The Pros and Cons of Writing Descriptions

The Pros and Cons of Writing Description

The Pros and Cons of Writing Description“Nothing bores me faster than description.”

You’ve probably heard readers make that comment. Perhaps you’ve even made it yourself.

In the face of the modern impatience with pages (or even paragraphs) of descriptive narrative, it’s easy for writers to overreact and decide to avoid description altogether. After all, you can’t afford to do anything that might alienate readers.

But, today, I’m here to offer a shocking declaration: Description gets a bad rap.

Good Description Is One of the Most Memorable Parts of a Book

Walk back into the homey corridors of the library in your head and pull a couple favorites off the shelves. Think about the scenes that pop to mind, the ones you can still recall in vivid detail even years after reading them. Likely, most, if not all, of these scenes include some magnificent spark of description that has anchored them in your brain.

For example:

  • I can still see the film on the water as the main character in J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun drinks downstream from a Japanese soldier’s corpse.
  • I can see Sara Crewe’s too-small mourning dress as she faces Miss Minchin after learning of her father’s death in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
  • And I can clearly see the magnificent reflected sunset in the Pulitzer-winning Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Empire of the Sun Little Princess Gilead

These scenes have remained with me over the years not because they raced past the description to get to the “good stuff,” but because the authors offered such a deft weave of descriptive detail into the very fiber of their stories’ plot and character.

These visual images are forever emblazoned in my brain. What author doesn’t want that kind of immortality?

Finding the Balance of Deft Description

Description is one of the most powerful and beautiful tools in the author’s arsenal. In fact, in some respects description is the foundation of writing. What is a story if not a description of the world around us, the people who inhabit it, and their feelings as they interact with it?

Avoiding description is impossible, and attempting to avoid it does nothing but tie an author’s hands. Rather, what you must learn how to use description effectively.

That said, it’s important to remember that less is often more, and “telling details” always carry the day. Brett Anthony Johnston writes in Naming the World that:

The most affecting descriptive writing results from an author’s providing not a linguistic blueprint of a library but the raw material (the air tinged with the scent of old pages, the shafts of dusty light through the window slats, the whispers, like trickling water, of the librarians behind the oval reference desk) from which the reader can erect her own library.

Description must flow organically from the narrating characters, their lifestyles, and their voices.

Beautiful prose is useless if it distracts from or obstructs the point of a passage. Too often, authors use description, not as a servant of the story, but as a platform from which to flaunt their sometimes arguable mastery of language. When that happens, it’s little wonder description bores and angers readers.

Quinn Dalton, in The Writer (December 2010) article “5 Ways Into a Story,” sums up nicely:

There may be an impulse to describe everything, whether it has significance to the main character or not. It might be hard to simply say “a lamp on a small table,” because you want the reader to see the Queen Anne table that you see. But it has to matter to the character for you to go further—he or she should reasonably be able to identify the table as a Queen Anne. If not, you’ve let your desire for detail overwhelm that character’s knowledge and priorities.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is a book you remember for its beautiful description? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. One of my favorite descriptive passages is from my own novel…FLYNN.

    The full moon had risen when he finished the travois, wrapped Dixon’s body in his blanket and secured him to the ages-old Indian conveyance hung from his claybank’s saddle.
    He stared for a long while at the water that had collected in the channel of the creek bed from the brief rain. There wasn’t enough to flow, so it had already become still, belying the violence that occurred earlier in the day.
    He picked up a flat stone and skipped it down the glasslike surface of the narrow creek, causing myriad ripples that shattered the golden slivers of moonlight filtering through the trees into millions of sparkling yellow diamonds—but the beauty of the moment was lost on Mason Flynn.

  2. My big takeaway: it has to matter to your character. This is a clarifying idea for me. It all finally makes perfect sense.

  3. Two of my characters are from a different time period, so I pretty much had to do a laundry list description of their outfits. Not really with the other characters.

    Provided an interesting little challenge, though, it basically meant describing modern clothing through the eyes of a person of a few centuries ago.

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