When Description is Dangerous (and how to save your story from drowning in it)

They stepped into the room. It was a long, rectangular space with floorboards running the length of it. The boards hadn’t been stained but instead varnished, leaving their wooden surface almost reflective. Light bounced off every knot and imperfection in the floor, highlighting it but still allowing the imperfections to blend into the whole. The varnish also reflected the furniture, with distorted versions of the table and chairs set out in the middle pooling on to the floor. The varnish didn’t reflect them perfectly but you could definitely make out what was being reflected in the incredibly shiny floor.

There is nothing that can kill the flow of your narrative faster than a shiny floor. Or, to be more accurate, a long, descriptive passage that takes a full paragraph to fully impress upon the reader that, indeed, the floor is shiny (or that the dress your protagonist is wearing is particularly lovely or that the castle they’re about to enter is particularly ancient and falling apart)

Don’t get me wrong, description is a vital part of your story. Description can help to give your story a sense of reality and completeness. There’s nothing more disorienting than reading a story with no descriptive passages (check out the earlier work of Raymond Carver if you want to see the technique in action). No description leaves your story in a sort of nebulous difficult-for-readers-to-picture area that can be quite alienating. And that’s probably not something you want if you’re trying to get them to become emotionally invested in your stories.

Description also helps to prevent any shocks that jerk your readers out of the immersive experience of your story. One of my lecturers once gave an anecdote about how she was reading the beginning of a story. There was some kind of evil ritual going on (blood sacrifices, you know the shtick), there was an evil witch and a damsel in distress and they fought for a few pages before suddenly at a particularly dramatic moment, the horses that were carrying a dozen guards and were surrounding the pit of hellfire (I assume) began whinnying and shying away from the fight. My lecturer was shocked, wondering out loud how long have they been there? She described the experience as being akin to having a private conversation and suddenly looking up to find a dozen mounted guards who had been there the whole time. Both creepy and ruinous to the immersive feeling of the book.

But too much description breaks immersion in another way. Rather than giving your reader a shock when they realise that the characters they’ve been picturing in a forest have actually been in a sumptuous ballroom the whole time, long descriptive passages carry the very real danger of putting your readers to sleep.

I’ve talked before about the need for narrative flow, about how it’s essential for your readers to feel like the story is constantly moving and that things are happening. Throwing in a long description of something is akin to putting the brakes on your story and bringing it to a screeching halt.

Let’s use an example. Your protagonist, Maggie, is a spy who has to infiltrate a ball in order to obtain the key which will help her find the map which will lead her to the treasure (it’s that kind of story). So with this setup, Maggie has gotten all of her spy gear together, lied to her potential love interest about her whereabouts for the night and is about to step into the enemy’s lair, as it were, when we pause to discuss the exact shade of green of her gown and the scoop neck that is low enough to suggest things but high enough that Maggie doesn’t feel exposed.

Tension? What’s that? We’ve obviously got enough time to discuss Maggie’s fashion choices so there can’t be anything too exciting going on here.

Overly long descriptive passages can also be put in the same boat as Car Park Law violations. They can fall into the boat of ‘I don’t care anymore’. In the same way that your characters going to the beach doesn’t serve your plot and thus can be safely put in the unnecessary pile, so can a lot of lengthy description.

But how do you strike the balance? Description can help to create atmosphere and bring your readers into your story in a way that’s just not possible with other techniques. Unfortunately, the answer is trial and error. More unfortunately, often the answer can’t be found with your own trials.

As authors, we have our fixations and obsessions. We can become convinced that a description of the exact shade of a love interest’s eyes (moss green with small golden flecks through them spreading out in lines away from the pupil giving the effect of a sun on a… green day? Lost the metaphor there— my apologies) is incredibly vital to the story. This is where an unbiased reader needs to come into this. An unbiased reader has the ability to tell you that simply stating that your love interest has green eyes is sufficient, especially since you never mention the colour of their eyes again and it most certainly is not vital to the story.

If you are bereft of a good reader, however, a good rule of thumb is to apply the five sentences rule. If it takes more than five sentences in a block to describe a person or place (in its entirety, five sentences to describe the exact state of the moss on a castle’s wall is straying well into too much description territory). Alternatively, you could apply the ‘So what?’ test. Your character is wearing shoes that are the finest leather with decorative stitching down the side in the pattern of a butterfly— so what? Does that tell us something about the character? Is that going to become significant? If not you might and to consider if it is strictly necessary to keep it in.

But what if you need to describe more? What if five sentences just isn’t enough and all of this description is strictly necessary in order to create the setting and feel that you want to create. Thankfully, all is not lost. Instead of dumping your description at the front of your scene in one hellish paragraph of shiny floor, why not seed it through your narrative. So instead of your protagonist walking into a room and your reader immediately knowing every detail there is to know about it, why not give them the broad strokes and fill it in as necessary.

For example, Maggie (still on her quest to find the things that lead to the things that will help her find the things to find the treasure), walks into a bar with a few patrons in it. She squints in the bad lighting and walks over to the stool in front of the bar, noticing the threadbare, stained seat on it. She sits down and waves to the bartender, ordering a drink and putting her hand down on the bar. She immediately removes it when she realises how sticky the counter is. She inspects her hand before deciding that she doesn’t particularly want to know what’s going on with that.

Can you picture the type of establishment our intrepid hero has walked into? It’s a bit of a dive, isn’t it? Not somewhere where you’d expect see anyone with a modicum of class (except our Maggie, obviously, she’s the classy kind of treasure hunter). But by seeding in the description among the action rather than simply dumping the description at the start before Maggie even had a chance to interact with the bar, we’ve given you a bit more time to process what’s going on and a bit more time to fill in the blanks for yourself.

Above all else, it’s important to remember that description is merely a prompt for your reader’s imaginations. They don’t need you to describe every aspect of everything ever. If you tell them that the floor is shiny they’ve got the mental faculties (hopefully) to picture what that’s like. And, ultimately, what their imagination provides will be a lot more immersive and realistic than any scene you’ve painstakingly described for them.

Writing description is a tricky business. You need to give your readers a prompt in the right direction (it won’t do for them to be surprised that your character is a raven-haired beauty when they’ve been picturing them as a peroxide blonde this whole time) but you also need to learned how to relax and let them fill in details for themselves. Above all else, sometimes all you need to say to describe a shiny floor is to simply say that it is shiny.

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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
This entry was posted in Fan Fiction, My Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to When Description is Dangerous (and how to save your story from drowning in it)

  1. phoenixandtiger says:

    Ah, the curse of every author. How much to describe?

    Most people I know can tread the fine line carefully – but there have been some times when I’m reading this fanfic and it’s being carried entirely by dialogue. And it works! And then some times when there’s so little dialogue and it’s all description and then it still works!

    It really freaks me out how the English language can be so amazing when in the hands of someone competent.

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Fanfic’s a little different though. Because we already know what everyone looks like and the setting’s probably a familiar one there’s less requirement for that kind of introductory description. There’s plenty of descriptionless stories in original fiction but you’ll find that they’re often quite bizarre-feeling (I have no other way to describe that…ironically) because you have to fill in -everything- for yourself.

      My roommate (a fellow English nerd) and I were discussing how English is an awesome language the other day, actually. Though she did give me a funny look when I told her I enjoy twisting sentences and words around until they start screaming. Can’t imagine why…

  2. kasia says:

    Ahhh shiny, shiny floor. Its been a while since I’ve heard that. Makes me miss the good old days.
    (playing finger 11 at work in your honor today) 🙂

    that is all.
    over and out

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Have to admit- wrote this whole post -just- so I could actually spend a really long paragraph describing the shininess of the floor.

      You have no idea how happy it makes me that you were playing finger eleven! I hope it was some of their older stuff. They’ve changed their sound and I don’t know if I’m a big fan of it. They sounded better when they were angsty and mostly unsuccessful XD Where are you working now anyways?

  3. You’re absolutely right: if there’s a detail that’s going to be significant later, keep it. Otherwise, get rid of it. We writers can get very fond of bits of language, but that can come at great detriment to the flow of the overall work.

    Also, I hate it when those nosy guards butt in on my private conversations around the good ol’ hellfire!

    • Meg Laverick says:

      To be honest- I’m normally guilty of under-describing. I’ve got a clear picture of what everyone looks like and I just kind of assume everyone else knows too XD I tend to get flowery when talking about emotional states more than with physical descriptions.

      But the principle remains the same: Kill it. Kill it until it dies. (And then have a lovely burial service with flowers and chocolate)

  4. Pingback: “HYSRT!” or “So There Was This Shiny Floor… (*How Shiny Was it?!*) It Was SO Shiny…!” « Ever On Word

  5. Thanks for linking to my blog. I enjoyed reading yours too.

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