There are two kinds of writers: those who describe too much, and those who don’t describe enough. I’m of the former variety, though I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) to curb my inclination to spout pages of beautiful descriptive prose instead of getting on with the story- which is, of course, the usual problem with long passages of beautiful, descriptive prose.
Yes, many excellent writers do flood their narratives with long descriptive passages, among them Tolkien, Bradbury, and Michael Chabon. Unless you’re one of them, pipe down and keep reading. (Besides, I know plenty of Tolkien fans who skim right past those long blocks of description, anyway.)
Description is especially tricky in speculative fiction. If you’re writing a contemporary story, you can assume your readers are familiar with most of the details of your world. They know what a lawyer and a mail carrier wear, how a city street looks, and how a cell phone works. You only have to mark out what’s different about this particular mail carrier, or this particular street, to create a specific image.
But suppose you’re writing about Martians? Then you have to provide quite a bit more information to let readers know whether your Martians are tall, graceful people with golden skin and eyes, or gnomelike humans with retractable metal antennae, or hyper-aggressive dwarfs with Roman centurion helmets.*
And this is where too little description can become just as problematic as too much. I’ve read many amateur spec fiction stories which take place in a vacuum – and I don’t mean space! The writer provides dialog and action in plenty, but almost no information to allow the reader to build images of the setting or characters.
I have four basic guidelines for getting the right amount of description down on the page.
1. The rule of three. If you have to stop and describe something, remember that most people can only absorb 3 or 4 new details at a time. After that, the text starts to look like a big block of description, and many readers will start skimming. How do you select those 3 details out of all the stuff you know about this character or setting? That brings us to:
2. What’s different? What makes this woman stand out at first sight from any other woman? How is the street you’re describing different from your readers’ usual image of a street? And by that I mean not only different from real world city streets, but different from other cities and streets you may have already described.
3.What’s important? When you first introduce a new person, place or thing, concentrate on telling the reader what they need to know about it now, for this scene. Save the other details to fill in later. By doing this you not only keep the story moving, you also have a reserve of fresh information to use in later scenes. This helps your readers build their overall picture of the world gradually, in easily absorbed chunks, and it keeps their interest alive by giving them a little something new in each scene.
4. What does the viewpoint character notice? Everyone has different filters for how they observe the world. A romantic young girl might see an approaching horse and rider as a heroic image, with the wind blowing through the horse’s long mane. An experienced horseman will first notice the skill of the rider, the response of the horse, and the quality of his breeding and equipment. Seeing a new character or place through the eyes of the viewpoint character not only helps you select specific details about the new thing, but helps you develop the viewpoint character as well.
Those are my baseline rules for getting the right amount of description. Do you have any of your own?
*(Extra points for correctly identifying the literary Martians just mentioned**.)
**(Yes, all right, 2 of these Martians are not strictly literary. So shoot me out into space.)