On February 19, 2018, Nichole wrote, I want to know what suggestions you might give for the parts of writing that I suppose I would call “background description.” See, I’m a writer who loves dialogue –I love to know what people choose to say and what people say in return. My problem, though, lies with describing what is going on in-between the dialogue.

Allow me to give an example from one of your books I grew-up with: Ever.

“You never crawled,” Aunt Fedo says.

Merem corrects her. “Once or twice you crawled.”

Aunt Fedo ignores the correction. “You were too eager to walk and dance.”

“And climb!” Merem says. She pats Kezi’s hand.

Senat, Merem, and Aunt Fedo laugh.

“Nothing was safe from you,” Senat says, breaking off a section of bread for her.

In this example, using “say” and “said” are the first tools in breaking up straight dialogue as it tells who said it. But, what about the rest? The –as I put it- “background description”- correcting of facts, patting of Kezi’s hand, laughter, and Senat breaking off the section of bread. How would you suggest I write “background description” to break up dialogue?

Christie V Powell wrote back, I think that being able to see the whole thing in your mind would help you nail those details. In writing dialogue, you’re often focused on the words the characters are saying, but you might miss out on everything else going on: real life doesn’t stop when people have a conversation. Visualizing the setting might help.

Also, those little descriptions are a great way to build subtext. Senat handing her bread shows that he’s caring for her. Merem patting a hand is a gesture that shows that she’s an older woman, probably family, showing fondness and possibly a bit of teasing. There is a ton of subtext going on–reading between the lines, if you will. Not everyone will pick up on it, but it makes the story richer.

Here’s a section I’m working on right now (still in progress).

—He nodded slowly, but his guarded expression cleared when he saw her bandaged arm. “Hurt during capture?” he asked. Despite his husky accent, she easily picked out his words.

“No. That tiny griffin…”


He unwrapped the bandage with fingers scratchy with callouses, but gentle. The wound began to bleed again, but he pressed one hand over it. The warmth grew to heat, higher and higher, but a second before it grew painful he let go. The cut had vanished completely. Mira thought of the Spektrit visitor who had fixed her limp on the beach.

“It brought me to you on purpose. For the healing.”

“He,” the Spectrit corrected. “That griffin is a he. I’m Arvid, Keeper.” He tapped his black collar. “Keepers herd, sometimes heal. You’re a minder. General labor. Sometimes pets…”

She shot the griffin a suspicious look.

I’m with Christie V Powell. The description lets the reader’s senses enter the story to see, hear, smell, and feel what’s going on. And description also allows us to move the plot along with action. In her sample, Christie V Powell even manages to drop in the experience of Spektrit magic or power.

I was just thinking about this in my own WIP. I started a bit of dialogue when an older man, a duke, sits with a young woman and complains about his creaky knees, after he’s demonstrated their effect in the stiff way he sat. But following that introductory moment, the scene becomes disembodied, as I realized just before closing my laptop to get on the train, which I’m riding right now to New York City.

Either I can fix the scene as soon as I open the manuscript again, or I can fix it in revision, after I’ve got a completed first draft. If I decide to delay the repair, I’ll make a note at the top of the first page, along with a string of other instructions to self, to watch out for disembodied dialogue.

So the first step is self-awareness, which Nichole has mastered.

The second step is action. We look at our scene to see what’s missing and what we can use.

In the case of my WIP, my MC, Cima, is embroidering a pillow cushion when the duke approaches her. He’s much higher in rank than she is, but I forgot to make her put aside her embroidery, which she certainly would do–or be rude, which might be useful in a different situation from the one I’m writing. When I revise, I’ll do something with the embroidery.

And he’s a guest! But she doesn’t offer him food! Getting him food, or even starting to stand up if he doesn’t want any, would introduce action.

Let’s go back to Nichole’s quote from Ever. I haven’t looked at the context and I don’t remember what went before or after, but I noticed just now that I left out thoughts and emotions. If I remember right, this scene isn’t from Kezi’s POV, but the POV character would notice how much her family loves her. I hope his reaction came in at some point!

Thoughts and emotions can come only from the POV character or from an omniscient narrator, but there’s always one of those around. The charming thing about thoughts, if we love writing dialogue, is that thoughts are like speech, and yet they do break up the dialogue.

When we want to add description, we start by examining what we have, and we ask questions:

Where are the characters?

What are they doing?

What is the POV character thinking and feeling?

Let’s take the where. Say the characters are having a picnic. What’s the weather? If the wind is blowing, is it blowing away the napkins and paper plates? Do things have to be weighted down with other things? Is there an ant parade? Mosquitoes?  Natural beauty? Who else is around?

If it’s a picnic, eating is probably going on. Who’s a neat eater? Who has mustard on his chin? Who talks with her mouth full? Who serves everybody else?

All of our choices of detail will be guided by our plot and our characters and, especially when we’re near the beginning, what appeals to us.

Here are three prompts:

∙ An argument is great for trying this out. Mariel is furious with Christopher for giving away a secret. Christopher is angry, too. He had a good reason for breaking the confidence. Write the scene, breaking up the dialogue with description. Think about body language and how loud each one gets. Consider the props they can use, like a book slammed down on a desk. Think about where they are and how the environment can enter in.

∙ Two spies have to exchange secret information. Problem is, they’re at a castle ball. There’s no chance for privacy. They keep trying to communicate, but their conversation is broken into repeatedly. Write the scene.

∙ Write the picnic scene. Decide who’s there and what the occasion is. Bring in the elements I mention above and any others that come to you and sprinkle them in with the dialogue. For the fun of it, make something disastrous happen to end the picnic.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Movie Making

Happy Turkey Day or Faux-Turkey Day to the vegetarians! It’s my fave holiday, and we on the blog have a shared reason for gratitude: Published or not, struggling as we probably are to work out our plots and create our characters, we’re writers!

And hail to you NaNoWriMo-ers, rounding a curve, the finishing line coming into sight. Eat well! Stay hydrated! Sleep is for slackers (like me). Keep writing!

On September 17, 2017, Bookfanatic102 wrote, I am rereading The Two Princesses of Bamarre again (for the 6th or 7th time), and I realized part of the reason I like it so much is how descriptive it is. (And Volleys is totally awesome.) Do you have any advice on making my books more descriptive and making my characters more fun to read and write?

And Christie V Powell wrote, Have you looked at Gail’s other posts? These ones on description could get you started: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/category/description/. I also really enjoyed Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan, which is all about descriptions, including of characters.

And Melissa Mead said, Make sure to think about all the senses, including smell, touch, and taste, as well as sight and hearing.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for harking back to earlier posts!

And I’m with Melissa Mead on all the senses. Humans focus (pun intended!) on sight more than on our other senses, but to get sense-o-rama into our stories we need them all.

I’m having trouble with descriptions in my so-far-title-less historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492,, so Bookfanatic102’s question comes at the right time.

The problem is the history. For example, at the moment I’ve reached in my story, Cima, my MC, is about to share a meal at an inn with her grandfather, her father, and the duke of Medinaceli. But I’m stymied about who would answer the door at the inn. The innkeeper? A waiter (were there waiters?)? One of the duke’s servants? Who else might be there? I’m not even sure that my made-up meeting with this actual historical figure would have taken place at an inn.

Alas, the place has to be solid in our minds before we can write it. For the room at the inn, I’m drawing on an image I found online. For the food, I’m working from a cookbook based on recipes from a period that’s only a little later than mine. For the rest, I plan to show my manuscript when I’m done to more than one historian.

In our describing, we need to go for a movie-in-the-mind. I live in one as I write, and when it isn’t there, I hunt for details to fill it in. When I’m writing fantasy, I can invent the details, which is wonderfully freeing. But my inventions are usually fueled by real life. I’ve watched YouTube demonstrations of carding fleece, listened to prairie dog vocalizations, smelled spices from my spice drawer. I have well-thumbed volumes of historical costume that I go to again and again. I also draw on my memory. For example, the topiary in Ella Enchanted comes from my memories of the topiary in the Cloisters, which is a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan near where I grew up.

Not that we should be chained to reality when we write fantasy. After I’ve listened to prairie dogs, I can decide that my own version can have an entirely different sound; they can gurgle like pigeons, for example. But I’m happy to have something real and solid to spin off.

As with the gurgling prairie dogs, we can wake up our details with surprises. One way is to go against expectation. For instance–I’m making this up–in a seemingly utopian city, the sidewalks are paved with rubber, and none of the citizens ever has sore knees. These wonderful sidewalks are cooled in some high-tech or magical way, so they don’t melt in hot weather.

The fun of this is that we can introduce details for the sake of the movie and then discover that they come in handy for our plot. The rubber sidewalks, for instance, can be used diabolically by the city’s rogue engineers to catch our MC if the cooling is turned off and the rubber gets gluey.

I use my notes and my beloved lists to brainstorm about setting and details. I may ask in my notes, How can I flesh out this scene? Then I’ll start a bulleted list of possible ways. Or I may also ask how I can make whatever is going on hard for my MC, and start a different list. Or I may list possible sensory elements.

So we have several strategies: bringing in all the senses, using research, drawing on memory, making lists, writing notes.

One caution: adjectives and adverbs do not make our writing more descriptive. Generally, they just add air. I’ve talked about this before here. We need adjectives and adverbs, but we also need to be sparing with them.

Now for characters and making them fun to write and read.

One way is to get your MC into trouble you sympathize with, which may mean moving in your mind from the specific to the personal. You’ve never been stalked by a lion-tiger combo, but you may have been picked on. We can use our memories to fuel our character’s responses.

I’ve been worried about my MC in the expulsion book because it’s such a serious book, and she’s a serious person. Will people be interested in her?

Here’s hoping. My approach to her is the approach I use with all my characters. I think about my plot and how she can fit into it. In the fifteenth century, a girl wouldn’t have much scope for action. A Jewish girl would be mostly in the home and would be very sheltered. But I need her to be able to act, since she’s my MC. I thought about what I could give her, and since this isn’t fantasy, a magical power is out. Her father and grandfather are financiers, as a few prominent Jews were at the time, so I made her love numbers and be phenomenally good at math, which will be useful for her family.

Then I picked another characteristic, basically out of a hat: I gave her an aversion to discord. She hates arguments, conflict, disagreements.

We can list personality traits and think about which ones interest us. Then we incorporate one or two into our MC or into a secondary character. When situations arise in our story, we think about how this particular trait will shape our character’s response.

We can do this in the outlining stage or during the writing if we’re pantsers. The result that has astonished me in book after book is that my plot shapes itself around the decisions I made long before I had any idea where my story was going.

In the expulsion book, set in a patriarchal era, I wanted a powerful character who could give my MC some of his power, so a major secondary character is her grandfather, who is a courtier, financier, and philosopher. He becomes very attached to Cima, but he isn’t always sensitive to her needs or feelings–and he’s very demanding about his own. The complexity is what makes him fun to write, and I think that applies to any character. Complications draw in both writer and reader.

It also helps me to make my MC want something very much. Longing is relatable. I don’t mean every MC has to be full of yearning. I suspect that a depressed MC might have lost the energy to want anything, and such a character deserves a spot as an MC. Still, longing sets our story up for obstacles and for revealing how our MC goes about removing them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Which makes me think of our dog Reggie. When a toy he wants is out of his reach, he barks at it. It never comes to him, but we’re charmed, and we get it. I don’t know what happens when he’s alone in the house. Maybe the toys do come out then. He’s very cute. They may be charmed, too.

Here are three prompts:

∙ In this world, creatures shapeshift from people to animals and vice versa. One of your MCs was once a porpoise and another used to be a dog. The former porpoise is hearing-centric, and the former dog is sniff-reliant. They are being chased by a villain who used to be a–you decide-what animal. Write the chase scene. Bring in all the senses. If you like, write the whole story.

∙ Your MC wants to be rich. She also helps out at the center for people displaced by the war with the centaurs. One of the displaced people is the former dictator of the neighboring city-state. He has a scheme to get back his fortune. Write the scene when he comes into the center and your MC is on duty. Make the movie in the reader’s mind. Keep going, if you like.

∙ Your MC is one of the displaced people from the last prompt. To escape the war, she and three others, strangers, thrown together by chance, have to cross a mountain range to get to safety. Your MC is terrified of heights. One of her companions is patient with her. The other two are not, and one wants to abandon her. Think about how your panicky MC would perceive the mountain, what she’d focus on and what she’d miss. Write a scene from her POV during the climb.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

Describing and Thinking Too Much

On January 28, 2010, Wendy the Bard wrote, What about too much description and thought?  Any words on that?

In writing this blog I’ve often thought of the old song “Dem Dry Bones.”  I’m making up the bones to fit writers, but it goes something like, Your finger bones connected to your hand bones, your hand bones connected to your wrist bones, and so on, with a strong beat.  In writing, everything is connected to everything else.  So description and thoughts are connected to point of view (POV) and to voice and to all the other elements that make up a story.

If you’re writing in first-person POV or in a third-person POV that’s not omniscient (all knowing), only the main character’s thoughts can be reported and only what she sees, hears, smells, touches can be described.  Suppose she’s a landscape painter and sees herself as a colorist, she’s going to be alert to the hues wherever she goes.  You will certainly want to emphasize the colors in each setting she enters.  She may be emotionally tuned to colors too, so she might be distressed in certain environments.  She might even like or dislike someone according to the color scheme in his house or his clothes.  She may be too fascinated by the blue tones in the ocher mud caked on the green linoleum kitchen floor to conclude that the floor is dirty.

But she may not be sensitive to sounds.  She may not hear the ticking clock or the teakettle hissing as it approaches a boil.  Despite the hiss, she may jump when the whistle starts.  If there is something auditory you need the reader to know about, you may have to make it deafening, or you may need to have another character mention it.

So, thinking about who is telling the story will help limit your descriptions to only what this character would notice.

However, if your main character is, for example, a detective who notices everything, the task is harder.  He sees the mud on the floor and the footprints tracked through it and the teakettle and the absence of tea in the cupboard and all kinds of things as well, the pack of matches under one leg of the kitchen table to steady it, the frog refrigerator magnets, the wildlife calendar turned to the wrong month.  Some of these observations may be important to the mystery and others may not.  You will probably want to mix the irrelevant in with the relevant to mislead the poor reader, but you still won’t want to go on too long.

How to stop?  Your detective can be interrupted.  Someone can ask him a question or enter the room.  His cell phone can ring.  Even his thoughts can change tracks.  Suppose your detective is falling in love.  The orange tablecloth can be the same color as his girlfriend’s scarf, and his thoughts can go briefly to her.  If he’s thinking too much already, you may not want to opt for this, though.

People think differently, too.  Some think in grammatically correct paragraphs, some in phrases, some in a word or two, some in images.  When a character has a problem it may cycle endlessly through his mind.  An argument can do this too, as he thinks of all the cutting remarks he could have made.  Or if he was told something that stunned him, just a few words may echo over and over.

If your character is a loquacious thinker you can bring in the same devices to stop the thinking as you used to cut off the description.  When I’m caught on a thought treadmill in real life, I often turn on talk radio to shut myself up.  Your character can do the same, or she can watch TV or listen to music, whatever will distract her.

You can switch to telling as well, as in, I stayed up half the night going over Dylan’s words.  Then the next morning comes and the story moves on to other things.  Or, Sheila couldn’t stop thinking about the secret.  Maxie came by.  They talked, but the thinking wouldn’t go away, like the crawl under the television news.  By informing the reader that thinking is taking place, you don’t have to reveal every thought.

If you’re telling the story from an omniscient third-person POV – by a narrator who’s outside the story – the narrator’s voice can help limit description.  A no-nonsense voice will not let you spend many words on the Venetian blinds in the kitchen.  It will hurry to the boy peeking through the slats to see if the class bully is waiting outside the house.

A more lyrical voice may linger, which is fine, as long as you keep the reader in mind.  You can spend a whole page on a lovely picnic scene if the reader knows that an approaching airplane is having engine trouble and may crash land there.  In fact, in such a situation, more may be better.  Show the reader the budding dogwood trees, the girl with the five-week-old puppies she hopes to find homes for, the artist sketching the family of picnickers, and the old man sleeping with the newspaper over his face.  You can even zoom in close enough to reveal the newspaper headline about improved air travel safety.

Having said all this, you may still write too much description and too many thoughts.  I recommend not worrying about this in your first draft and maybe not even in your second, not until your story is solid.  Before then you can’t be sure what you need and what you don’t.

When you’re revising, try cutting sentences and paragraphs of description and thoughts – but before you cut, save the version and continue in a new version so you don’t lose what you had before.  If you’re working longhand, cross out in pencil.  See how the slimmer version reads.  Is it better?  Or do you and the reader need at least some of what you took out?

To help guide you in your cutting, ask yourself if the part you’re thinking of cutting contributes to character, setting, mood, plot.  Even if it does, question whether those elements are already established enough without these passages.

This is my prejudice:  Don’t cut humor unless it is out of place or works against your scene.  Few readers mind extra sentences that make them laugh.

Remember, you don’t need a machete to cut.  A nail scissors works fine too.  You can cut a third of a story or even of a book with a snip here and a snip there.

F and Arya, originally I thought I would get to your questions about too little dialogue, but I failed, so next week I will.

Here are prompts:  Describe a room in your house and give the accompanying thoughts from the point of view of one or more of these:
•    a burglar who has broken in at 2:00 am;
•    a teenager who’s come along with her parents on a house-hunt;
•    the family dog or cat;
•    a grandmother who’s just moved in with her daughter’s family;
•    an interior decorator who’s been invited to redo the room.

Restrict yourself to no more than two pages for each.  Then revise and see what you can do very well without.  Have fun and save what you write!

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!