I often skip description sections in books, even very well-written books. I find this side of writing really, really tough. Never know when it’s too little or too much. Guess I should actually READ those descriptions in the well-written books – maybe I’d learn then, ha!

  7. Rachel’s avatar

    Adore this post. Great information here and great examples. I have been amping my description in my current work in progress, and have had CPs ask for even more at times (it is a YA historical set in another country), but at times I have wondered about the misdirection aspect you mentioned, as well as just having too much. Thank you for this timely post :-)

  8. Traci’s avatar

    Great information. Getting descriptions just right is something I’m working on with my latest edit. It is a touchy business. Thanks for the food for thought. (I haven’t had breakfast either.)

  9. KDuBayGillis’s avatar

    I love it when you pre-empt my annoying emails with an insightful blog post. Answers my questions and keeps me out of your inbox!!!

    Thanks for this!

  10. Mary’s avatar

    Siski — It’s my mom’s birthday today. Emily knows that because I accidentally double posted today and my blog put up the description post and another post. That post will come up again on Wednesday.

    But yes. It’s my mom’s birthday. She’s wonderful.

  11. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Happy birthday to Mary’s mom! Without wanting to come across like a complete sycophant (and failing miserably) she must be a good’un if she produced YOU!

  12. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Great post. I lean toward underdescription, which my crit partners eagerly point out so I can rectify. :) It’s all about balance, isn’t it? Thanks for this!

  13. Mary’s avatar

    Siski — I’ll take the compliment, and so will my mom. She is awesome. :)

  14. Lynne’s avatar

    Another evergreen post. I love how you link to past posts to keep the current post tight, yet still giving us more meat to chew on if we’re still hungry. (Going with the turkey/food theme). :)
    Thanks!

  15. Amy Christine Parker’s avatar

    Very good advice. I think it can be easy sometimes to fill the page with description because most writers like a good simile or metaphor and description lends itself so well to these. But to make the action the part that drives home the scene-the piece that makes it palpable- and do it well is so much more difficult.

    Completely craving turkey-like the Willams and Sonoma-esque description! I think I might need your recipe:)

    And Happy Birthday!

  16. Amy Christine Parker’s avatar

    Forgot the “Mary’s mom” part of that Happy Birthday wish! Hope she has a good one.

  17. Shannon’s avatar

    As a reader, overdescription annoys me to no end…so I worry about underdescription in my own writing. I try to strike that balance, but it’s hard for me to judge sometimes.
    That’s what good crit partners are for, right?! ;o)

  18. Gerri L’s avatar

    * I’m craving for turkey now. Thanks for this informative and helpful post! As I go on with my WIP I’ll keep it in mind.

  19. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    Thanks for clarifying that Mary. It’s nice to hear from the source.

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