Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to writing description, advice tends to be sparse. Where should you focus? What’s important? When has a descriptive passage outstayed its welcome? They’re difficult questions because they deal with subjective tastes, but there’s one piece of advice that you can use as your guiding light.
It’s that piece of advice that we’ll be considering today, as well as a few other descriptive writing tips to make your life easier. So, without further ado, what’s this advice?
The simple tip
The problem that authors tend to encounter when writing description is that they think they can do a complete, objective job. Many authors set about description with the aim of visually describing everything the reader would encounter if they were present in the scene. It’s so common that, as I describe it, it may even sound like common sense: how else can you look at description?
Well, the thing is that if the reader was in the scene, they’d take their body with them. That means they would have limitations: they’d be standing in a certain place, focusing on certain things, and bringing their biases with them. Objective, exhaustive description therefore doesn’t recreate actual presence, but nor is it actually objective or exhaustive.
One good example of this is a bookcase. Describing a bookcase is like the old joke about spelling ‘banana’; easy to start, hard to stop. You could describe its height and width. You could do so in a way that implies a general number of books. You could describe the colors of the books – whether their owner categorizes aesthetically or alphabetically. You could describe a few select books to give an impression of the whole. You could list every single book. You could describe every single book; color, condition, edition. You could start telling anecdotes about how different books came into their owner’s possession. Functionally, you never have to stop writing. Of course, you do, because you know that description isn’t really about objective cataloging.‘Accurate’ description has no natural end – you choose what to include, and that means expressing a preference.Click To Tweet
Instead, description is about giving a sense of mood and establishing plot-important details. You describe the grandfather clock because you want the room to feel foreboding, and you describe the footstool because someone is going to trip over it in the second chapter and you need it to be in place. If you’re writing fiction, you’re not so much ‘describing’ a space as dressing a set, and that means your decisions are artistic, not literally descriptive.
In this way, the answer to ‘what should I describe in a scene?’ is pretty simple: the fewest things you need to establish mood in a natural way, anything that’s going to matter to the plot, and anything you need to camouflage how you’re manipulating mood and plot. That may still amount to a lot of things – it depends on the scene – but it’s good advice that keeps authors from getting under their own feet.
Still, that’s not the tip I mentioned earlier. No, while it’s good writing advice, and a functional place to start, it’s more a standard for later editing than a guiding star. The actual tip comes from Anne Enright, author of The Gathering, Yesterday’s Weather, and The Green Road and winner of the Man Booker Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Encore Award, and the Irish Novel of the Year.
Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
– Anne Enright
Let’s reflect on what she means.
Finding a place to stand
We’ve already talked about how description shouldn’t be objective, but it’s also true that it can’t be objective. As Enright states, description is an expression of opinion (just one reason that all art is political). The things on which we choose to focus, as well as those we leave out, are a complex expression of how we think the reader should encounter a given moment, based both on how we see it and how we expect they’d encounter it without guidance.
As an example, if you were describing a character but could only mention one thing about them, what would you choose? You might choose their expression or voice, both of which are evocative even though they can change. You might choose what they’re wearing, or their profession, or their most important relationship. Some writers, under these constraints, might choose their star sign as an indication of their personality, and other writers might choose their blood type for the same reason.If you could only describe one thing about a character, what would you choose? What does your answer reveal about how you see the world?Click To Tweet
These choices – the first ports of call for some – might be things you’d never dream of including. Blood type as an indication of personality, for example, is a concept most common in East Asian countries – something a Western author might not ever imagine could be relevant. But while you might not agree with the theory, there’s a huge audience to who that detail would be the best possible description, telling them a whole host of things about a character. Similarly, there’s a huge audience to who it would mean nothing.
When Enright talks about finding a place to stand, this is part of what she means. You can’t and shouldn’t give objective description, so all that’s left is to figure out how best to embrace subjectivity.
The elephant in the room
There are three qualities that can help you nail your subjective description, but before we get to those, it’s important to address the elephant in the room.
That is, the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Many versions of this story exist, but its basic form is that a group of people who can’t see cluster around an elephant, each exploring the part that is within their reach. One person holds the trunk and declares that an elephant is like a snake, one holds the leg and declares it’s like a tree, one stretches their arms across its side and declares it’s like a wall, and one feels its tusk and declares it’s like a spear. In many versions of the story, they come to blows over their conflicting conceptions of what an elephant ‘is’.
The point of this version of the parable is that we can hold an accurate subjective opinion that seems to conflict with someone else’s accurate subjective opinion. Our range of understanding is limited, even as we have tested it with rigor, and there’s value in not steamrolling over those who see things differently.
Applied to description, this logic cautions us that finding a place to stand isn’t just about embracing our subjectivity to create better writing, it’s about embracing our subjectivity in a way that results in better writing for the reader. That means sometimes making a concession, sometimes exploring an idea even when you think you have the definitive take, and sometimes just keeping in mind that there are other sides to the elephant and it’s not worth punching someone over a tusk.
If all description is an opinion on the world (though not always a conscious opinion), then finding a place to stand is about identifying that opinion and ensuring it’s communicated effectively. This might mean being more forthright about what you’re focusing on, or it might mean altering your language to ‘sell’ your stance to readers who don’t share it.Description expresses the opinions of the author. What’s left to decide is whether that expression is deliberate.Click To Tweet
James Bond books are, famously, highly materialistic. Under various authors, Bond description tends to focus on symbols of status; clothing, cars, possessions, brands. To some readers, this is off-putting, but however you feel about it, it’s a deliberate stance. It’s not that only highly materialistic people write about Bond, it’s that materialism is part of the wish-fulfillment aesthetic with which the stories purposefully engage. In finding their place to stand, Bond writers choose a spot that isn’t appealing to every reader but is very appealing to their target reader, and this makes their writing more effective. More than that, it creates an identifiable, relatively consistent viewpoint that’s part of what makes ‘Bond’ as a concept something that can cross genres and survive adaptation after adaptation.
This is the benefit of finding your place to stand – a clearer, more deliberate sense of what matters and why. You might think the grandiosity of nature is worth reveling in, or you might want to keep character description minimal so the reader can project onto them. Either choice is right because both are decisions, and decisions facilitate skill. It’s almost impossible to write objectively ‘good’ description, because different people want different things, but it is possible to write description that skillfully encapsulates a complex, consistent view.
There are many ways to develop your stance, to figure out what aspects of your view on the world are noteworthy, but as you try to take ownership of description as opinion, there are three key criteria to keep in mind.
‘Amount’ is a useful criterion when considering effective description because it’s easy to measure. How much description are you providing, how much of that description focuses on certain aspects of the described? It’s straight forward enough that you could make it into a pie chart.
‘Amount’ is really about focus; the more you talk about something, the more important it’s suggested to be. When you’re not aware of your bias, ‘amount’ is often the giveaway of how you really feel. Think of a husband and wife chatting, one slowly realizing the other has a crush on a co-worker not based on any specific thing they say, but just on how much they have to say about one person. The same is true of an author – based on the amount of description they dedicate to certain things, the reader picks up on where their heart lies.
When you’re not owning your opinion, this is illicit, but when you are, you can turn it into a love letter. Be aware of the amount of description you offer relative to other types of writing and, within that, what you spend the most time describing (both what you’re describing and what you’re describing about it). This is something you can proactively manipulate, giving the reader a direct indication of how important a given thing or detail is.
The nature of your descriptive writing is less tangible than the amount, but it’s still an important part of owning your stance. When talking about amount, I mentioned being aware of what you’re describing about a given subject. Where, again, are you focusing the resource of your attention?
This is a complaint that’s often levelled at cross-gender writing – when a writer can’t find a way into a character’s head, they often focus on the superficial, and the reader picks up on that. We’ve all read a description of a female character that described her figure, her hair, her eyes but didn’t venture past this superficial level. On such occasions, readers tend to assume that this is either what the author is interested in or all they’re capable of depicting.
As you consider the opinion you’re expressing through your description, reflect on the nature of the description you’re offering. What else about what you’re describing could you focus on, and why have you made the choices you have? Sense writing is a good place to start with this; evoking the senses can lead to much more involving description, but it also opens the door to impressions and metaphors that are more creative than a direct visual assessment.
Finally, keep in mind that you have complete control over this world. If you’re focusing on a character’s looks because they haven’t had a chance to speak yet, that’s not a reason, it’s another decision. Make them speak, throw a rock at their head, have them win the grand prize – put them in the situation that leaves you most able to describe what you think is important. The same is true for objects and settings; create the conditions for your ideal description.Description isn’t just about what objects you focus on, but which of their qualities you decide deserve the reader’s attention.Click To Tweet
Most of this article has been about how description is, by default, opinion, but outright expression of opinion is also possible through judgement. Most authors slip a degree of outright opinion into their description – little judgements or direct assertions like those below.
‘He was a typical jock…’
‘Like many such houses, Sir Emmet’s dwelling was expansive and cold…’
‘A paragon of its species, the cat remained motionless in the shard of sunlight…’
In the phrases above, the author presents an opinion as part of their description that points to a larger worldview. Clearly, they have an existing view of jocks, cats, and certain types of house against which these specific expressions of such are being judged.
These views are the author’s default beliefs (or they’re expressed as such), but even if they’re accurate, they’re not widely accepted as objective fact. Like the other aspects of description, this isn’t inherently unhelpful, but it’s more effective when it’s deliberate. A writer who wants to talk about what ‘jock’ means to them can do so more effectively if they know they have to persuade some readers than if they assume everyone is on the same page.
Direct judgements can prompt a ‘sez who?’ response from the reader, so they’re usually best used sparingly. Still, they’re clear expressions of stance, and when you nail them, they’re effective in communicating exactly how the reader should feel about a given moment. Of course, then there are authors like Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, whose descriptions dive so totally into judgement that it’s part of their appeal.
Every country is like a particular type of person. America is like a belligerent, adolescent boy; Canada is like an intelligent, 35-year-old woman. Australia is like Jack Nicholson. It comes right up to you and laughs very hard in your face in a highly threatening and engaging manner.
– Douglas Adams, ‘Riding the Rays’ from DouglasAdams.com
Description as opinion
Description expresses an opinion about the world, but that’s true whether you embrace it or not. The choice left, then, is whether your reader figures out how you think by inferring meaning from scattered clues and accidental admissions or whether you present your opinion as beguiling, entertaining, and with room for disagreement.
As with any writing skill, practice is the key, but considering amount, nature, and judgement isn’t a bad place to start. Luckily, most of being an author is having something to say and knowing how to say it, so while nailing description is difficult, it’s also totally in your wheelhouse.
Do you struggle with description or is there a descriptive passage that you think gives away more than its author intended? Let me know in the comments, and check out Is A Character Sketch The Best Way To Introduce Your Characters? and Should Authors Use Familiar Places As Story Settings? for more great advice.