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When and what to describe

First of all, let me make it clear that I am not asking how to describe a certain scene or thing. I'm asking when to describe the scene, that is, the correct time and place to write the description of the setting, and what to lay more stress on while describing it, including the surroundings, motion of characters,etc.

Whenever I make a cursory reading of my words, I see that I may not have described something sufficiently, and I feel that is a big setback in my writing. As is said around here, if you fear that it's not there, it's probably not there.

I'm not sure where exactly to put the descriptions, and if I visit the same setting again, whether I describe it again, and if I do describe it again, what to put in there.

Description is definitely one of my weakest points, and it would help if I get it sorted out as soon as possible.

I didn't find a satisfactory answer to my questions when I went thread-mining, although I may have missed a relevant thread, and if I did, I apologise.

I'd be grateful for any help. Thanks.
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Myth Weaver
That's a tough question to answer on a generalized basis.

You describe as much as you need to describe and when you need to describe it.

Best I can do for you at the moment is to refer you to one of my blog posts on the subject. Check it out and let me know if it helps or if you have any questions.

BrianWFoster’s Eleventh Law | Brian W. Foster


I try to use broadbrush description of a setting at first -- something like a really fast loose sketch, impressions only, light or shade, and maybe one feature that stands out and is a motif for that scene or for the novel as a whole -- then add colour and detail during the story itself using the senses and point of view of the main character.

But you can do it in reverse, not with broadbrush scene setting but a single sharp detail, like a drop of blood on snow, slowly expanding the field of vision as action unfolds.

Descriptions that just tell how things look are usually boring; what's much more engaging and interesting is where description is used to set a mood and hint at themes or action to come, for instance a dank, shadowed laneway. I feel that's one of the biggest shortcomings when action writers jettison description or pare it back to absolute essentials; there's little attention to mood as captured in scenery, lighting, etc.

Just my take on it, I'm sure there are many alternative views, and as usual it depends on what you want to create.



I think it's best when the mood is set and then one or two things are fully described - that way, the reader's imaginationcan take over . You just have to guide it enough. Too sparse, and the reader's not engaged; too much, and you're limiting what s/he can do with what is presented.
Well, I didn't expect this thread to go dry in such a short while, but I guess it was my fault for giving a rather unspecific question.

I thank you all for your answers, but they aren't exactly what I'm looking for. I guess my problem comes when I become so fully immersed in the scene (although there's really not that much action) that I'm not sure whether I should stop for some cursory descriptions. Mostly in dialogues and conversations. There isn't much charge in the scene, but I'm not sure whether I should throw in some descriptions as well.

Consider this scenario. A guy goes into a spectacular kitchen (which he's never seen before) in a spectacular house (the splendour of which he is very well acquainted with) to apologise to a friend (long story, don't ask). This is an emotionally charged scene and I'm not sure whether I want to taint it with a description of the spectacular (really spectacular) kitchen. What do you think I should do?

Consider a second scenario. A guy goes into a room which I've already described before with the only difference being that it is night while before it was day. So do I just say that it is night? Or do I say 'the black drapes shivered in the shine of the moon' (terrible, I know) or something like that?

If you could just give me appropriate answers to the two scenarios drawn above, I think, it would give me a lot of understanding in future problems. Thanks.


In my opinion, any description that isn't important to the scene will only serve to steal energy from that scene. On the other hand, description that is vital or connected to the purpose of the scene serves as an enhancement. Over-description just for the sake of description tends to be boring. It must be relevant.

So, in the kitchen scene above, are there elements in the kitchen that have a connection to the conversation?

In the second room, is it important that the reader know it is now night?

In deciding what to describe, I always give much more attention to things I want to draw the reader's attention to. I've used the following analogy on this forum before but I'm going to again because I feel it's appropriate:

Say I'm describing the back yard to a rundown house. If nothing back there is important to the story I'd probably just write the yard was overgrown with tall grass, weeds, & maybe something about the wood line reclaiming the land. The description would only serve to support the image of the rundown house.

Now, if there's something important back there... say a weather beaten shack that has a body buried under the floorboards...now I need greater description of the neglected yard and most certainly a good deal of descriptive attention focused on the shack...paint peeling off warped wooden walls, a roof partially caved in, a door dangling from one rusty hinge, etc.I'd want to describe a good deal about it because I want to draw the reader's attention.

Ask yourself what's important in your scenes. What is a scene truly about? Ask yourself what the description really conveys. That's where your answers lie.
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Article Team
Ask yourself what's important in your scenes. What is a scene truly about? Ask yourself what the description really conveys. That's where your answers lie.

Yes, I agree with this.

What you describe and how you describe it is a window into the the character's emotions and mental state.

Let's take your first scenario. Assuming this scene is being told by the guy going into the spectacular kitchen, there are different ways to approach this. You can ignore the "spectacular" nature of things or use them to convey the mood of the character. How? Try something like this. Be warned it's going to be heavy handed.

Bob stepped into the kitchen. He couldn't look Fred in the eye. Instead, he stared at the shimmering silver pots swaying in the sunlight, bright and warm unlike the feeling he got from Fred now. Fred resumed cutting carrots with a fancy silver knife with a gold handle. It thump-thump-thumped heavy on the marble chopping board, sound pounding deep into him like the guilt.

See what I'm doing. I'm using the description of the fancy kitchen to do two things, describe the surroundings and to convey emotion. Now, the description becomes important because without it some of the emotion is lost.

In the second scenario it's the same thing. Describe what's important to the POV character right then and there.


Myth Weaver
Restating T.Allen's point:

Setting is not important.

Let that over-generalized comment sink in.*

Setting is not important.

No one cares that your scene is taking place in a kitchen.

The character is important. What the character notices in his POV:

1. Sets an emotional tone. If he's angry, he sees a knife, cold steel. If he's happy, he sees the flowers blooming in the pot on the counter. The author using appropriate feeling words for the descriptions also helps with this.
2. Provides great background beats to accent the dialogue. Again, express anger or joy or whatever through the actions of the characters in the context of the setting.
3. Sets up the plot. If he's going to stab his friend, you need to show the knife. Ideally, use the knife to set the mood and then use it to advance the plot.

EDIT: Got distracted and forgot to address the asterisk: Yes, I know that there are other reasons to use description, such as setting the scene. However, in this instance, I think the OP is better off concentrating on setting purely as it relates to his character.


Advait, one thing that occurs to me is that the example scene we're responding to (the kitchen confrontation) is basically a dialogue scene. In this kind of scene, I think Brian's 3 points are exactly right: in such a scene, most writers would use description lightly and mainly to set tone, move plot or riff off the dialogue. Too much description would get in the way of the smooth flow of the scene.

In a different kind of scene, say an action sequence or an emotional character interaction scene where few words are spoken, I would say that description needs to step forward a bit more so the reader can see/feel what is happening.

If you're setting the scene, the description may amp up even further but it doesn't have to. As Brian says in his blog post, when someone builds a stage set for a play, they don't put an entire forest on stage. They just put up a cardboard tree and that's good enough.

One of the places I feel I've improved in my own writing is in my scene setting. I used to really go overboard with description (in order to "get my vision across to the reader") and it ground the story to a halt. Now I try to let a small bit of description stand in for an awful lot of scenery. If that means the reader doesn't quite imagine the setting the exact way it is in my mind, that's okay.


Myth Weaver
One of the places I feel I've improved in my own writing is in my scene setting. I used to really go overboard with description (in order to "get my vision across to the reader") and it ground the story to a halt. Now I try to let a small bit of description stand in for an awful lot of scenery. If that means the reader doesn't quite imagine the setting the exact way it is in my mind, that's okay.

My understanding is that the current theory on this methodology is that the reader actually finds this approach more engaging. Rather than the author imposing every detail, the reader is allowed to populate the world using their imagination.
One other aspect: it's best to have some consistency to your amount of description. Of course scenes have different needs ("dialog scene vs action scene" is a good point), but be careful heaping on description early, even for a flashy opening, and then easing it too far back-- or suddenly jazzing up one scene among many.

A lot of description depends on the readers filling in those blanks and accepting that you have certain priorities, and changing the rules on them can be unsettling-- it makes them too aware of "the writer" instead of the style, or even that "the writer got lazy/ got desperate" at one point.