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The art of description for new authors

Chris Podhola

How much is too much? How much is too little? What do I do if description isn't my strong point?

These are a few of the questions I asked myself when I was first starting to write. I still ask them sometimes, especially when editing a rough draft, but what I've learned over the years is that these questions kind of miss the point when it comes to description.

Description is more than just a laundry list of facts strung together to offer readers more information about the world you are bringing them into. Done correctly, offering description tells the reader more about the Perspective character, or narrator. It doesn't stop there, however. Description is also a wonderful place to establish voice and style. It's not only the factoids you offer that matter, it's how you offer them.

So, what do you do if description isn't your strong point? How do you train yourself to improve?

I could just say practice and leave it at that. In the end, that's what it amounts to, but I like to be more specific than that.

Whether you do this with practice pieces, choosing a topic at random and apply it, in a rough draft as you are writing, or during your first edit of your rough draft, one method I've found that helps me to dramatically improve descriptive paragraphs, is to start with a list.

I keep a scene in my head and I simply start by trying to imagine some things that I would like to include in my description, whether these are just nouns, nouns modified with adjectives (When I use adjectives, if they are not creative, I omit them) or short phrases, I write them down before writing my descriptive paragraph.

It's a simple little exercise and it has worked well to help me write better descriptive paragraphs (Even though I've done this for quite some time, I still consider scene and character descriptions an uphill climb for me). But I also find that my ability to come up with more stylish descriptive prose has greatly improved since I first started writing.

Try it yourself and see. Instead of just barging directly into writing a descriptive paragraph, start by making a list of things you want your paragraph to include before writing it.

Crumbly Writer

@Chris Podhola

Sorry, but I cringe when you suggest basing descriptions on lists, as those are often the worst kind of descriptions. (Yes, yes, I know that's not what you intended, instead simply listing what you want to describe rather than listing items in the description.) But it's important to remember that descriptions should stand alone, and is not a place to dump all the detail which won't fit anywhere else in your story.

Instead, long descriptions are a good way of mixing up the pace of your stories. I find they're most useful (for me) after a fast-paced action scene. After the action spins out of controls for a few thousand words, my next chapters are usually summaries, where the characters gather and try to figure out what the hell happened.

Not only does this allow readers to regain their breath, but it answers whatever questions you didn't answer during the fight. It also provides a peek into each characters' personality, as it reveals how they handle a crisis. Do they think things through logically? Are they so amped up afterwards that they're unable to think straight? Are they good team players and leaders, able to refocus their teammates after a potential disaster.

Typically, an chapter with action will boost the chapter's score a couple tens of a point, but while the slow discussions afterwards don't score as high, they tend to boost the overall score to the story, and leave the readers deeply satisfied by the story. These passages allow themselves to slip into the minds of the various characters.

If you throw in a couple personal conflicts, as each character brings a different point of view into the discussion, you can make the after-detail exchange quite intriguing.

That said, that may be a bit much for most newbies to chew on initially. Dialogue and description are two of my strengths, so weaving them together is a natural for me.

The key, is to keep in mind where your readers' minds are at. Do they need to slow down? Do you need to account for missing details? Also consider your character's motives, and what mid-crisis responses will piss off the parties different members. Plot these out before you begin, and then play it up while writing the passages.

The deadly passages aren't the slow passages mid-story, but the data dumps early on in the story, where authors like to dump all the research they did on the story. Rather than do that, consider revealing the background a little at a time during the course of normal discussions, or even in recollections by the characters. That approach spreads the data out so it's not so overwhelming, and provides context to the other characters' lives, so it's more likely to be remembered by the reader.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@Crumbly Writer

Once again (per your usual response), you miss the point entirely.

The basis of the post is to give an author who is struggling with writing descriptions a method to learn how to do it and, once again, this isn't my idea. I lifted it from someone who teaches people how to write for a living.

Nowhere in my post did I suggest the author write an overly long description that drones on. I simply suggested that for authors who cannot write descriptions naturally (most of us have to train ourselves how to write good ones), a good way to start is to begin with a bare bones list and go from there. Whether you use two items or ten in the actual description is a matter of preference and need.

I would also point out that whether you include action in your scene is absolutely irrelevant. If your reader has no clue where the story is taking place, including action in the scene may serve to confuse them further. If you don't describe the surroundings at all and then you throw in some action to 'boost your chapters score by a couple of tens of points' you end up with action happening in a grey background (at least in your reader's mind). Description is important. You can try to avoid it, I suppose, but having a good description always helps. You want your reader to be able to picture your characters and you want them to be able to picture the world you put them in. That doesn't mean load them down with facts. It just means have some to start with and mix it with your own style and approach.

I would also, (hopefully for the last time), ask you to please read a post before you respond. Don't just read one sentence and assume you understand what the poster is saying. Read it all and consider the points before you start rambling on about things that don't even really apply at all to what the poster wrote.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Chris Podhola

Once again (per your usual response), you miss the point entirely.

And you too, seem to have missed my point entirely. I wasn't attacking the idea, I was adding to it. I was simply warning that 'data dumping' is a common problem that writers need to watch out for.

But then, I guess the idea is that no one is supposed to add anything to your discussions?

My original comment (about producing lists) was just a lament that the mention of 'lists' when discussing descriptions paints a painful picture of too many stories that simply serve as lists (what was eaten for breakfast, what was bought at the store, the girls someone sleeps with, etc.). It wasn't a personal attack or a critique of the suggestions.

But I can see that, once again, you seen to have persecution complex on your mind, so I'll bow out of this thread and let you enjoy it on your own. I can tell when anything I say will be viewed as a personal attack.

By the way, despite what you may think, I never sought to belittle or attack you. I disagreed with you on a few specific things, but I never suggested censoring or ignoring your contributions. So get over yourself already.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@Crumbly Writer

Sorry, but I cringe when you suggest basing descriptions on lists, as those are often the worst kind of descriptions.


Well, I'm not sure how I'm not supposed to take this comment as a critique of the idea. This comment seemed pretty straight forward to me, starting with an apology, and then saying you cringe, following that by saying descriptions that begin with a list, are often the worst kind of descriptions. I don't think you could have been any clearer.

But then, after offering your criticism, you offer no alternative means for a beginning author to guide him on how to go about training himself to write better descriptions.

If your criticism wasn't an attack, maybe next time, consider writing your replies in a way that doesn't start off sounding like an attack. Starting it off with an apology, followed immediately by cringing certainly gave me that impression.

It's not that I don't want you or others to reply or add to the discussion, I do, but it would be nice (at a minimum) if you don't like an idea given, you at least come up with a suitable alternative, which you didn't even attempt to do.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Chris Podhola


How much is too much? How much is too little?


It varies with what's being described and why. I tend to go for as little as I can get away with and not lose the reader or confuse them.

I've found that general descriptions of characters is best in most cases, unless there's a special reason for it to be much more detailed, such as a special tattoo or scar or other special feature relevant to a later plot aspect. In my story Odd Man in College I make a point, very early, to describe Lyn's face, hair, and build in a way to let readers know it's easy to think Lyn is a girl, because that helps towards the housing mix up.

As to the surroundings, in Shiloh The Scot described one room in great detail (which was excessive and he later cut over two thirds of it) because some of the detail was important to show a part of one of the characters and to set the scene of the use of the room as a comfortable place to talk.

In Michaels Mansion I give a lot of detail about the refurbishment, but that's because the buildings are the main characters of that story and it's about how working on the building changes the other people.

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