How much description to use?

I think about this one often.  And I’ll admit right up front that I probably fall on the side of not enough description.  My style of description is something along the lines of “there were mountains and rolling plains and it was really beautiful.  Now, let’s get to the important part.  The characters…”

And sometimes in my haste to tell the story I forget that people care what my characters look like.  Thankfully, that’s what betas are for.  (“Uh, MH, I didn’t know he had blue eyes until page 155…perhaps you’d like to tell me that a little sooner so I don’t picture him looking like my cousin Tony for half the book?”)

Fair enough.  I’ve decided that if I describe something physical about a character it needs to be in the first chapter or two where that character is introduced.  If I never happen to describe the character, then I don’t worry about it, because I’ll never present a conflicting image to the reader.  (We’ll see how that goes over with those who know what they’re doing…)

One of the pieces of writing advice I’ve run across multiple times is to be specific in your descriptions.  Don’t say that it was a tree, say that it was an elm or a poplar or an aspen.  I understand why people give this advice, but I have a problem with it.

And maybe it’s because I’m a deliberately uneducated person in certain respects.  I don’t think I could tell you the difference between an elm, a poplar, and an aspen.  Growing up in Colorado I know what an aspen tree looks like.  And if I had pictures of the other two, I might be able to figure out which is which, but, as a reader, I don’t read those words and instantly have a vivid image in my head based upon them.

I’d be far better off reading about a grove of slender trees with white bark and golden leaves.  It takes more words, but I don’t lose the image if I don’t know what an aspen grove looks like in fall.

If my character is an arborist and I’m in their head, then, sure I’d expect that character to use the specific names for trees.  I might even expect them to use Latin words like populus tremuloides.  (And then, I, as the author, would find some way to interject enough information for a lay reader to know what that actually meant.  Because the point is to tell a story to the reader, not use fancy words.)

But if my character is some city slicker who never really cared about trees before and finds himself walking in a forest, I’m not going to have him describing his surroundings with the “correct” words.  He, the character, doesn’t know them.

I read a book recently that did this.  It was a multiple viewpoint novel and a large portion of it took place on a ship.  One of the characters had substantial experience with ships, the others did not.  But all of the characters used the proper sailing terms.  Fore, aft, stern, what have you.  Down to names for parts of the ship that I’d never even heard before.

I have no doubt the words were the accurate words to use for those parts of the ship.  But I seriously doubt that the characters who were supposedly using them in their thoughts would know those terms.  Mast?  Sure.  I’ll give you that one.  Bilge Keel?  Hmmm.  No.  (I made that last one up with a quick Google search.  I’m not sure the book used bilge keel, but it did use words like that.)

So, I guess where I come out on this argument is that you should use specifics and detail in your descriptions when it’s appropriate.  But that it’s more important to consider who your character is and how they see the world.  And that you need to remember that your readers are approaching your novel with varying levels of life experience and knowledge and most aren’t going to read your book with an encyclopedia or Internet connection handy.  So, whatever you write needs to stand by itself or you risk limiting your audience because people just won’t be able to follow you.

(Also, as I was writing this it kept reminding me of a post by PCW called Imperfect telepathy.  She discusses how different people have different images of “river,” for example.  Also, she relays a great story about Neil Gaiman tracking down some vivid description he’d read once in a book.  It turned out to be “They rode all night in a snow storm.”  But he, as the reader, had created a vivid scene out of it.  Worth the read.  As usual.)


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
This entry was posted in Advice, General Musings, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How much description to use?

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    I have previously had to discuss strongly whether my using different level of detail between different characters was good writing or not, so it is good to read that I am not the only person worrying about this.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Ideally I’ll get my writing to the point where it seems so natural that no one notices the difference when I switch between characters. But I suspect that could take a lifetime. And I’m sure there will still be someone somewhere who doesn’t like it.

  2. Keri Peardon says:

    As I write a LOT of dialog, I, too, can be a bit limited on description. But I agree that you should describe the world as your character sees it. For instance, when my protagonist encounters Jewish words or customs, she frequently asks what they mean. She was exposed to some things as a child, but not enough to be tossing out Hebrew like she’s Jewish. (Just like I’d say, I know what a keel is, but what is a bilge keel?)

    Sometimes, when things are TOO descriptive, it sounds like the writer did a bunch of research and is trying to make use of all of it. I read a romance writer’s guide that cautioned writers not to use EVERYTHING you research, because it sounds like you’re spitting out an encyclopedia.

    The great thing about having a somewhat-clueless character is that someone else can explain the terminology. That way the reader learns without having to reach for a dictionary.

    • mhleewriter says:

      True. It does sometimes help to have a character who is learning just like the reader is. I’ve definitely seen this done very successfully.

  3. I think there’s more of an expectation from the reader for certain genres to be heavy on descriptions (fantasy) and others to be light on descriptions (YA or thriller). My writing is light on the descriptions too and it’s something I’m working on improving. I’m so eager to get on to the action that I forget to “stop and smell the roses”.

    • mhleewriter says:

      I think you’re right about that. Although, as a fantasy reader, I have to admit I sort of skim the description paragraphs. Read about one large imposing castle, you’ve kinda read about them all. But I know there are readers out there who absolutely demand detailed descriptions, so I try. Some.

Comments are closed.