In both fiction and nonfiction, description paints a picture of characters, land, structures, objects, and the like. Just as dialogue and action need to advance the plot of a novel, so, too, should description — it should provide necessary information. The things being described should be described not only because they advance the plot, but because they somehow affect either the plot or the characters in the story. Or both. And, because description makes the setting and characters more vivid, it draws readers more deeply into the story.
Entertaining the reader is not description’s main purpose — even though some writers treat description in this manner. Some readers thoroughly enjoy long, long passages of description: of the countryside, perhaps, or clothing, or a house. Other readers react impatiently to such long descriptions and often skip ahead to get to the places where something is happening. Perhaps these readers, without consciously realizing it, are reacting to the fact that such long passages contain unnecessary information.
I’m a reader who likes description not for its own sake, but because it somehow helps me understand the characters or plot better, or helps me more sharply feel the setting. I become bored when reading long passages of description: I feel that in such cases the purpose of the description is either to increase the number of pages in the book, to avoid getting to the conflict in the novel, or to show off one’s ability to write compound-complex sentences perhaps, or choose little-known words.
Even writing books written nearly a century ago cautioned that descriptive writing needed to subordinate itself to some purpose. In A Handbook to Literature (1936), the authors state: “Descriptive writing is most successful when its details are carefully selected according to some purpose and to a definite point of view, when its images are concrete and clear, and when it makes discreet use of words of color, sound, and motion.”
In So You Want to Write Marge Piercy and Ira Wood have an entire chapter on description. They start the chapter by saying: “Descriptions are places where writers feeling their oats often let themselves go and readers nod off, put down the book or at their kindest, skip. No description should be skippable, . . . every one should be functional. If you describe something, make it work.”
In Chapter 21 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, I give examples of description from Sound Proof, and show the difference between description that serves almost no purpose and description that is functional. Here is a short description as it appears in Chapter 3:
The thermometer on the back stoop read 92°.
Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.
I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter.
These details are short: selected for a purpose. If the details hadn’t been selected for a purpose, the passage might have read something like this:
The back stoop of the farmhouse was small by comparison to the front porch, a mere five feet by three, but covered for protection from the sun and rain.
The two concrete steps were well-worn and pitted and the roof newly shingled with what looked like cheap tiles: in keeping with Mary’s penny-pinching.
The large outdoor thermometer, once green but now faded to white, attached to a post with two rusty screws, read 92° — and the day had hardly begun.
Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the faded-gray house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.
I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. A long zipper ran lengthwise around the case. A thick nylon strap was attached to each long end of the case by a black plastic D-hook.
The passage above contains way too many details. So many that they don’t appear selected. In fact, they weren’t selected: I just blathered on while writing them, describing everything Frank might see. The original passage, however, focuses on those details that are important to the story: the temperature and the blue nylon case. It bears repeating: in writing description, select the details that are important to the story.
Regarding description, Piercy and Wood also state: “Learn to describe briefly or in snatches, so as not to stop the story in an obvious way.” Remember that readers do not want the story to stop. So learn to describe briefly or in pieces, interspersing the descriptions with action or dialogue or other narrative.
Descriptions should not only be brief, they should be vivid. And it’s specificity that helps make descriptions vivid — the specificity of significant details. Specific details that help paint a vivid picture. And it is up to the writer to think about what those specific details might be, and then to employ them in the written description.
Description is not optional. A writer cannot decide, “I hate description, so I won’t write any.” Description presents to the reader the qualities of a person, a place, an object, even of an action — unless these are presented to the reader, the reader won’t be able to see/imagine what is happening.
The best book I know of on description is by Rebecca McClanahan. Its title is Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. In it, she lists five qualities of good description:
- It is carefully worded, using correct terms for things and using precise images.
- It is sensory, making the reader, see, feel, hear, or smell things.
- It presents things “as in a state of activity.” That is, good description creates the illusion of movement or motion forward, not an impression of static existence.
- It often employs figurative language.
- Finally, and most importantly, description must be effective. It must do its job of aiding plot, characters, or action.
One of the best pieces of advice McClanahan gives is to avoid adjectives that label or explain — words such as lovely, noteworthy, remarkable. Instead, use adjectives that actually describe (rather than label or explain), such as curly, frayed, or moss-covered. Wherever possible, use concrete nouns such as barn, guitar, or shirt — rather than general nouns such as structure, instrument, or clothing.
Writing ineffective description that’s too general to be interesting, that does not affect a novel’s plot, characters, or action — is way too easy. Writing effective description takes more effort — but learning how to write effective description is not overly difficult. And learning how to do so allows a writer to see things in a new way — an interactive way in which description serves a purpose.
For more examples of and information on description, read Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.