This article is by Autumn M. Birt.
Have you read a classic novel recently?
Or maybe have a child/nephew/cousin reading one of the touted best of the best in school? Something like Moby Dick or Ivanhoe, maybe even Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights.
If so, have you heard them complain about being bogged down in description?
Standard writing has changed.
It’s true. Gone are the days of passages filled with the acute detail of what a whaling ship looked like. Why? Well you can probably visualize one from the most recent movie of Moby Dick or develop the idea from a different nautical movie. And if you didn’t know what a bowsprit is, you could always just Google it.
We are in an information age – one with a short attention span for unneeded detail. Many genres have trimmed down their descriptions, accenting action packed text and dialogue with brief descriptive phrases to set a room or personal clothing style. If you’ve picked up a modern day thriller, you’ve most likely read bare-bones description.
Minimal description is the method of the day for many genres. But not all.
Epic fantasy and science fiction still rely on descriptions. Why? Well how do you describe a new world or a space station without the details?
I love that epic fantasy still uses description. Setting the mood with towering cliffs capped by the sun rising over a new land excites me to write and read. But I know I can’t go crazy with it. A page of description and no action isn’t going to go over well, no matter how curiously unique the place.
So a fantasy writer can’t go overboard illustrating a scene be it the moment before a battle or the discovery of a new land. Capturing everything in a paragraph or two and maybe a few comments between dialogue or action is ideal. And hard.
Don’t you wish there was shorthand for description?
Well there is, sort of. I mentioned it before on my post about building on framework of fantasy language, which was based on this great post here at Mythic Scribes. Some words conjure up fairly universal images: dark forest, abandoned castle, stormy sea, dragon. As much as you don’t want to rely on cliches to create a story, you can use well placed fantasy language to quickly build a background setting to tweak with new detail.
Because making the world yours is the key.
Maybe it is a dark forest with lance like thorns piercing the scant light. Or the forest is ethereal with leaves lost to sunlit heights. Both images are of woodlands but rely on some quick preconceived ideas to give a feel of different settings in only a sentence. What can you come up with?
Paint with the words you leave unsaid
One of my favorite writing tips – one that I have pasted to my wall by my writing desk – is to “paint with the words you leave unsaid.” This may seem counterintuitive to what I wrote above. But it really goes along with the idea of minimizing description to just those key phrases needed to reveal your unique world. Somewhere you need to allow the reader space to create the world you are writing in their minds without overwhelming them with details – or giving so little they are lost in a fog.
Keep efficient description that hits the essence of what you want to convey as you write and edit. If it takes pages to capture all the details in your mind while writing, that is okay. During edits you can reduce or move details. The first goal is to create an amazing world and the second is to write about it. But the third has got to be not to lose your reader.
No information dumps please
I hear that phrase most often referring to backstory, but it goes for description too. Anything more than two paragraphs of description with no action or dialogue is scraping the upper limit of the tolerance for many readers.
What do you do if you have a really heavily descriptive scene?
It happens. Sometimes the cobwebby dark builds frustration and tension, but two paragraphs of pitch black corridors that go on and on and on would leave me begging for a match – possibly not for the character. So add action: characters flailing blindly, or walking into a wall to discover it is stone. Or covered in spiders. One can trip or take out a sword to feel their way ahead with the point. Think of what the actions of the characters would be based on the description you want to use. Are they fording rivers, stuck in mud from days of rain, or shivering as a cold night descends?
You can also let the character describe the scene. This works great with deep POV. A character will take note of the most important details, the ones that matter to them and the story while leaving out the bits that are extra. And they might comment on what they see to another character too, such as a commander viewing the ranks of enemy soldiers outside the city walls. Which leads to orders to reorganize defenses (action!).
The commander can describe what she needs done based on what she sees and the blanks in the reader’s mind fill in the remainder. Because, after all, most people can visualize soldiers and walls. What is needed is the landscape, number of soldiers, equipment, and perhaps time of day. And that can come across in something as simple as, “Lord Stanley moved archers into the southern wood at dawn, ma’am.”
Using these techniques the description can be woven through the scene with dialogue, character observation, and character action without inflicting a break in the flow of the story.
How much description do you like to read?
If you write, what are your tips for deciding what is needed to keep the story moving versus unnecessary (but lovely!) detail?
What are other methods to keep a story moving and set a scene without bogging down in too much description?
About the Author:
Autumn M. Birt is a fantasy and near future dystopian writer. You can learn more about her and her books at her website www.AutumnWriting.com. Her most recent book After the War is available on Amazon here.