1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Over doing descriptions?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Androxine Vortex, Nov 26, 2014.

  1. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

    986
    85
    28
    Looking back at some of my earlier works, and by early i mean i was still in high school, i noticed that i went on and on about descriptions. I think i wanted to really make my reader feel immersed. But not just on this forum, on others as well, i see lots of other writers making very lengthy descriptions and to me, it pulls me away from action. It slows the progression of the plot.

    Now I'm not saying that lots of descriptions can't be good, but it's something i noticed. I was trying to spice up my story that it made it too much.

    Have you ever read a story that had hardly any use of descriptions? Would it be possible to write a story that was engaging yet kept the adjective usage low to allow for fast progression?
     
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    5,561
    2,664
    313
    Short answer: Yes!

    I believe it's definitely possible. I also get the impression that it's argued in certain contexts that this is preferable. It seems that the idea of getting to the action is what matters, and that holding the reader up with description is just distracting or even bad manners. There are those who state that every word and every sentence should state to move the story forward, and that if it doesn't, it should get cut (okay, I may be exaggerating a bit there). In this situation, any description that isn't essential to progress the plot/story is irrelevant and can get removed.

    That said, I personally very much enjoy writing descriptions and I like to think I'm pretty good at it. I think the trick lies in writing the descriptions in such a way that it doesn't distract too much from the story.
     
  3. Tom

    Tom Istar

    2,726
    1,191
    163
    Deleted...duplicate post.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 26, 2014
  4. Tom

    Tom Istar

    2,726
    1,191
    163
    I don't really like writing that's too spare on description. There was one book I read a while ago that was really well-written and the characters were engaging, but the main impression I came away from it with was frustration. I'm a very visual thinker, and I need descriptions to picture what's going on. The whole time I was reading that book I was mentally shouting, "Dammit, I want to enjoy this, but I can't see anything!"

    All I need are a few simple visual cues, so I can build my own picture of the story in my head--maybe just a swift mention of a character's basic appearance, or a building or landscape's most prominent features.

    I enjoy fantasy because the genre leans more towards vivid descriptions. Not long, overblown descriptions, mind you--I dislike those as much as the next guy. Nothing jolts me out of a story faster than a batch of purple prose. But I do think some description is necessary.
     
  5. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    4,044
    1,950
    163
    I write with minimal description as a general rule, but that's an oversimplification. The key, in my opinion, is knowing what to describe, how to describe it, and when to offer more.

    For my writing, I like to provide one or two powerful details, leaving the rest up to the reader's imagination and memory. So, if I describe a thug character intimidating my POV character, I might include a couple descriptions about how they look (say narrow-set eyes, or meaty hands studded with gnarled knuckles) while leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. I find this can be effective because it actively engages the reader's mind. They may fill in those blanks from a bully in their past, making this thug character more alive and real (to them) than any wall of description could ever hope to achieve.

    On the other side, if I want to draw a reader's attention to something, subtly signalling their subconscious that this is an important story element, I may offer more vivid and detailed description. You can also employ detailed description to pull a reader in tighter to the POV's experiences.

    A third consideration... If I'm trying to describe something which is not commonly understood, or fantastical in nature (we're on a fantasy site after all), then I believe more elaborate description is necessary. The description of a unique beast or the description of a magical moment, for example, needs to be clearly conveyed to your reader.

    So, in short, I try to use differing levels of description, making conscious choices on where, and what, and how much to describe so that description carries an effect over to the reader, often without their knowledge.
     
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2014
    Penpilot and BronzeOracle like this.
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    7,005
    4,950
    313
    Classic example: The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The story is driven almost entirely by dialog.

    Not fantasy, of course, but we can all learn from reading outside our genre.
     
  7. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    1,417
    467
    83
    Another thing to remember is that it's not just a matter of how much detail you present to the reader, but how you present it. I myself don't use that much description, but when I need to have a whole paragraph dedicated to describing someone's appearance or something like that, I always try to see if I can find an interesting way to phrase the description. For example, one of my characters has eyes two different colours. You could describe that fairly simply, "One eye was blue and the other brown," putting in bunch of adjectives and stuff to enhance it, and it'll be nice. But if you want to make it a more interesting description, you could say (as I did)...

    "But what made people look twice at her were her eyes, each one individually, for they seemed to have had something of a disagreement as to which colour would suit her best. One opted for an icy blue, while the other stood adamantly behind its decision to be an earthy brown."

    Description is actually a very valuable tool (especially in 1st person) for characterising the narrator, as it's basically one of the only times your narrator can just talk without having to convey the current events of the story. Not just what you describe, but how you describe it, will build interest in the reader.
     
    cupiscent and BronzeOracle like this.
  8. Tom

    Tom Istar

    2,726
    1,191
    163
    I love this description. This is the sort of style I enjoy, and a good example of a description that adds interest and material to the story without bloating it.

    One writer I've found who executes this sort of description amazingly well is Ellen Potter, who despite being mostly a middle-grade writer is still one of my favorites. I check out her books from the library on the excuse that they're for my sister, but I don't think I'm fooling anyone.
     
  9. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    3,599
    1,520
    163
    Exactly. Description should do double-duty. It should describe something the character sees/ feels/ senses/ etc. in a meaningful way (through the character filter), and it should also help the reader to get to know the character better. By HOW you use words, you actually say way more than what you're basically saying.
     
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  10. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    5,997
    1,715
    213
    I view writing as making a stew. Think of your ingredients:

    1. Characters
    2. Plot
    3. Description
    4. Setting
    5. Dialogue
    6. Other stuff

    Imagine if you made a "stew" that was almost strictly dialogue (or all meat). Sure, some people may like it, but they may think, "This stew would be great with a little extra spice" or "I wish the soup was a little thicker." This is often what writing feels like to me. I try not to overdo one thing too much. I've been told descriptions are one of my strengths, but I find most of the time I'm only using description to do maybe three things:

    1. Introduce a new character
    2. Describe action
    3. Create a mood through setting

    I used to describe every aspect of a character's clothes, what was sitting in a room, etc. But I've sort of figured out over time from reading that it's best for me to only describe remarkable things. Something out of place, weird, or different.

    For example, if your character has brown hair and blue eyes, that's not really interesting to me personally. If his hair is thinning and he has mouse under his left eye, then it's slightly more interesting. If he's eighteen, is clearly wearing an old toupee (maybe a hand-me-down) and has one glass eye that he can pop out to show people, well, he got more interesting. That's the kind of things I look for when I'm writing and reading. Of course not every character has to be an off-the-wall weirdo and have a strange quirk, but it definitely helps to give them something memorable that readers can hang their hats on.

    Same goes with setting or anything else. A little description can sometimes go a long way. One example that people have mentioned to me recently is in my current WIP, I have a warlord with a throne made of the scalps of his dead enemies. That image stood out to several people who mentioned that it was memorable. If he was just sitting on a regular throne, people may not have remembered that as well. It also adds to his character and shows him as a ruthless, sick person.
     
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2014
  11. spectre

    spectre Sage

    355
    75
    28
    I was thinking about this recently when I began work on my novel. I thought to myself, am I describing the character enough, am I describing the room enough and I think the answer I found was to describe in limited amounts, but not to describe solely one aspect. for instance, if I was describing a characters dress I didn't want to merely describe the color, I wanted to add their build, how the clothes fit, the color, the cut, the material, and do so in as few sentences as possible except where I felt that it was part of culture and not just something someone noticed. in describing a room you won't get away too long with just describing what is in it if the scene is prolonged, how does it feel, how does it sound. a story is really a long description of events, so keep describing, stop babbling.
     
  12. Fyle

    Fyle Inkling

    402
    51
    28
    If the description is well placed, and well writen, i dont mind them. I like to know how the author invisions thier own characters.

    I feel like there is a fair amount of overthinking amongst writers and not enough confidence in thier own innovation.

    Descriptions can be powerful.
     
  13. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    1,474
    436
    83
    I think a big part of description is the writer's own style. That is, how much of it do you really want to use, and can you keep using that much or that little throughout the story? You find your own balance between bringing more nooks and crannies to life and pushing on to show sooner what those details mean as they start doing something-- and once you know that, you just watch that you don't slip in one passage where you were too tired to paint it to your usual standards or too fascinated to keep the pace moving.

    Rule of thumb: be sure you can keep that "right amount" up without getting that feeling you're forcing yourself to repeat your descriptions. If you keep putting things the same way, it's a sign you either need fewer chances to duplicate yourself (less description), or to work harder to use more variety (the first step to better description).
     
  14. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    4,044
    1,950
    163
    I couldn't agree more with this point. Description should do powerful work and have an effect on the reader. Choosing description that does more than simply describe is an artful consideration.
     
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2014
  15. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

    986
    85
    28
    Does it ever annoy you if the character doesn't describe characters in enough specific detail? Like while you're reading about the main character and the author makes no mention of their height, or eye color, or age?
     
  16. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    1,474
    436
    83
    There are different schools of thought about describing a person.

    Some writers (and readers) love to give only generalities there and let the reader picture their favorite idealized blond champion or whatever it may be. It works for some... though I'd say it's easier to go wrong with this than with at least covering the basics.

    I have my own checklist, HESSC: Hair, Eyes, Skin, Size, and Clothing. I've heard people say it's hard to find a reason (without the cliched mirror) to describe a character, but I honestly think only the first two or three on my list are any challenge to work in. Readers forgive stretching a line to include "with his warrior's size he cut through the crowd," and you can say "why'd I have to stick to court robes on the day of the invasion" all day. It's pointing out the colors of hair, eyes, and skin that readers sometimes feel they don't "know" a character without, but aren't quite as easy to include.
     
  17. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

    986
    85
    28
    Yeah I'm trying to find a creative way to describe the main characters skin and eyes. I don't want to just say, He was a tall man, middle aged with deep green eyes.

    It detracts and it doesn't fit the POV well.
     
  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    3,120
    1,884
    163
    Personally, I put less emphasis on physical description than story presence. I write the character so they feel a certain way. Everything else maybe gets mentioned, but generally gets left out if it's not important.

    When I read, physical descriptions get glossed over. It's not intentional, but I get an image of a character from the way they're written, and it doesn't matter if the text tells me otherwise. My image supersedes the details unless that detail is important.


    As for getting the details of skin and eyes across, there's no need to be overly creative. For his skin, all you have to do is draw attention to it. "He scratched his arm, leaving white lines in the dark skin."

    For his eyes, you can just have someone call them "Blue eyes/Brown eyes/etc."
     
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2014
  19. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    5,561
    2,664
    313
    One thing to keep in mind is that when you're describing how someone looks you don't necessarily need to go into details about the physical appearance of the person. You can go a long way with a few keywords and an overall impression. Anything you leave out, the reader will fill in on their own.

    When it comes to descriptions I like to talk about first impressions.

    First impressions last.

    When you meet a person for the first time, it only takes you a few seconds to form an impression of that person. I like to think the same applies to writing. When you introduce a new component (character, location, concept, anything) into the story, you have a very limited time to shape your reader's first impression of this component. For the sake of simplicity, let's say you have one paragraph.
    Now, keep in mind how hard it is to change your first impression of a person. It can take a really long time. The same probably applies to writing as well. You want to make sure you give the reader the right first impression, so you don't have to change it later. This means you focus on the big important things - the things that define what you are describing and that you can't change later.

    Now this is where it gets tricky, because the things you can't change later, include things that you don't mention and which the reader fills in on their own. Since we're all different, there's really no way to predict exactly how someone is going to picture the things you don't mention about your character.

    The way I try to deal with this is to do the description once and then don't touch it again. That doesn't mean I can't describe features of something again, beyond the first description, but it does mean that I can't add anything to the description that's more important than what was in the first description.
    If for example I'm describing a human sitting in a chair, I can't wait until further on in the story to mention that it's a wheelchair and that he's sitting in it because his legs have both been amputated above the knees.
    What I can wait with is describing the tattoos on his back (because he's sitting against the back rest so they're not visible (and he's probably wearing clothes too)).

    So to describe a character: Figure out what the most important characteristics are that you would notice if you saw the character in front of you. Go with that and then add in details later as needed. Just make sure they don't go against anything that could be reasonably be inferred from the original description.



    As a side note: I know quite a few people, I couldn't tell you what color the eyes are for a single one of them. It's just not something that I pay attention to or that's important to me.
     
  20. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

    986
    85
    28
    Good points penpilot. And i hate it when an author is describing the MC actions but do it like this.


    He stood up, and held out his tan arm.

    I just feels like 'tan' was tossed in there. And if it's being written from that character's pov, it would seem weird to refer to themself like that. But the text example you mentioned with the skin was good, it felt more natural.
     
Loading...

Share This Page