Description galore

On June 27, 2011, Agnes wrote, When I write a story the writing process goes like this. I have an idea, so I think about it and act it out until my plot has a basic shape. Then I start writing it down, my problem is that my descriptions get way too long. How can I stop this?
Acting your story out is a terrific idea!

I wouldn’t worry about the length of your descriptions while you’re writing them. Just keep going. When you’re finished, you can see what you need and what you can do without.

When you go back, regard your adjectives and adverbs with suspicion. Test your sentences without them. If nothing is lost by removing the word lovely, for example, delete it. Usually, the adjectives and adverbs that we can’t do without are the ones that convey information, like green, hot, wobbly, sparsely.

More general adjectives sometimes have their place. For example, I used the word terrific above in a sentence of less than spellbinding prose. If I had been going for something better I might have written that acting your idea out ensures that your story has tension and feeling. Terrific is a summary word, and in this case I wanted speed. I wanted to convey approval, not necessarily the reason for the approval.

Generally, nouns and verbs should do your heavy lifting. Better than “Don’t eviscerate me with that long weapon,” he said softly would be “Don’t eviscerate me with that saber,” he whispered. Better and shorter.

I’ve said this before: Take care with words that weaken, like almost, slightly, somewhat. Occasionally they’re essential,  but often they reflect an unwillingness to take a stand, as in Hilda felt almost jealous. Let’s let her go lime-green with envy.

More broadly, think about what you want your description to do. Description sets the movie going in your reader’s mind, so you need to provide enough to let him see and possibly hear, touch, and smell his surroundings. When Hilda goes into her bedroom and the reader sees it for the first time, he needs to know more than that there’s a bed in there, but he doesn’t need a raft of specifics. He probably should be told if the bed is a bunk bed. Let’s suppose it isn’t. Let’s suppose the room is fussy. There’s a dust ruffle around the bed, which is an antique reproduction of Benjamin Franklin’s bed (I have no idea if this is possible). Roses are stenciled on the bureau. Atop the dresser, real roses fill a rose-colored vase, and under the vase, a doily. The walls are covered with William Morris wallpaper. The floor sports two braided rugs. A quilt in a classic pattern hangs on the wall.

The poor reader doesn’t have to be burdened with all this; a few details will do. But I’d like him to know who decorated the room, especially if Hilda chose everything, and she’s seven years old! Seriously, because then the description reveals character, and that’s cool.

As a sidebar, the reader doesn’t have to know what William Morris wallpaper is. He’ll get the idea, or he can look it up. You don’t have to worry about his comprehension in such a little matter. If William Morris wallpaper is exactly what you want, keep it in. You can even make up a kind of wallpaper if you like, Millicent Popper paper, say, and no one will ever discover more about it than you reveal.

Another consideration is what’s going to happen. Suppose there’s a rocking chair in the room, and Hilda is about to rock so enthusiastically that it falls apart, which will be the last straw for her foster parents, and they’re going to call Social Services. Then the reader has to know there’s a chair, probably before she sits down in it.

Description can convey feeling. Hilda is sent to jail, maybe for bad home decorating decisions. You want your description to convey how bad the prison conditions are: the stink, the chill, the iron bed, the single blanket, the cockroaches. If this is a comedy, the lack of art on the walls. Then Hilda is released. Again, you may want to describe her new situation for contrast. But you don’t want to go too far. Enough to let the reader experience the place, not so much that boredom sets in.

You can use description to heighten suspense. Hilda’s foster parents tell her that she can’t live with them anymore. The scene takes place in the kitchen. Everyone is waiting for the social worker to come. Hilda spends the time noticing the abundance of food in the kitchen, the bowl of fruit, the cake cooling on the counter, the soup pot on the stove, the fridge with its automatic ice dispenser, the spice rack, the branch of basil hanging by the window. The reader gulps and wonders when Hilda will experience such abundance again.

Often we put in a lot of detail so that we know where everything is and we can see the movie. When we revise, we need to ask ourselves what purpose our description is serving.

•    Is it creating the movie?
•    Is it revealing character?
•    Is it making a mood?
•    Is it conveying feeling?
•    Is it heightening suspense?

This may not be an exhaustive list. If you can identify some other objective your description is fulfilling or if it’s serving one of the ones I’ve listed, then it deserves to live. But if not, or if it has a purpose but you’ve gone on too long, that’s the time to cut.

Sometimes we fall in love with our words and it’s hard to give them up. I particularly like the doily under the rose-colored vase, but if the reader wants to shred it and flush the bits, then it’s doing no good, and it should go.

Of course, it can be hard to tell what should stay and what should be deleted. For that, you need the usual resources: time away from the manuscript to give you objectivity, helpful criticism, and experience. The more you write the better you’ll get at this one particular thing. I guarantee it.

Time for prompts:

•    Hilda has taken refuge from her foster family with the seven dwarves. It’s two months after Snow White left. The dwarves have gone to the mines for the day, and she’s alone in their cottage. Describe the cottage through her eyes.

•    After deliberating a while, Hilda makes some changes to the dwarves’ home. Their cottage can be in the middle of a village of dwarves’ cottages with shops and so forth, or it can be alone in a forest. Describe what she does.

•    Describe what happens when the dwarves return.

•    Put what you’ve written aside for three days.

•    Now look at it all again. What can you cut? What do you need to add? Revise.

Have fun, and save what you wrote!

  1. From the website:

    Loved this weeks post! Now I have a question–for anyone who knows it, I'm not great with grammar :-P. Sometimes it's hard to avoid repeating words when you're writing, such as "they tossed her her cloak" and "he had had a horse". Sometimes you can avoid that by putting other words in ("they tossed her back her cloak" "he had once had a horse") but sometimes it seems unavoidable. I see it sometimes in published books and I always wonder whether it's okay to do that. Is it?

  2. Gail- Thanks for answering all my random questions. I can't seem to help myself. They just pop into my head during school when I'm bored and I just have to ask you! So here are two more: what is the link you gave to Maybeawriter in the comments section of The Gap for? And Have you ever read any interesting autobiographies?

  3. not sure if this has been asked before, but I've been thinking lately about tense, as in past or present. I've read some fantastic stuff in the present tense (read: THE HUNGER GAMES and other less fantastic things) and I've been wondering what everyone thinks about which tense a story should be written in, and how to decide.
    I reckon it depends on the needs of your tale, like POV does, but I'm interested to hear other people's thoughts, especially on choosing which to use….

  4. Charlotte: I, frankly, know at least a few people who were initially or permanently put off by The Hunger Games because of the present-tense. It didn't bother me at all, but I just wanted to say that it does bother some people.
    I use first-person present-tense to focus on immediacy and (I hope) to build tension – when I read it, I imagine that anything might be right around the corner! First-person past-tense reminds me somewhat of people relaxing somewhere and telling each other their stories… but then, here I go; there was nothing about the excellent Raised by Wolves – or, for that matter, Two Princesses of Bamarre – that suppressed excitement!

  5. Thank you so much for answering my question! I just read The Wish and Dave at Night,and I loved them. Now I just have to read Ella Enchanted and Ever and I won't have anymore of your books to read at my library. So I will start ordering them,thanks again,

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