At the Decatur Book Festival years ago, I listened to a panel that included author Kathleen Duey. The question was about description and world building, and she said something that was just brilliant.
Describe what the reader won't assume.
This is about the most eloquent and succinct description advice I've ever heard. She continued to give a lovely example about a cold wind blowing in off the mountains and a sick grandmother (I wish I'd written it down), explaining that everyone knows what mountains look like so there's no need to describe them.
She's 100% right.
We see scenes in our heads, imagine our characters and and worlds so completely that they're real to us. We naturally want to show all that in our novels. (Well, unless you're like me and have to be beaten with a pencil to add description). But readers don't really care about the stuff in our books, they care about the characters in our books. People are interesting. Their problems are interesting. A three-paragraph essay on their outfit usually isn't.
But going back to Duey's advice...
Readers bring a lifetime of experience with them to a book. They have great imaginations and can picture what they read about as easily as we can. They know what things looks like, and they can imagine them without us describing it at great length.
What they can't assume, is how a character feels about what they see. And that's the stuff to spend time on.
Let's take a basic setting and situation. A small town main street. A woman stopping for something to eat at the local diner on her way through town. I'm guessing certain images have already popped into your mind. We can set this scene in several ways.
The Basic Descriptive Dump
Carla pulled off the interstate and drove into town, rumbling along main street in her rental car. Stores lined the wide sidewalks to either side, their window displays filled with mannequins and sale signs. She spotted the neon glow of a diner and pulled into a empty parking space next to an old pickup truck. Her high heels clicked on the faded asphalt as she walked to the door, opened it, and went inside. She sat at a table in the back, the air conditioning cooling her skin.
Does any of that tell you anything you didn't already imagine? Is there anything there that would make you want to read the next paragraph? Probably not. But let's do the same scene using information the reader won't assume.
The Character View
Carla checked the rear view mirror for the third time since pulling off the interstate. The town was like all the others she'd passed--old, dusty, vulnerable and just asking for trouble. One stupid street you couldn't even loose a tail on. She spotted a parking space in a tiny lot by a diner right out of some old movie. The food would probably suck, but her car wouldn't be easily spotted from the road. She hurried across the lot, her heels clicking loudly enough on the cracked asphalt that heads turned her way. She slipped into the diner and grabbed a table in the back, facing the door.
Now, how much about Carla did you learn from this? Same basic details, same scene, but this is probably a whole lot more interesting. The details do more than just describe what Carla is looking at. We understand why Carla is looking at them and how she feels about it, which sheds a lot of light into her situation. It also builds tension, creates worry.
Carla checked the rear view mirror for the third time since pulling off the interstate. If she's checking the mirror that often, someone is probably following her. The town was like all the others she'd passed--old, dusty, vulnerable and just asking for trouble. Vulnerable and asking for trouble is an interesting detail about her state of mind, suggesting she feels vulnerable and is in trouble One stupid street you couldn't even loose a tail on. Reinforces the being followed idea She spotted a parking space in a tiny lot by a diner right out of some old movie. The food would probably suck, but her car wouldn't be easily spotted from the road. More hiding She hurried across the lot, her heels clicking loudly enough on the cracked asphalt that heads turned her way. She's been seen, so anyone following her might ask around and know she was here She slipped into the diner and grabbed a table in the back, facing the door. She's planning for trouble
But I still got in the setting details. Old, dusty town, one road, a diner from a movie. You probably have a solid image of that in your mind just based on those few specifics.
You'll often see questions like "How much description is too much?" and "what should I show when I set a scene?" but those are really the wrong questions. It isn't what or how much you show that matters, but why you show it and what it means to the story. Three paragraphs of flat description a reader will probably skim can be riveting if it's spread out over a page or two and shows some aspect of the point of view character and their problem.
Show them what they won't assume and let them fill in the blanks on what they already know.
How do you pick which details to describe?
Looking for more tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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