Wednesday, June 29

And Coming up on the Left, Stuff: Writing Description

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's funny how writing is all about describing things, yet description is something that can really kill a story if handled poorly. It's also one of those things that we tend to do a lot of in a first draft as we figure out the story for ourselves. Trouble is, once it's there, it's hard to get rid of it. If you're tweaking your descriptive passages, there are several things you can think about to help you decide what stays and what goes.

1. Who's doing the looking

Point of view (POV) is your best tool for figuring out how to edit description. Think about who your POV is in the scene and what their emotional state, personality, and goals are. Someone waxing philosophical after a profound experience will probably see the garden courtyard a lot differently than someone running through it with zombies on their tail. One would notice the beauty, the poetry, the fragility, while the other would notice the potential weapons, exits, and ambush spots. Is your POV describing things the same no matter what they're feeling or doing, or are they seeing what matters to them at that point in time?

2. What they're looking at

What gets noticed tells a lot about the person noticing. This can be tough if you need to slip in a clue and it's something your POV would never pick up on. But there are ways you can have them notice it that fits within their personality. It's also a great opportunity for characters to misunderstand something important. I read a lovely detail in Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire where a simple glance at a watch meant a lot to me (and then started me looking for more clues), but the narrator wasn't at the point yet to catch the significance. Is your POV noticing the same types of things all the time, or do they see what they feel is important in that scene?

3. Why they're looking at it

People don't usually notice everything about what's around them. The things that stand out are things that catch their eye for whatever reason. Many times they're looking for something specific, which gives you opportunities to describe as they search. But be wary of taking the easy way out and letting them describe everything just so you can show it. If they're looking for a hidden trap, or a burglar, or a secret door, they'd check very different spots than someone looking for a place to put a painting, or someone looking to buy their first home. Does your POV have a reason to look around, or are they doing it just so you can tell readers what they see?

Descriptions can be just as gripping as action if you pick the right details at the right time. Use them to enhance the mood you're trying to create, even if it's just a small throwaway detail.

How do you feel about descriptions? Love them? Hate them? A little of both?

More articles on description:

Using adjectives
Writing what you don't know: POV and description
Showing sound
Describing emotions


  1. I adore description because I'm a bit of an information junkie, but maybe I just like them because they're well written. I think sometimes authors get a little carried away with the description and in creating a setting or a person to the point that it becomes irrelevant: all that stuff the author should know, but the reader needn't.

    If lots of description is sort of necessary though, breaking it up with speech can make it flow better and break it up.

  2. I love description because I want to see and feel the setting. This is one thing I can say I do well (and believe me, I fall short on other facets), and probably do too well at times because I'm very visual. That sounds like bragging, but you know what I mean. I've got passages of description I love but have to cut because they're too much. But I think description is key to a successful book, and not just with the setting, but characters as well.

  3. I also LOVE description. It pulls me into a book and sets the mood for me. When I write I try and use description as a mirror to my characters feelings. I find in real life that what I notice is directly based on what my emotional state is.

  4. The whole 'show don't tell' is tricky. And I love details and description. So it's a hard balance. Finding reasons for the characters to look around is key, like you said.

  5. Description colors the world that our characters, dialogue and plot fit into. For me, it's both beautiful and essential.

    I really admire authors who utilize all the senses in their descriptions. The good ones make it seem effortless, without becoming a distraction or slowing the story's pace.

  6. I am a description freak… I hope it makes my stories instead of detract from them.
    Great point BTW…

  7. I usually keep your post because they help me so much. I like being descriptive, but I used to think I didn't do it enough. I usually describe what is important for the story, will come up later, or it details the feelings of the individual as it depicts his POV.

    By the way Janice, I did a remake of my query per your suggestions. Check it out and tell me what you think.

  8. I never liked writing about description because i would just write it how I would picture it, not how my characters would, so the description feels like its just been thrown in. Again some amazing tips thank you!

  9. Alex: I'm in the minority, but I've never been a fan of heavy description. Which is so crazy since I write fantasy, which is usually heavy on it. But that does make me really appreciate it when it's done well and doesn't intrude.

    Stacy: You description junkies you, hehe :) That's great that you're strong at it. I have a crit partner who's always adding "need description here" all over my WIPs. Thanks goodness!

    Angie: I'm totally with you there. I do that too, and try to make my details mean more than just what something looks like. Those are the types I like as well.

    Barbara: Show don't tell is one of of the toughest things to get. But when you do, the rest does get easier.

    Nicole: I agree with the senses. On my description pass during revisions, I make an effort to add non-vision details to help flesh out the world.

    Jeff: I'm so in the minority here, LOL. But that's good, because now I know that when I feel I've done too much, other probably won't feel that way.

    Orlando: POV is my go-to device for description. I've found as long as I stay tight, I get in what I need. I'll go take a peek at the new query :)

    Mahesh: I think that's why I never cared for it. I did the same thing when I was first starting out, and I always felt like I HAD to do it. I wonder if I'll start to like it now that I know I can do whatever I want?

  10. I don't need to be shown every blade of grass to see the beauty of the garden. Show a little that tells a lot. Good post and comments; inspires thoughts of line-of-sight transfer to POV.

  11. Tressa: "Show a little that tells a lot." I might just put that as a post it on my monitor. What a great line!

  12. Great post, especially that part about why they're looking at it.

    I have a love-hate relationship with descriptions. I often feel that the 'show, don't tell' advice is taken too far, and I find it jarring to read about every little crumb on a table while the character is meeting someone for coffee, unless those crumbs are going to advance the story, or the fact that the character is noticing them at all tells us something about his/her state of mind.

    On the other hand, description is such a powerful tool when used well. In fact, that was one of the things I enjoyed about The Shifter - all the description was so deftly done that I could feel the setting come alive without a pause in the story.

  13. Swati, thanks so much! That means a lot to me. Descriptions are often the last thing I do since I dislike heavy descriptions, too. Who cares about the crumbs? LOL The why is more interesting than the what :)

  14. Just to let you know these posts don't get used or read once and then forgotten. I am reading through all your posts on description and find all of them very helpful. Thank you.

    1. Aw thanks! Means a lot to me to hear that.