Wednesday, January 17, 2024

How to Write Description When You Hate Writing Description

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Every novel needs description, even when you don't wanna write it.

I dislike writing description. Which is funny since I write science fiction and fantasy—two genres known for their abundant descriptions. I’d rather focus on what’s going on in the story and less on what everything looks like, but describing the world is a must for genre writers. If we don’t set the scene, the reader can’t ground themselves and be drawn into the story.

So, yeah, super important. And not only for genre writers.

Description is everywhere in every novel—what the characters look like, what the rooms look like, how the setting feels, how the action plays out. When you think about it, even dialogue and internal thoughts are describing how a character says something and how they think.

If all your description does is show what something looks like, you’re missing an opportunity to strengthen your novel.

Which stinks if you don’t like writing description (or aren’t very good at it yet). If you’re like me, your first drafts are full of “white room” scenes with little to no description at all. Or you might dump a ton of details in big blocks to get it over with (I also do this). You might even make it up as you write and not care if it’s accurate or consistent with the rest of the story (still me).

These are the places in a manuscript that always need a ton of editing in draft two, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing—that’s what second drafts are for—it is a place you can save time by getting a little more done from the start.

You can add descriptive impact without painting huge word pictures and waxing poetically about sunsets.

And your secret weapon for this is point of view.

One of the reasons I dislike writing description is that when I’m only adding it to “show the room,” it doesn’t serve a point in the story. It’s wasted words I usually cut later.

But when I choose details that my point of view character would notice, interact with, and judge, then I can “show the room” in a way that matters to the story. The details aren’t random, they’re there because they’re important to the character in some way—even if it’s just how they see the world they live in.

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

Let’s look at some examples.

Here’s the opening paragraph from my WIP, my science fiction detective story.
Anson Tanaka was finally up to no good—and it was about damn time. I’d been tailing the mid-level lab assistant around San Francisco for six days, and while he clearly had an unhealthy obsession with avocado egg wraps, he’d yet to engage in the illegal activity I’d been hired to expose.
I could have described the San Francisco setting, but that’s not something my protagonist (Chip) is going to do unless it doesn’t look like he expects it to. But I slipped in the setting in a way that also shows what Chip is doing—tailing someone. By the end of the paragraph, you might even guess that he’s a PI on a case (and you’d be right).

The “unhealthy obsession with avocado egg wraps” is a fun detail that suggests Chip is observant, but also adds a little whimsy and voice. It evokes the trendy eating establishments of the area.

Let’s jump down a few paragraphs:
At eleven nineteen, Tanaka left his office and walked right past me without a glance, too busy tugging down the bill of his Anaheim Angels hat. It was either an obvious signal or he was really worried about someone recognizing him.

My money was on the latter, though he could just be embarrassed about the hat. This was Giants’ territory after all.
I could have described Tanaka leaving and that he was wearing a hat. I could have said he was “acting suspicious” or “casting nervous glances as he walked.” But those descriptions don’t offer much more than a vague, general sense that Tanaka is acting suspicious, and they don’t connect to the setting or Chip’s character at all.

But Chip noting Tanaka’s actions, and attributing motive to them based on what he knows and what he was hired to do, shows Chip is good at his job. And again, I toss in a little humor that also shows the flavor of San Francisco.

“But what about Chip himself,” you ask? “How do I describe what he looks like?” Like this:
No one paid attention to me. Not surprising, really. I blended. Average height, average weight, my eyes brown, my artificial skin tan enough to pass for a variety of San Francisco’s ethnicities. My dark hair was long enough to muss or smooth back depending on my undercover needs. Bohemian or businessman, I could do both.
This is a more direct description, and describing what a first-person narrator looks like is always a challenge. But I transition into it by how Chip is interacting with the setting. “No one paid attention to me. Not surprising, really. I blended.” And then he goes on to explain how and why.

Instead of stating his stats, I framed it how a PI would if he was describing a suspect. I also throw in some more “job” details, such as why he looks like this and how it helps him do his job. And the big reveal—his artificial skin. Because Chip isn’t human (Readers know this going into the story).

A few more paragraphs down, I slip in some world building and setting:
Tanaka kept checking his left jacket pocket—more signs of guilt. A faint rectangular bulge suggested the pocket contained more than a thumb-sized PIP drive with stolen files on it. Possibly a weapon, but with Tanaka’s background, it was more likely his lunch, which meant he’d might be meeting his contact in one of Lower Mission’s lovely parks.

Fernwell West would be nice. They had exquisite fountains.
Notice that most of the details I used also show Chip doing his job as a private investigator? I added a few details about San Francisco and a some of the tech from this world as well, light sprinkles that help readers visualize this world without slowing the action. This is all on the first few pages, so my goal is to hook the reader with the story and make them like Chip enough to keep turning the pages.

And last but not least, here’s how I added some timeline details (FYI…this isn’t the first time the date has been mentioned. Readers know going in this is set in the future).
I found a spot on the sidewalk with a clear view of him and anyone approaching on the street from either side, and leaned against the rough brick of a pre-Quake-era building, circa 2054. Few buildings this close to the Bay had survived that shake up.
Some details you just have to state—such as telling readers there was a big earthquake right around 2054. I could have said exactly when, but Chip has no reason to think that right now. But I can get away with him noting a “pre-Quake” building, since that’s unusual. By capitalizing Quake, I suggest that this is a notable event that’s commonly referred to in this world.

This paragraph ends at 677 words into the story, and hopefully by now, readers are hooked and have enough sense of the setting and what things look like to feel grounded in the story. The descriptions aren’t overdone, but they do the job. Readers have time to learn more about this world and these characters as the story unfolds.

Now, admittedly, tastes vary and some folks will hate this and think it’s not enough description, and that’s okay. Every writer has their preference, and you should write in the style that works for you. But if you’re struggling to mix in description that feels natural and doesn’t bog down the story, this is a very effective option.

You can add as many details as you want, and as many that work with the point of view character and what they’re doing in that scene. I certainly have passages later in the story with a lot more detail, building on what I set up in the first three pages.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

Here are some things to consider when describing a scene:

What details in the scene does the character have an opinion about? I used this extensively, and it’s my favorite technique for description because it does so much more than just describe. It helps characterize, world build, show the goals, conflicts, and stakes. It does it all.

What details in the area trigger an emotional response? This helps show what’s important to the character, and thus, the story. It’s a great way to slip in conflicts and stakes, as well, since those are typically emotional aspects.

What details in the area make noise? I didn’t show it in these examples, but I have cars honking, people talking, etc. all through the opening. Think about the sounds in your setting and what would attract your character’s attention, and why.

What details in the area emit a smell? Same here. Smells often trigger memories, so this is a useful trick for bringing in backstory that feels natural to the scene.

What details in the area does the character touch? Touch is an often-overlooked sense when writing description, but it’s visceral and a detail that readers can “feel” and visualize pretty easily. “Rough brick” evokes a different image than simply “brick.”

Let the details become part of the character and give each one a reason for being noticed and mentioned.

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

Backgrounding your descriptions and making them part of your point of view character’s story experience lets you describe without “describing.”

You know what matters to the scene and to the character, so look for details that overlap. This makes it easier to layer your descriptions and saves you words in the long run. When one description also characterizes and shows the protagonist's goal, it frees up words you can use for the parts you do love to write.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the descriptions in a scene. Go through the above list and look for opportunities to background descriptive details so they do more. Stuck on how to describe a scene? Use the list and brainstorm what you (and the character) might find in that scene.

Do you enjoy writing descriptions or do they make you want to scream?

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 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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  1. Excellent article. Thank you.

  2. I write fantasy and hate writing descriptions too. Thanks for your great tips on how to incorporate descriptions in an interesting way.

  3. Great post. Thanks for the lesson.

    One of your sentences brought up a question about using present tense in a past tense narration. ===My money was on the latter, though he could just be embarrassed about the hat.=== If your narrator is using past tense to describe the action, would it be better to say "he could have just been embarrassed about the hat" ?

    I asked because I find myself mixing the two while I write. I've seen it done both ways, but don't know which way works better to not pull the reader out of the story.

    1. You could do it that way, but to me, it feels clunkier and not as conversational. The past tense might technically be right, but I always go with what sounds better to my ear. But either works.

    2. Michelle Gregory1/24/2024 8:20 AM

      As I'm going through an older story, I see that I mix the tenses a lot, but when I try to think of the way to make it "proper" it *does* sound clunky. Thanks for the insight.

    3. Happy to help. Ultimately a copyeditor can make the final call on that, but I did that it lot with my MG trilogy, and I don't think the editors changed very many of them.

  4. Michelle Gregory1/19/2024 8:43 AM

    That last comment was from me.

    1. No worries :) I've had to post anon for ages due to a Blogger issue, and I just today fixed it! (Third party cookies issues).

  5. When is your novel coming out? It sounds like something I would like to read.

    1. Thanks! Not for a while. I'm doing final revisions on it now, then it'll go out on submission with my agent. If it sells (fingers crossed), it'll probably be out around 2025/26. If it doesn't and I publish it myself, then probably the end of 2024, early 2025.

  6. Was looking for topics online about description and came across this. I can't write description at all. People tell me I should be a writer cause I can write short scripts to entertain people in emails or in in-person conversations but it would be impossible to make that into a book or something because I have what I call "description blindness". I literally don't see description. I also am not able to read description. My eyes filter it out and do not pass it to my brain. I only see action and conversations when reading. I have always just filtered out the useless information (non-action or non-conversation) and no matter of trying to pay attention to it when reading, I still won't see it. I've tried to force myself to see if by constantly re-reading a paragraph over and over until I was able to explain the description in it and every time I get to the end of the paragraph, I know absolutely none of the descriptions.
    I'm hoping AI writing systems improve enough so I can turn a lot of the great ideas I have into things people expect to see in writing.

    1. That is certainly a challenge. Maybe you're more of a screenplay writer? You really do need to be able to write a certain amount of description for a novel, but you don't for a screenplay. That might fit your skills better and allow you to tell your stories without having to deal with the aspects you don't like and can't do.