Describing description

Before I move on, I’ve thought of a few more things to say about chapters: Although no editor has ever commented on the length of my chapters, I have gotten many edits on the length of scenes, usually that they’re too long. And sometimes I’ve been asked to cut a chapter entirely.

About ending a chapter with a crisis, I’ve been asked by editors sometimes to end with the crisis plus my main character’s reaction. Here’s an example:

Tammo said, “As he was breaking free, he said he wanted to crisp fairies most of all.”
Gwendolyn gripped her branch to keep from falling.

A dragon is the he above who wants to incinerate fairies. I could have ended with “most of all,” but I added Gwendolyn’s reaction. I’m not sure which is better. My editor felt that Gwendolyn wasn’t expressive enough, which is a good reason for the addition.

Closing with the obvious: A book doesn’t have to be organized into chapters. There are epistolary novels (novels in letters), in which the breaks come at the end of each letter. Monster by Walter Dean Myers is written in the form of a screenplay. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl is diary entries. Some books are a hodgepodge of letters, notes, newspaper articles, journal pages. So far, I haven’t written such a book, but I think an occasional bang at the end of a letter or journal entry has to be good.

That’s it for chapters for now.

After my last post, Dream Creator wrote: Also, I was wondering what you thought about the amount of detail in stories. For example, I can have an awful time describing the scenery and what characters look like, and therefore I use a terribly low amount of detail when I’m writing, but the book I’m writing is in first-person and the heroine is far from eloquent, so would that be okay to get away with? Or should I just insert more detail and practice on getting to the point where using detail is much more of a subconscious act? Or is it up to the author, and either extreme is acceptable as long as it is well written?

Everything is up to you, the author. Please don’t listen to me if what I say doesn’t ring a bell. I’m speaking in generalities and don’t know your story or your voice.

But since you’ve tuned to my station, here are some thoughts. They’re just a bit of the huge topic that detail is, so I’m sure I’ll return to the subject in future posts.

Suppose a main character is in her teacher’s living room for the first time. She says that she feels as if she’s stepped into somebody’s grandmother’s photo album – every bit of cloth has a flower or dozens of flowers on it; chair legs wear skirts, and the bare table legs look disturbingly naked, as if they should at least be wearing socks. As a reader, I don’t need anything more than this. I’m willing to collaborate with the author. I can imagine the wingback chair and the sofa with the cloth coverings over the arms and the embroidered footstool. Another reader will furnish the room in accordance with his idea of cozy or fussy, maybe not a wingback chair and the rest, but a grandfather clock and frilly curtains and a tufted ottoman. Readers don’t need everything, just enough to build on.

In fact, everything is impossible. Years ago I did a detail exercise with the kids I was teaching at the time. I brought in something, a simple object, I don’t remember what. All of us (I did too) examined the thing and tried to write as much as we could think of about it. We did the exercise for half an hour and didn’t run out of purely physical description. You can try this yourself. Pick one of your shirts. Describe it in full, exhaustive detail, without even going into how it came to belong to you and what adventures you’ve had in it. You can do that later, if you want to, and write a poem or story about your shirt. But for now, just the facts. The plain physical description won’t be particularly interesting. It’s just an exercise.

If it takes a boring hour to describe a shirt, how arduous and unnecessary to describe a whole room or a landscape! Your reader needs to feel on solid ground, in a real, even if fantastical, place, but you can achieve that in a few strokes. To get to those few, telling strokes, some writers (like me) have to write a lot and then eliminate.

One purpose of description is to let me see the environment my characters are in. There’s a battle in my not-yet-published Fairies and the Quest for Never Land. I couldn’t write the scene until I could see where the fairies were. It’s a prairie littered with boulders, but that wasn’t enough. I had to establish three landmarks: a pile of rocks, a tree, and a petrified log to be oriented. So first of all, description is for me, to get the movie of the story rolling in my head. After I’ve got it, it’s for the reader, to start the movie in his head.

If you’ve got an inarticulate character on your hands, you still need to show the reader what’s going on, but you have to do it through your character’s eyes and voice. Suppose she’s visiting her uncle who isn’t much of a housekeeper. What would gross her out? Show us that–sight, smell, sound, touch. Maybe she’s inarticulate, but she’s tactile. She touches things to get to know them. What does she touch? Or, what would she think her mother, the uncle’s sister, would most disapprove of? What does she have a reason to notice? Suppose she wants to borrow something that belongs to her uncle. What does she see while she’s looking for it?

Description for its own sake is description dragged in by its left ear. It’s necessary but dull, unless it has a reason to exist. Everything is connected to everything in a story. At its best, description should do double duty and serve character development or plot or voice or humor or feeling or something else I haven’t thought of.

Here’s a prompt: Take one of your characters – doesn’t have to be your main – with you today and tomorrow, wherever you go. What does he notice? What does he react to emotionally? What does he miss? What does he studiously ignore? Write about the experience, and save what you wrote. Have fun!

  1. I love the description of a movie running through your head and through the readers head, you have to give just enough to get it rolling. In books I read, I think it's pretty easy to recognize that there's too much description, but it's harder to define what's just enough. Thanks!

  2. What a wonderful post! I especially loved the example of the teacher's living room and how a few key descriptions given to a reader can provide a tremendous amount of fuel for imagination.

    One question: Do you find it difficult to make everything matter in a story, if you know what I mean? It seems like there's a lot of pressure on a writer to make everything in a story contribute to the story's progression through plot, character, etc. How do you accomplish it all without becoming overwhelmed? Is it a mostly done by conscious effort, or have you reached the point where it just happens for the most part?

  3. I had a geek-attack the other day when I opened my e-mail and discovered a letter addressed to me by my favorite author. Since then I've carefully read through your entire blog (and comments). It's been so helpful and gets me itching to write! I was about to give up on my NaNo, but now I won't. 🙂

    I became an avid reader in late middle school. Early in high school I checked out the display in my school's library that hosted all of the award winning books, since I was looking for new authors to try. That's where I discovered Ella Enchanted, which had recently earned its medal. That started my obsession with books (I read 2 or 3 books a week after that) that lasted all through high school.

    Unfortunately, I don't read as much as I used to since life got busy, but I still make time to re-read "Ella" at least once a year. It's my equivalent of comfort food in book form.

    I work in publishing now, and I don't think I'd be here if it wasn't for your wonderful book (and its siblings, all of whom I love). Thanks so much for giving me my life's passion!

  4. …and now that I've got the gushing fan girl out of my system, I have a question. Judging from what you've said about chapters and the replies you received, it sounds like most people write with chapters in mind—as in, they decide, "Okay, time for a chapter break" as they write.

    Because I tend to only have a loose idea of what I'm writing about and wing most of it, I find this very difficult to do. I'd imagine the process will differ for each person, but in your opinion, do you think it's wise to plan basic chapters ahead of time? Or would it be all right to write the entire novel and split it up into chapters later?

    I can't express enough how much I am thankful for and admire that you take the time to answer our questions.

  5. Kim–let me answer your question in a post, the one after next. Thanks for the question!
    April–I'm delighted to have had such a happy effect on you! I think it's fine to write straight through and find your chapter breaks in revision.

  6. Hi, I've got a quick question for you: I am writing for NaNoWriMo, and my story isn't going smoothly. 50,000 words is a lot for me to write in one month, and I am already very behind.

    Do you find a good plot? I have tried over and over to work out the plot, but just can't get it.

    Thank you! ~Melian

  7. Wonderful post! Awakened the other day with an uncharacteristic anxiety about writing. As someone once said, love having written, but getting there…

    Anyway, your post reinvigorated and I'm not giving up.

    Love your prompt. Will do.

  8. Great post! I have problems with detail, I always have. I love to write dialogue, but I know my story can't function simply on dialogue. Though when I go to description, I always feel like I'm never writing enough or not writing it "right". I can be very straight-forward when it comes detail, like this line I recently wrote: "[The books] smelled old and like they hadn’t been touched in ages." Any suggestions?

  9. This was a phenomenal post. Detail is always something I think about. I tend to leave out a lot of detail because I don't like to wade through detail. I want to know what action is happening. Your teacher's house was perfect! It gave a good example of collaborative effort.

  10. Thanks SO MUCH for this post, Gail! Dialogue comes easy for me but detail and description is something that I struggle with more as I never know if I have too much or too little in a scene. But now you have illuminated this topic beautifully! It's greatly appreciated!

  11. This was an extremely helpful post!! For me description comes easily but it still was very interesting!
    If you have not already chose a topic for your next post I would like to hear what you have to say about dialogue. Although it comes easily to others it most definitely does not come easily to me! It usually ends up going along the lines of he said…she said…he said and so on…droning on and on until I get bored and delete it all.
    That would be wonderful but please don't feel you have to do it!

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