Description: Getting It Just Right
This article originally appeared in the Eternal Press monthly newsletter
When I sit down to write, I have pictures in my mind. I can see my
setting, whether it is an exotic foreign temple, a seedy motel, or a
trendy night club. I have some sense of my characters’ physical
appearance. I imagine the action as it occurs, playing out like a
movie in my mind. Most authors, I believe, have similar mental
Part of our task as writers is to communicate all these pictures to
our readers. Description is essential in building a fictional world
for our readers to inhabit. Description of the setting helps to
establish a mood for the story as well as conveying factual
information in order to set the scene. Description of a character
allows readers to understand who the character is, why he or she
reacts in particular ways or evokes desire, hate or fear from other
characters. Effective description of action is essential in order to
move the story forward along its plot arc.
Some authors might disagree, but I would argue that it’s nearly
impossible to write a good story without some description. How much,
though, is enough?
A common weakness in the work of novice writers is over-description. A
story will begin with four paragraphs of text about the weather, the
manor house, or the windswept Scottish moors. A character cannot show
up on a page without having some adjectives or adverbs to drag
around. A love scene explains in excruciating detail what the
hero’s left hand and right hand are doing at each moment.
Why is this a problem? Because too much description can interfere with
the progress of the story. Consider the following passage, adapted
from a very early story of my own called “The Ambassadors to
She emerged first from stasis, a faint humming in her ears, a
strange saltiness in her mouth and a sharp tingling in her secret
parts remarkably like sexual excitement. Her eyes gradually focused on
the luminous neon scope attached to the curved inner surface of her
personal stasis chamber. The temporal-spatial coordinates displayed
there were reassuringly familiar. The ship was right on course and the
stasis mechanisms had functioned perfectly, awakening her a mere six
hours from the destination.
She stretched her long limbs luxuriously, enjoying the soft, gentle
pressure of the cushioning foam that lined the chamber. Lyrene fumbled
a bit with the mechanical release latch, then swung the port wide and
stepped clumsily into the cylindrical control room that formed the
heart of their ship. Blue, green and gold lights blinked and flashed
as the ship’s advanced biocerebral core rapidly calculated
alternative landing trajectories and touch-down coordinates. The
viewing dome in the middle of the floor glowed golden from the raging
fires of the star G-79. Lyrene deftly flicked a switch, executing an
180 degree turn, and the dome revealed an endless field of deep blue
spattered with flecks of silver, and a greenish egg shape hanging near
This is the start of the story. As any experienced writer will tell
you, the first few paragraphs of a story or novel are critical. This
is where you must “hook” readers, catch their interest, excite
their curiosity, make them want to read on so that they can find out
what happens next. In this case, though, I am two hundred words into
the tale, and nothing has really happened. If I continue in this vein,
I’m going to lose my readers’ attention.
Clearly, I need to set the scene. If I don’t manage to communicate
the fact that this is a space ship, then the next paragraphs will not
make any sense. However, I can streamline the entire opening, simply
by cutting some the adjectives and adverbs, restructuring a few
sentences, and omitting details that really are not important.
She emerged first from stasis, a humming in her ears, a
saltiness in her mouth and a tingling like sexual excitement in her
secret parts. The luminous scope inside her stasis chamber showed
temporal-spatial coordinates that were reassuringly familiar. The ship
was right on course. The stasis mechanisms had functioned perfectly,
awakening her six hours before the scheduled landing.
Lyrene stretched her limbs, stiff after months of immobility, then
crawled clumsily through the stasis chamber port into the cylindrical
control room. Lights blinked and flashed as the ship’s brain
calculated landing trajectories and touch-down coordinates. She
requested an 180 degree turn. Instead of the fires of the star G-79,
the viewing dome now revealed a field of deep blue spattered with
flecks of silver, with a greenish egg shape hanging near the edge.
I have cut the passage by more than seventy five words. More
importantly, I have focused the reader’s attention on Lyrene and
her actions, instead of on what the ship looks like. One technique for
doing this is to remove references to intermediate acts unless they
are essential for understanding the scene. In the revised version, I
dropped any mention of unfastening the latch or opening the
port. Notice, however, that I did not remove the adverb
“clumsily”. I felt that this was necessary to convey Lyrene’s
physical state after the long space trip.
The passage above is hardly a model for great literature. However, it
does set the scene better than the previous example, without holding
up the story nearly as much as the first example.
Another hazard in the realm of descriptions is over-describing your
characters. Of course you want your readers to be able to visualize
your hero and heroine. Leave some space, though, for the reader’s
imagination. Sketch your character, highlight the critical aspects of
their appearance or personality, but then let the reader’s personal
preferences fill in the details.
Here’s another example, once again adapted from some of my
Why did she arouse me so strongly? She didn't look the least bit
tarty. Her beige skirt ended a modest distance below her knees. Her
white crepe blouse draped her torso, suggesting rather than revealing
the roundness underneath. The V of the neckline exposed the hollow of
her throat, where I caught the discrete sparkle of some silvery charm.
She had arranged her hair, a warm brown threaded with hints of red,
into a neat chignon at the base of her neck. She was probably wearing
make up, but it was subtle enough that it merely enhanced the overall
impression: a beautiful, business-like young woman with a smile I
might be willing to die for.
How tall is this woman? What color are her eyes? How old is she? Is
she Caucasian or some other ethnicity? Is she slender or voluptuous?
What size bra cup does she wear? Forgive me for the last question, but
I have read far too many beginner’s stories where the author
apparently viewed this this item of information as essential.
Each of you, reading this paragraph, will have a somewhat different
image of the woman being described. I have not provided any of the
above details of her appearance, because they are not important to the
story. What is important is the narrator’s impression: that
she’s “neat”, “business-like”, “discrete”,
“subtle”, “modest”. (As it turns out, this character is
not at all what she seems, but rather is a sexually ravenous
Lars Eighner, the celebrated gay author, has compared writing to
creating a radio play. In the days of radio, the entire family would
sit around the “wireless”, listening to comedies or dramas. The
voices would evoke different pictures for each listener. The
playwright’s job was to suggest, to hint, to guide the imagination.
I don’t have space in this article to consider the question of
over-description in action - perhaps next month! However, I would like
to leave you with a few suggestions for improving your descriptions.
1. Make each adjective and adverb count. Some writing gurus advise
eliminating all adverbs and most adjectives. I think this is just
plain silly. However, before you write about a “blue chair”,
consider whether the blueness really matters for your story. Be
2. Avoid starting a story with pure description. There’s a risk
that you’ll lose your readers’ attention before you get to the
3. Keep the focus on the characters and the events of the
plot. Interleave description with action.
4. When in doubt, cut. Don’t hold on to descriptive passages just
because they paint a beautiful picture.
In writing, despite what some people may say, there are no hard and
fast rules. You need to discover what works for you. Personally,
I’ve found that applying the suggestions above help me turn
overblown, wordy descriptions into more effective passages that
support rather than interfere with the action.
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