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Introduction to Description

August 9, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 29, 2014

Unless one character needs to describe something to another character because the second character wasn’t there to see an event or person for himself—or wasn’t capable of seeing or hearing for himself—description in fiction is pretty much solely for the benefit of the reader. Characters have no need to describe objects, setting, events, or other characters to themselves

Description establishes or changes mood—for the reader.

Description creates a sense of place—for the reader.

Description fills in setting details and character details for the reader who would otherwise be unable to see or hear them. For all our efforts at making a story real, for putting readers inside the fictional world, the readers aren’t actually there. We have to re-create that story world for them in their minds.

Description helps the writer do this.

Description lights a reader’s imagination, primes it to picture places and characters and events.

Description is not needed for the character who actually lives in the story world. The character who lives and works and plays there, who loves and hates and fears in the fictional world, knows what it looks like and smells like and tastes like. It’s all right in front of him—under his feet and in his nostrils and over his head. He touches and experiences the world in the same ways we experience our own—through personal encounters and through the senses.

Characters, except for the reasons I mentioned in the first paragraph, don’t need description. Readers do.

So keep readers in mind when you write description. When you choose what to include. When you choose what to exclude.

Ask yourself a few questions: What does the reader need to see and feel of your world, of your characters’ world? What does the reader need to know to make sense of the events of that world? What would the reader like to know? What is he wondering about?

Which details will make him feel like a native, as comfortable with that world as your characters are? Which details create boundaries that hold the world together, contained, and keep everything that’s other outside the story?

How can you lead readers through that world, encouraging them to make note of the noteworthy, while assuring them that some objects and people, while there, taking up space, are part of the background only and will have little impact on major story events?

Remember that unless a book is part of an ongoing series, readers are new to every story world and its characters, new to its laws (natural and character-made) and practices, new to its setting and terrain.

Description, your description, paints in the story world just as a reader is walking through it. For the reader, the story world doesn’t exist before the moment he encounters it.

Readers can’t step into nothingness, so some description has to come early in a story. A reader shouldn’t stand around in a fog, hearing characters speak or feeling events explode around him, not knowing where he and the characters are. Until you include some description, typically of setting, a reader is caught in a void, a blinding nothingness absent of markers of any kind. Description of setting allows the reader to see where events are taking place. And description of characters allows the reader to see who is involved in what’s taking place as well as draw conclusions about the characters. Description of events engage the reader, draw him into the story and stir up his curiosity.

Reading a description of a character, getting some sense of a character right off, can orient the reader. Can give him something to identify with. Can give him a sense of what’s happening in this new world.

The character is in his normal world—he has no need to have that world described for him. The reader, however, needs initial description. And if he’s to travel this unfamiliar world, he needs more description, especially of the unfamiliar, as he follows your characters around.

If you intend for readers to be able to move easily through your story, especially in the early pages, give them a sense of setting and a sense of which characters are important. If readers are worried that they’re (figuratively) going to trip over objects or places or characters or misunderstandings, they’ll read slower. They’ll hold back. They’ll approach story events with a tentative air.

But when they start to feel comfortable in the story world, they can move through it as if they were born to that world. They can feel as if they belong.

Now, if you want the world to seem alien to the reader because it’s also alien to the main (or viewpoint) character, then you’ll approach description differently. You may end up spending a lot of time, at least at first, on unimportant objects because a character in a place unfamiliar to him has no idea what’s important and what’s meaningless. You wouldn’t keep up this practice of the character focusing on every new object or event for the length of a novel since the character will learn along the way, but in the beginning, for a character new to the story world, you can make him, and the reader, notice everything. In such a case, you’d need to describe many objects and places and characters—whatever strikes the character as unusual.

Remember to put the description in the words and experiences of the character.

Show the world through the eyes and senses of your viewpoint character—show what he notices and use his words to describe what he sees and what unfolds around him.

Even though characters move through their worlds, for the most part keep readers in the forefront of your mind both when you write description and when you edit it. Only tell readers what is necessary for them to make sense of the story world. Hint: the longer the reader is in the world, the less description he will need. Once he knows what’s around every corner, you don’t need to tell him. Once he can correctly guess what’s around every corner, you don’t need to describe setting or character in much detail.

You will, however, almost always describe new characters (or changes in existing characters), setting details that have changed, or unfolding events, since by nature they are unfamiliar, but established setting and characters may only need a brief word of description to spark the reader’s recollection.

Readers don’t need a description of Captain Ralston’s limp every time they encounter him. They don’t need a mention of the scent of the astrenth flower each time they pass one. And as they wouldn’t need to hear the click of a dog’s claws against the kitchen tile each time the animal ran through a house, they also don’t need to hear the click-clappy-crack of a tingel beast every time it runs. A reminder now and again, especially if another character gets to experience these things for the first time, can be helpful. But too much stress on description becomes tedious.

Using one character’s descriptions of place, other characters, and events to reveal his personality is a great tool that accomplishes several story goals at the same time. You can reveal viewpoint characters through their descriptions of others, the setting, and events—what they say, what they exclude, the words they use. So when the viewpoint character notes the clenching jaw of another character and thinks that it reminds him of a dam under too much pressure or that the man’s face looks like the Frankenstein monster held together with inferior parts, that description reveals both the personality of the viewpoint character and details about the second character. The reader learns something about both characters.

A viewpoint character who describes events not only lets readers know what’s going on, but the character’s word choices and focus reveal what interests her. Those details can give readers insight into her mind and thought processes, maybe her fears and expectations. Her worries. Her mindset and emotions.

Suggestions for description—

~  Describe setting or characters when the reader meets them for the first time, but don’t go overboard with description. Make it interesting and useful, productive for the reader. Make description create, deepen, or change a scene’s mood.

~  Keep in mind that details can be more than visual—incorporate all the senses into your descriptions.

Remember that the way a character behaves and what he says may reveal more of him to the reader than a physical description ever would. Choose the best descriptive details for the genre, the scene, the action, and the characters, both those doing the describing and those described. Give the reader what she needs to know. Give her details that allow her to flow through scenes as a character would. Help readers feel, experience, the world in the same way the viewpoint character does.

~  If you want the character and reader to both feel like outsiders, write description differently than if you wanted the reader to be as comfortable in the world as the characters are.

Resist stringing together description details as lists if you expect readers to remember the individual details. A man with a pointed goatee, silver-gray hair, narrow dark eyes, and a sickle-shaped scar on his left check who walks with a stately gait, nodding every three steps often comes across as simply a man. This is especially true if the reader has just been treated to long or involved place descriptions or an action sequence reported step by step.

Too many lists fatigue the reader. Too many items in a list fatigue the reader.

Instead of writing description as a list, reveal description details to highlight a character’s personality or as needed for the unfolding events. Don’t reveal everything about a character at a reader’s first meeting with her—reveal only what’s important at that moment or what makes sense for that moment. Reveal what stands out. Reveal what’s different. Reveal what the reader needs to know to remember that character and to differentiate her from every other character. Reveal important event details.

Do fold description details into a list if you need to include them but at the same time need to hide some. Mystery clues can be hidden in plain sight if they’re included with other seemingly unimportant or general details.

Don’t resort to a play-by-play for the description of action sequences; not every step is important. Allow readers to assume that common and everyday actions take place between noteworthy actions.

~  Don’t allow description to interrupt action unless you do so for a purpose, perhaps to slow the pace or to introduce a new character or other element. Keep in mind that characters will not always be in a position to note setting details or the clothing another character wears or what everyone was doing at a critical moment. If characters are too busy to notice objects or the actions of others, they won’t be describing those objects or actions through dialogue or in their thoughts. If you need characters to describe something for the reader, give them a logical opportunity to do so.

Make sure characters don’t report description with details that they can’t or wouldn’t know. Not everyone knows what the architectural parts of buildings are called, can identify every bird species, recognizes the make of every car, or can name the maker of a man’s suit. You might know these details but if your viewpoint character doesn’t, he can’t report such details. He may be curious and ask for more details, but on the other hand, he may care nothing for such things. If he doesn’t care, he shouldn’t note those kinds of details. Some details should remain vague or unmentioned or should be noted in only the most general of terms.

For one character, a car might be a green Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato. For another character, the same car might be a two-door piece of junk or some old, sputtering sports car. Make sure description matches the character’s knowledge, experience, personality, and current emotional temperament. There are times when characters will note more, or fewer, details than at other times.

~  Make your characters’ descriptions relevant for the scene—it’s not likely that characters will willy-nilly describe objects, other characters, their own feelings, or every move they make. Give characters logical and legitimate reasons to launch into description. While description is ultimately for the reader, it comes through the viewpoint character’s thoughts or a character’s words, so characters need to have a reason to both pay attention and report descriptions of  other characters, objects, and events. (An omniscient narrator can supply description as he wants to, but it should still have purpose and direct the reader’s focus.)

~  Have characters describe what they see in other characters and not merely conclude what another character is feeling or thinking. So rather than have Bob note that Lisette was enraged, show Lisette’s rage through Bob’s eyes.

What does Lisette do or look like that has Bob concluding she’s enraged? If you describe how she looks or her behavior, then the reader can be the one to conclude she’s enraged. In this way, the reader becomes more involved with the actions and events of the story as well as more closely attuned to the characters, both the one doing the describing and the one described.

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We could talk much more about description and detail in fiction, so we’ll visit the topic again to cover other issues. Consider this a big-picture intro to the topic.

Pay attention to description, especially what it means to the reader new to your story world. Give readers what they need to help them navigate that world as easily as your characters do.

Put description to work for your novels. Put description to work for the reader.

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