Monday, July 19, 2021

Want Better Descriptions? Describe What Readers Won't Assume

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing better descriptions is easy when you take advantage of your point-of-view character.

I always chuckle a bit when I write about description, because I dislike writing description. I’m much more intrigued by what characters say, think, and do than what things look like, but description is necessary to craft a well-rounded story. In some genres, it’s vital.

Lucky for me, my attitude toward description actually helped me develop tricks to do the most with the fewest words possible—a valuable skill for any writer. Instead of writing a paragraph or two detailing what a room looks like, I assume the reader knows what a room looks like, then I pick specific details about that particular room, and show it through my point-of-view character.

I learned this trick a decade ago from author Kathleen Duey at the Decatur Book Festival in Georgia. During a panel, she brilliantly said, “Describe what the reader won't assume.”

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 was 100% right.

Characters are interesting. Their problems are interesting. A three-paragraph essay on their outfit usually isn't.

Readers bring a lifetime of experience to a book, and they’ll assume certain details without the author describing them at great length. If it’s the first thing a person is likely to picture when they hear a word, and that’s the same image you picture, don’t describe it. Save your words for details that aren’t the first things that pop into someone’s head, such as why the character noticed that detail and what they think and feel about it. Knowing a character’s opinion or state of mind as they describe a place or thing tells readers a heck of a lot more about the scene than what it looks like.

Point of view not only shows readers the story world, it provides the context to understand that world.

Even better, a point-of-view character assumes what things look like, which naturally guides you toward describing only what’s different or unusual. If the point-of-view character notices it, it’s worth noticing. The scene’s details show readers the setting, but also show aspects of the characters and the situation they face.

And just to clarify…I’m not saying don’t describe your scenes.

Scenes need descriptions, and well-crafted descriptions pull readers into the story world. But it’s ridiculously easy to describe too much (so readers skim), or miss an opportunity for stronger writing (because you basically just list what’s there). Point of view is a useful tool to help you decide which details to focus on and which you can briefly touch on or ignore.

(Here’s more on 4 Steps for Choosing What Details to Describe in a Scene)

Let's examine a basic setting and situation—a woman stopping for something to eat at the local diner on her way through a small town.

The Basic Descriptive Dump
Carla pulled off the interstate and drove into the small town, searching for someplace to eat. She rumbled along Main Street in her rented Ford sedan. Red-brick building with shops lined the wide sidewalks to either side of her—general store, hardware store, drugstore, and a boutique with window displays filled with mannequins and sale signs. She spotted the neon glow of a 50s-themed diner and pulled into an empty parking space next to an old, green pickup truck. Her high-heeled pumps clicked on the tar-black asphalt as she walked to the glass door, opened it, and went inside. She sat in a pink vinyl booth in the back, grateful for the rattling air conditioning cooling her skin.


This paragraph is skimmable. You basically learn all you need in the first line.

Does any of the description tell you anything you didn't imagine when you heard “small town, main street, and diner?” Sure, you picture the scene, but nothing in the paragraph makes you want to read the next paragraph. The details are there, but they don’t do anything but give general descriptions readers probably assume anyway.

Now, let's write 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. This one-horse town was like all the others she'd passed—old, dusty, vulnerable, and just asking for trouble. Only one stupid street you couldn't even lose a tail on. Pink neon flashed ahead like a beacon of hope—or at least lunch. She pulled into the empty lot of a 50s-themed diner right out of some old movie. The food would probably suck, but her car wouldn't be easily seen from the road.

Pausing for one last perimeter check, she jumped out of the rental car and hurried through the sweltering heat, her heels clicking so loud on the cracked asphalt that heads turned her way. Nothing to see here, dudes. An out-of-tune doorbell rang as she slipped into the diner, and even more people looked at her. She lowered her head and let her hair fall across her cheeks, then grabbed a table in the back, facing the door.
Now, how much about Carla did you learn? Same basic details, same scene, but this is a whole lot more interesting. The details do more than describe what Carla is looking at. We understand why Carla is looking at them, and how she feels about them, which sheds a lot of light on her situation. It also builds tension and creates worry.

Let’s break this down further.
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.
This one-horse 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. Combined with her checking the mirror and the “like all the others she passed,” it suggests she’s a woman on the run.
Only one stupid street you couldn't even lose a tail on.
This reinforces the being followed idea, and shows she knows what “a tail” is. Is she a cop? A PI? An avid mystery reader?
Pink neon flashed ahead like a beacon of hope—or at least lunch.
She’s hungry, possibly even tired and in need of a break. The “beacon of hope” suggests she’s needs it. It’s also a little touch of her voice and humor.
She pulled into the empty lot of a 50s-themed diner right out of some old movie. The food would probably suck, but her car wouldn't be easily seen from the road.
More hiding, and another negative thought that hints at her state of mind. She’s not expecting anything good.
Pausing for one last perimeter check, she jumped out of the rental car and hurried through the sweltering heat, her heels clicking so loud on the cracked asphalt that heads turned her way. Nothing to see here, dudes.
“Perimeter check” is a telling phrase, and suggests military or law enforcement, or at least some familiarity to that. Mentioning the rental car at this point also says a lot more, doesn’t it? Why is she driving a rental versus her own car if she’s on the run? She's also been seen, so anyone following her might ask around and know she was here. Since we suspect she’s on the run, this raises the tension further.
An out-of-tune doorbell rang as she slipped into the diner, and even more people looked at her. She lowered her head and let her hair fall across her cheeks, then grabbed a table in the back, facing the door.
We usually associate diners with bells, so the doorbell was an odd, “things aren’t right” detail I thought might add interest. Hopefully, the “out of tune” subconsciously creates a sense of discordance as well. Carla hides behind her hair, reinforcing reader suspicions that being seen is bad. She sits in the back and faces the door, suggesting she's planning for trouble. It’s also a habit that fits the law enforcement or military background.

Even though the focus was on her fears and caution, I still added the setting details you’d expect in a small-town setting. Old, dusty town, one road, a diner from a movie. Odds are these few specifics conjure an image in your mind, and the specific details (such as the out-of-tune doorbell) created a unique place. But the main goal is satisfied—to make readers curious enough to keep reading.

(Here’s more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

When you describe what readers won’t assume, you surprise them, and surprise is one way to keep readers interested in the story.

Reading what we assume, and thus expect, is usually boring. It’s the unexpected that keeps readers intrigued and paying attention, because they don’t know which details might be more than they appear. The point-of-view character’s opinion add weight and significance to the details, which taps into their emotional and mental state, and gets readers emotionally invested as well. Once you grab a reader by the feels, you’ve hooked them.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the description in one of your scenes. Are the details general or specific? Is there a sense of your point-of-view character or just a list of details? Think about how your point-of-view character would see that same scene and revise.

How do you pick which details to describe? Are you using your point-of-view character, or just listing what you know is there?

*Originally published September 2010. Last updated July 2021. 

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I hate writing descriptions, so that's one of the things I have to add in my editing-phase all the time. Great post! :)

  2. Glad to know it's not jut me that hates overly descriptive scenes. I find myself skimming those parts because I just want to get back to the characters and what they're doing or saying to each other. There's one book I read that absolutely drove me nuts because of too much description, I won't say names, but I will say, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD I KNOW WHAT THE INSIDE OF A CAVE LOOKS LIKE!!! Whew. I mean seriously, pages and pages in this story were dedicated to describing this cave. In fact the details were so specific, I couldn't visualize what they wanted me to see. Now, I love this particular author and he/she is amazing in creating interesting stories, but I was disappointed with that aspect of his/her writing in that story. I hope he/she never does it again because it may turn me off as a reader from their future work.

  3. Nice post. I love the whole "what the reader can't assume" thing. Great job.

  4. One of my crit buddies is really good at reminding me when I've slipped into "empty land." It can be tough finding that balance between too little and too much.

  5. Wow! Amazing post. I struggle with the balancing act all the time. Thanks for great examples.

  6. This is the second great post on description that I found this week that I'll be linking to later this week!

  7. Awesome post! You're just full of good info. Thanks

  8. I'm terrible at adding description. This is a super helpful post! You're so right...description should mean something. I think that's why I shy away at times. Thanks!

  9. I love this post! That advice seems so simple and obvious, yet it took reading your examples to make me see how it works.

    @Melanie, I may or may not know which book you're talking about, but I feel exactly the same way about too much description: at some point it's so specific you can't picture anything. Janice, I was even having trouble picturing what was going on in your first paragraph.

  10. Great post. I'm loving this blog. You do an outstanding job breaking things down for us.

    This reminds me of the description vs. imagery concept. Imagery can tell a reader a lot about the story and characters. Description tells us about things. Imagery from a character's perspective can do much to show us the character's state of mind and their personality.

    My favorite example was posted on a forum by some unknown writer. I liked it so much I saved it and have used it as an example:

    Description relies on the visual to tell the scene. Imagery shows the scene with all five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

    With imagery, the reader draws the conclusion. It immerses the reader into the work. Description tells the work, but often leaves the reader on the sidelines.

    I'll demonstrate.

    The cops found Susie's body ten miles from her house. She was a young girl. Her mother tied ribbons in her hair before she went to school. The day she disappeared, everyone saw her skip down the sidewalk. So innocent and fair.

    That's description.

    The cops found Susie's corpse ten miles from her trailer. Six days earlier, the ribbons in her hair fluttered in her bubblegum wake. Her voice practiced Jingle Bells, breath misty under the neighborhood's gaze. We noticed her missing before the first period bell. Another ghost to skip the silent sidewalk.

    That's imagery.

    Now, let me ask you some questions in reference to the second passage.

    1. What season is it?
    2. How old is Susie?
    3. What's her economic situation?
    4. Is she the first victim in the neighborhood?
    5. How old is the narrator?

    Notice, you can answer all these questions without me telling you them. You'll draw your own, and correct, conclusions. In fact, you'll visualize what Susie wears and what she looks like without a drop of description from me.

    That's imagery's power.

    It involves the reader.

    All of the above is the example. I don't know who the person who posted it was, but it sure highlights the differences, doesn't it?

  11. Brilliant. I had a chance to hear Katherine Duey this weekend and I learned a lot. But she didn't touch on this subject, and it's soooo important.

    "Descriptive dump" is a great phrase. I've never known how to get across to writers with description-itis why their lovely words create such a ho-hum response. This nails it.

  12. Decatur? Decatur Illinois?

    Now me, I like writing discription, but I've learned to cut back on it quite a lote and let the reader use his/her imagination.

    That doesn't nessisarily keep me from throwing in a discriptive paragraph here and there.

    I think my biggest problem is that I see everything at once since it's my story and I can go over everything in slow motion again and again as I'm writing. Sometimes I have to "speed up" my thinking process in order to get the writing tight enough for anyone else to see it. :)

  13. Boy, now I feel bad, I DO add description. Not like three paragraphs on an outfit but "I do mention things, clothes, buildings, furniture, even the weather.

  14. Eric, that's a great observation about description vs imagery. I saw that sample on the AW boards not long ago.

    Star-Dreamer, Decatur, Georgia.

    Che Gilson, there's nothing wrong with describing those things. It's how we choose to do it that matters. Description is just one of those common trouble spots, and this is one reason why. I mention those things, too, but I do it in a way that does more than just show what those things look like.

  15. Janice,
    Yeah, that was me who posted it on AW a few weeks ago. I got it off another board posted by a guy calling himself Wolf. He posted a lot of gems like that. I never did find out who he was.

  16. So much to learn, and you always do a great job of presenting it to us. Thanks, Janice!

    And Eric, thanks for passing along the description vs. imagery concept.

  17. Great post. I'm working on this very thing with one of my scenes right now.

  18. Awesome post. Just what I needed right now. Thanks.

  19. Neat post, as always, Mrs. Hardy!

    I'm usually light on the description and always have to go back and work it in later. I generally write in first person, which makes it easier to only describe things that the narrator notices, but those narrators tend to be introspective types, so I still have to make sure I don't overdo it.

    It can be fun to play with details, having them mean different things to different people. I have one story where if one character wore a crimson sweater, she'd do so considering the symbolism behind the color. Another would think the color good for hiding fresh blood after a fight. But the narrator, who grew up with red marking prostitutes, tries to wear red and nearly has a panic attack.

    It can help to think about what the MC likes to do or what kinds of details s/he'd think worth noticing. If a narrator knits, for example, she's likely to notice fabric types.

  20. As always, great examples to illustrate the point. This post is a good sanity check for when the writing gets boring and you can't figure out why.

  21. oh. ;) gotcha. Man, if it were in Decatur IL, I would have been furious at myself for missing it. :)

  22. I don't really see the details, or at least don't retain them if I initially notice them. I also have trouble connecting to them emotionally -- I connect emotionally to the big picture instead. It's been difficult getting them into the story because of this. As a result, I've been having to do it backward. I write the scene and connect emotionally to whatever with the big picture. Then I add the details I think someone will look for, a single detail at a time. It's a challenge because I'll often get the wrong word to describe something. Since I'm not connecting to the details, I don't have the emotional reaction to a certain word that someone else would.

  23. Linda, that sounds challenging. I wonder if there's a writing exercise that would help there? I had a guest author who talked about sitting in your backyard and focusing on each sense. Write down what you hear, then smelled, then saw, etc. Not sure if that'll help, but maybe there's a way to kickstart that part of your brain.

  24. Loved this information. Thanks.

  25. Thank you for the insightful article, but just for the record: I love writing descriptions. That's one of my problems - I always try to get *away* from the characters and story for the description, and have to police myself about it.

    That's because I don't read books to connect with a character and follow his / her emotional roller-coasters. I read to be transported into intriguing, evocative, moving, perhaps mysterious settings that provoke both imagination and feelings. And I like these settings described in a literary, poetic, touching manner. The type of book you re-read periodically not for the story, but for the beautiful imagery.

    The aged house abandoned long ago but now populated by birds... Ancient trees in a primeval forest for which a human lifespan is but an eyeblink... The mysterious, moss-covered well and the faint echos within... The train tracks winding into the unknown at sunset (or during a downpour) - where do they lead ?

    What is the story of all these ? What have they seen ? If they could talk, what would they tell ? The possibilities, drifting into reveries, imagining what these looked like long ago...

    This is what I strive to achieve in my writing - a verbal painting that would move the reader an evoke deep feelings and thoughts.

    I also detect a sex difference: women writers and readers seem to bypass description and focus on characters and dialog. Men tend to appreciate description more.

  26. Good tips. But personally, i like the first description than the latter. Its very simple and makes room for escalation. The second description is exhausting to some readers.

    1. And that's okay. Different readers look for different things. But you can take the same concept and apply it differently using your style and taste.

  27. Any change “loose a tail” is “lose a tail”?

    1. 100% chance. Thanks for letting me know! (And I love that you also typo'd letting me know I typo'd )