To See A New World – How to Efficiently Write Descriptions

This article is by Autumn M. Birt.

fantasy landscapeHave 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.

What else?

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.

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Brad Mathews
Brad Mathews
4 years ago

I normally minimize setting description unless a scene depends largely on one character observing and interacting with the setting. In those cases, the extra attention to detail proves important and provides more layers of tension and struggle.

Jen
Jen
4 years ago

I was a journalism major which skewed my writing away from lengthy descriptions; but a little too much so. I’m trying to get back into taking time to really set up and describe a scene.

I agree that there’s a balance, and I think it’s different for every book. Most people don’t have the attention span for long descriptions, but there are certain audiences who will enjoy a lengthier setup.

Britanica
Britanica
4 years ago

The issue with today and being descriptive is you have to not only compete with other stories, but you have to compete with movies and tv series. It is far easier to be less descriptive when the picture is provided. Great read I learned a bunch here!

J. Paul
J. Paul
4 years ago

My trick is to use the way the characters interact with the environment to drop those details. Then you get a twofer…character exposition AND world building.

i.e. You can say it’s a big city OR you can have a POV character have a panic attack because they’re from a small town. (Very oversimplified example, but it might help illustrate my point.)

The trick to effective writing is making everything you put on the page do double (or triple) duty. Or so I tell myself, and anyone who will listen.

Aderyn Wood
4 years ago

I love lots of description, and it’s one of the things I love most about epic fantasy. It really builds a different world, and enables me to become fully immersed. I’ve read lots of criticism about the so-called ‘over description’ in GRR Martin’s ASOIAF, and more traditional fantasy authors. But I much prefer the rich backdrop of such writing to the fast-paced ‘easy’ read of (perhaps) newer fantasy authors. When I read an epic fantasy that can make me picture a world as though it is ‘real’, the story stays with me. Stories with a lighter description are, to a large extent, forgotten. Probably because I haven’t visualized the world as much. That said, I largely agree with you, it is a balance, and info-dumps must be avoided.

Autumn
4 years ago

Sure, Woelf. It was a Storms Own Son by Anthony Gillis. I also love Ned’s dream scene in Game of Thrones. Just wow writing!

Woelf Dietrich
Reply to  Autumn
4 years ago

Thanks much for the name, Autumn. Best of luck with your own writing.

Autumn
Reply to  Woelf Dietrich
4 years ago

My pleasure, Woelf. And best of luck to you too!

Woelf Dietrich
4 years ago

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Saying a lot without saying all that much. I’m still trying to find a way to say more with less, but at the same time, I am also a believer that setting combined with tone contribute greatly to a story. And tone you get from the type of words you use. I guess it depends on the kind of story you’re writing.

I loved this article, thanks.

Autumn
Reply to  Woelf Dietrich
4 years ago

I keep a few pages of examples of some of the best tone/descriptions tucked in my brainstorming journal. You’re right – there are examples of tone and setting that just leave me in awe (and in some cases I’ve hated the rest of the story!). I can think of one book where every word felt conveyed extra meaning without being too much – I was so impressed. I think I called it “description so concrete you can chew on it” in my review. But boy, that takes time and some inspiration to master! 🙂 I’m so glad you liked the article!

Woelf Dietrich
Reply to  Autumn
4 years ago

My pleasure. I have a journal I call Dietrich’s Great Harem of Words for the same purpose. By the way, if you could share the name of the book you reviewed, that would be awesome.

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