Description in Your Novel: Don't Force Feed Your Reader

I’ve been reading some of the best-selling authors out there recently: Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, David Weber, and several others, as well as some of the not-so-best-selling, but still good writers like Cody Macfadyen. I’m really liking his work.

One of the things I noticed is that most of these authors provide very little description about the surroundings and the people. King is a notable exception, who gives a lot of description, but I’ll talk about him in a minute.

When I’m reading new writers or unpublished fledgling writers, I tend to be exhausted after reading a few short stories and I was trying one night to figure out why. It finally hit me: they give too much description.

When I read a book (and I’m sure you do similar), I start to imagine the characters and surroundings in my head. I get a feel for the scene and then I sort of become part of that scene. When a writer gives too much description, though, I have to constantly redraw that scene. Do you remember in the old days of computing when every time a page would reload on the internet, the entire page had to be ‘redrawn’ from the top down, and you would sit and wait while the page loaded one image and ‘box’ at a time? Well, that’s sort of how a lot of knew writers make me feel about their stories. I’m impatient, waiting for the scene to be redrawn, and just when I start to get an image of it in my head, the writer goes and redraws it, so I have to stop reading for a moment and redraw the scene. While this might only take seconds to do, it pulls me out of the story frequently enough that I lose interest in reading the story.

So here’s my opinion on description: less is more. Ha! I hate those catch phrases, but it’s true in this sense.

Let me explain. We have all either seen an attorneys office in person or on television at some time. If you have a character walking into an attorney’s office, there’s no reason to describe it down to the lamp on the table. It’s sufficient to tell us it’s either overflowing with opulence or it’s untypically sparse or trashy. Otherwise, just tell us it’s an attorney’s office, and let us picture it in our head. It saves you and the reader time, and it doesn’t matter if Jane sees a green couch while George sees a black one, or James sees no couch at all. Unless it’s necessary for the story, let the reader ‘see’ it however they want. Have a little faith in your reader to imagine the things that don’t really matter to the telling of the story.

Most of us have either been in or seen a roadside diner. Give just enough description to pique interest, but don’t draw the diner for them: “Jim saw a diner on the side of the road with the outside lit up in neon. He pulled over into the empty parking lot and walked inside to find everything had a film of grease over it, including the tables, the menus and the waitresses face and hair. He was hungry, so he chose to order anyway.”

Did you picture a diner in your head when I wrote that? Was the description I gave enough for you to get a good image in your mind from a diner you’ve been in at some point in your life? I didn’t tell you about the color of the chairs (they were metal with orange Naugahyde in my mind) and the booths (same orange, but with cracks and foam showing from some of them) and shellacked tables and plastic covered menus, and a jukebox that didn’t work in the corner, with barstools covered in the same orange, but with shiny silver around them for spinning, with the shiny being the only thing in the restaurant that didn’t have a shade of yellow haze covering it. Anyway, that’s how I pictured it in my head. But as the writer of that small snippet, it shouldn’t matter to me if you saw it with yellow plastic and no barstools either. What’s important is that you know he went into the diner to eat, and get an image of what it looks like. If nothing happens there but his eating, well, chances are the diner isn’t all that important, so don’t spell it out in detail.

Most elementary schools look the same. There’s no need to describe it unless there is something about it that makes it unique. Same with grocery stores or malls or strip malls. Only tell us what is most important about a vehicle, clothing, etc.

There are TWO exception to this minimalist description though:

1) when the item (house, building, car, clothing, etc) is a character in and of itself.

Think about the book/show MISERY (I said I’d talk about King again, so here it is and how he does it… he turns items into characters, and description into characterization). The house was described in great detail in the book and in the movie, great care was taken to make the house very specific in detail. Now, think about how the house itself was a character in that show, from the creaky floorboards, to the basement with the loose step, to the ominous look of it from the front, to the obvious state of disrepair it was in for parts of it. The house in that book acted as just as much of a character, almost like it was alive and breathing and acting, just like the people in the house.

Weber is another writer who has done this with the sci-fi genre. I can’t say enough about the Honor Harrington series of books. If you like sci-fi at all, this is a great series of books to read. In several of them, he writes about her ship, and the ship itself is a character. You’ll just have to read them to understand (click the link to see some of the Honor Harrington books on Amazon.com.)

2) when the item (house, building, car, clothing, etc) is necessary for character development.

For example, it doesn’t matter to me what kind of a car Tom drive, unless he is reluctantly driving a min-van, because that tells me a lot about Tom. It tells me he has children, is probably mid-to-late thirties or early forties, is likely married or divorced and shares custody (but more likely married, since divorced guys would likely not keep a mini-van… not all, but most). Just telling me that Tom reluctantly drives a mini-van tells me a whole lot about Tom that you as the write now don’t have to spell out in detail for me.

Or tell me Jason wears a lot of gold jewelry and drives a bright red sports car, and I’m going to get a great image of a mid-life crisis, divorced man reclaiming his lost youth, or a smarmy salesman who thinks he’s greater than he is. With just a touch more description, you can make sure I know which of these Jason is.

Bottom Line:

Don’t describe the scene to me, the weather, the color of the walls, what the characters are wearing or driving or eating, unless one of two things is necessary: 1) the object you’re describing will act as a character in and of itself or 2) the description is ABSOLUTELY necessary in order to develop the character.

Go through a work in progress you have going right now or your most recently finished writing project and see if you have too much description. Put it up to these two tests, and then imagine that it is removed and ask yourself if it really matters if the reader sees a blue dress instead of a brown one or sees blonde hair instead of black. If it doesn’t matter, don’t forcibly change the readers mental picture while they are reading. Trust that your reader is smart enough to draw the scene on their own, and you focus your energy on telling a great story.

You might disagree with me. If so, tell me why in the comments. If you’re not sure, look at some of your writing and then read some of the greats. Decide for yourself what it is that feels right for you, but try not to let your ego get in the way of your brilliantly written descriptive text that you now find might be completely unnecessary.

Happy editing… keep writing!

Love and stuff,
Michy