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Wednesday, February 27

One Common Way Writers Weaken Their Descriptions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Good description doesn’t just list the facts.

I recently came across an article by Chris Winkle over at Mythcreants that resonated with me, because it's something I’ve written about a lot here—choosing the right description details and how that ties into point of view. Chris referred to it as listing facts instead of establishing relevance, which sums this idea up perfectly.

Everything in a novel is basically “description,” because it’s our job as writers to describe the story to our readers. We have multiple tools to do that, from dialogue, to narrative, to exposition and more, but it’s how we choose to wield those tools that sets an "okay" book apart from a "great" book. There’s a difference between describing what’s in a room and having a character interact with it.

Just Listing Details Doesn’t Inform the Reader Why Those Details Matter


It’s the why that turns a bare fact into a storytelling tool, but you don’t need to know the relevance of everything right from the start. On a first draft, you might put in every detail you imagine, because you haven’t decided what is relevant or not. And that’s fine and what first drafts are for. You can start trimming unnecessary details on the next draft.

Here are things to consider when writing description:

Description is about more than showing “what’s in the room.”
It also covers how a character feels, how they think, what they do, and how they move through the setting. It’s a tool to help bring the story world to life and help ground readers in that world. It’s how we convey our story to our readers.

(Here’s more on how much you need when describing your setting)

What the author knows is in the room, is not the same as what the point of view-character knows. Which is how we end up with listed facts and not what a character thinks is important. My favorite example here, is that when you’re running for your life, you don’t notice the drapes unless you’re considering using them to climb out the window to get to the ground. Authors always know more than the characters, but that doesn’t mean the reader has to get every detail.

(Here’s more on how point of view helps you choose what to describe)

Understanding the relevance of a detail helps you decide if it needs to be mentioned, described, or ignored. If your character just got fired, he’ll see the world in a different way from someone who just got promoted. He might notice the expensive items he now has to return, or the stack of unpaid-bills on the desk, or think about the dance lessons for his daughter he’ll have to cancel and break her heart. He probably won’t notice the layout of the kitchen or the fruit bowl on the table.

(Here’s more on if your description is helping your story or holding it back)

Description without relevance has a much higher chance of coming across as infodump or unnecessary backstory. We’re putting in details because we know they mean something to the book, not because they mean something to the character. We explain instead of show, dump information instead of weave in details naturally. The more relevant the information, the more likely it’ll flow seamlessly into the scene because it matters at that moment to what’s going on.

(Here’s more on avoiding infodumps)

Point of view is the best tool for describing what’s relevant in the scene, not just what’s there. The character has to interact with their world, and what they choose to interact with and why depends on how they feel at that moment, and what their goal is. Whatever is relevant to them at that moment is what gets noticed and described.

(Here’s more on how point of view helps with description)



Let’s see this in practice. Here’s a short except from my second novel, Blue Fire. I’ve rewritten it without the relevance, describing it from the author’s perspective.
The alley market was where the poor and the desperate went to sell their stolen goods. Rundown buildings, dirt on the cracked stones, and it smelled like an outhouse. It was full of pickpockets and thieves, both the vendors and the other customers, and no one shopped there alone.

The six of us split off into pairs. Me and Tali, Aylin and Soek, Danello and Jovan.
“Everyone remember their value numbers?” I asked a block from the alley. The street was already dirtier, and suspicious people watched us from inside shabby houses. Last night, Aylin had estimated what our goods were worth. We wouldn’t get the full value, but the closer we got the better.

“I remember.” Jovan hefted the bag of candlesticks, vases, and other valuables we’d stolen in his arms. He was an excellent liar and would probably get good prices for his bag. Tali wasn’t nearly as good as liar, but with her innocent sweet looks and blond curls, she made people want to give her what she asked for.

“We’ll go in separately. Don’t look at each other, and once you’ve sold your goods, meet back here.”
Aylin frowned and shook her head. “Not here. Anyone following after we sell might jump us.” She looked around and pointed to the bakery, with stacks of bread and flaky pastries in neat stacks in the windows. A round baker stood behind a counter. “That works. Buy something and linger inside.”
Heads nodded.

“If you see soldiers,” I added, “get out, but walk, don’t run.”
It’s not a bad passage, and it does set the scene and show the run-down alley they’re about to go into. But there’s no real sense of what these characters are facing or how they feel about it. There are a few hints, but the description doesn’t really reinforce those emotions.

Now, let’s look at the original and see the difference:
The alley market wasn’t one of my favorite places, and not just because I’d never had anything to sell before. Everyone there was a thief—buying stolen goods, selling stolen goods, looking for stolen goods. You had to watch your pockets as well as your tongue, and if you slipped up at all, someone would rob you of something.

We’d decided six of us would go. Me, Danello, Aylin, Tali, Soek, and Jovan. More would likely draw attention, less wouldn’t be able to carry or sell enough to keep us afloat very long. We’d sell in pairs to watch each other’s backs.
“Everyone remember their value numbers?” I asked a block from the alley. Aylin had done a good job estimating what our bundles were worth. Odds were we wouldn’t get all of it, but the closer we got the better.

“I remember.” Jovan already had on his bluffing face. He’d surprised us all last night when we tested each other to see who could lie the best. Tali wasn’t nearly as good, but she had an uncanny way of making you want to give her what she asked for anyway. She called it her hungry puppy face, and said she’d gotten many an extra dessert at the League with it.
I could believe it. And I’d have to remember that next time she tried to talk me into or out of anything.
“We’ll go in separately. Don’t look at each other, and once you’ve sold your goods, meet back here.”
Aylin frowned and shook her head. “Not here. Anyone following after we sell might jump us.” She looked around and pointed to the bakery. “That works. Buy something and linger inside.”
Heads nodded.

“If you see soldiers,” I added, “get out, but walk, don’t run.”
This contains fewer specific details, but the sense of danger is much higher, as is the need of why they’re risking going into the alley market to sell their goods. What matters to Nya, the protagonist, is also more clear.

Let’s look at the specifics and how they differ:

Relevant: The alley market wasn’t one of my favorite places, and not just because I’d never had anything to sell before. This shows Nya is poor and has had some experience with the market at some point Everyone there was a thief—buying stolen goods, selling stolen goods, looking for stolen goods. Her opinion on the people who frequented the market You had to watch your pockets as well as your tongue, and if you slipped up at all, someone would rob you of something. She knows she has to be careful on multiple levels or lose something

General: The alley market was where the poor and the desperate went to sell their stolen goods. Rundown buildings, dirt on the cracked stones, and it smelled like an outhouse. It was full of pickpockets and thieves, both the vendors and the other customers, and no one shopped there alone. This is all stated facts, but there’s no sense that Nya has personally experienced this and has an opinion about it. There’s also no sense of how she fits into the larger world. This could be a passage from any novel, while the relevant one was specific to this story and this character.

Relevant: We’d decided six of us would go. Shows the group dynamic. They decided together. Me, Danello, Aylin, Tali, Soek, and Jovan. More would likely draw attention, less wouldn’t be able to carry or sell enough to keep us afloat very long. This shows her familiarity with the dangers and how to mitigate those dangers and still accomplish the goal We’d sell in pairs to watch each other’s backs. Shows she’s thinking about how to protect each other

General: The six of us split off into pairs. Me and Tali, Aylin and Soek, Danello and Jovan. This states what they did, but not at all why they did it. I could have added “for safety” after pairs, but that still doesn’t give you the sense of danger the original does.

Relevant: “Everyone remember their value numbers?” I asked a block from the alley. Aylin had done a good job estimating what our bundles were worth. Shows she appreciates Aylin’s skill Odds were we wouldn’t get all of it, but the closer we got the better. A realization that getting what they needed might be harder, but a desire to do as well as possible

General: “Everyone remember their value numbers?” I asked a block from the alley. The street was already dirtier, and suspicious people watched us from inside shabby houses. This isn’t a bad line, but it puts the danger outside and shows nothing about their goal Last night, Aylin had estimated what our goods were worth. This loses Nya’s opinion about he friend We wouldn’t get the full value, but the closer we got the better. It states she knows what they won’t versus the guess. One shows the uncertainty of the task, the other states it as if it’s a known outcome

Relevant: “I remember.” Jovan already had on his bluffing face. Bluffing has a slightly different connotation than lying, even though that’s what he’s doing. It gives a better sense of Nya’s morality and where she might cross a line—bluffing is okay, lying maybe not He’d surprised us all last night when we tested each other to see who could lie the best. They planned for this, prepared Tali wasn’t nearly as good, but she had an uncanny way of making you want to give her what she asked for anyway. More specific of her skills She called it her hungry puppy face, and said she’d gotten many an extra dessert at the League with it. Shows she’s already put it into practice

General: “I remember.” Jovan hefted the bag of candlesticks, vases, and other valuables we’d stolen in his arms. Just states what they have to sell He was an excellent liar and would probably get good prices for his bag. Flat fact with no real sense of what his skill is Tali wasn’t nearly as good as liar, but with her innocent sweet looks and blond curls, she made people want to give her what she asked for. This feels more devious to me than Nya’s other observation. The added line of the dessert also makes it seem more innocent—just a child wanting sweets, not manipulation.

Relevant: I could believe it. And I’d have to remember that next time she tried to talk me into or out of anything. This line doesn’t work with just facts, but it shows Nya realizing her sister may have used this on her, too

Relevant: Aylin frowned and shook her head. “Not here. Anyone following after we sell might jump us.” She looked around and pointed to the bakery. “That works. Buy something and linger inside.” There’s no need to describe the bakery, so I don’t

General: Aylin frowned and shook her head. “Not here. Anyone following after we sell might jump us.” She looked around and pointed to the bakery, with stacks of bread and flaky pastries in neat stacks in the windows. A round baker stood behind a counter. These details add nothing to the scene except flat facts “That works. Buy something and linger inside.”

Both passages work fine, but the relevant one feels more immersive to me, because it conveys more than just the bare facts of the setting. It shows the why and does a better job at building tension and making readers worry about these kids as they go into that alley to sell stolen goods. They know this world and its dangers, and are prepared to face them.

When you write your descriptions, think about what details you choose to add and why. Make sure you’re showing what’s relevant to the scene and characters and not just what’s in the room. Your scenes will be stronger for it.

Do you consider the relevance of a detail when you write, or just describe what you imagine?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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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6 comments:

  1. The comparisons really helped me understand the difference.

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  2. Really well and clearly stated, and the example is full of great, specific reminders we can all use.

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  3. No better example of writing a novel can be found than in any and all of the works by the greatest novelist ever born, Gustav Flaubert. To read his correspondence with George Sand is a lesson in how to write a letter, as well as how to show us that a writer never reveals himself in his novels, only in his personal correspondence. That is where we leant his inner life and his opinions. You will lean that all his personal views shown in correspondence are shockingly missing and invisible in the novels. . All things from the life, times, his friends who were writers, the critics of his works, and all his autobiographies are the greatest instructions in writing I can recommend to anyone.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. I've ever read either, but I might have to after that glowing praise.

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