Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Description—Writer Crack & Finding the Write Balance

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Description. Ah the crack for most writers. Many of us never met a modifier we did not love. Forget a BLUE sky. Why would you have a BLUE sky when you could have a cerulean sky?

*chops up line of metaphors with a razor and snorts*

Granted, there is also the other side of the writer coin; those who never use description or very sparse description.

Also known as…freaks.

I am KIDDING!

….kind of.

But even if you don’t use a lot of description, don’t fret. That’s just your voice. Readers like me who looooove description will probably gravitate to other books and that is OKAY. This doesn’t absolve y’all completely though. If you use very little description, then it is more important than EVER to use the right description.

Personally, I’m not a fan of austere modern houses with stainless steel everything and weird chairs no human could sit in and most cats would avoid, but? There are plenty of people who dig it. I also don’t like a lot of knick-knacks and clutter. Makes me want to start cleaning.

Same with books. Not too little or too much. Yeah, I’m Literary Goldilocks.

Plain fact? We can’t please everyone. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice. BUT, the blunt truth is it is almost impossible to tell a story with NO description. That is hard on the reader. She needs some kind of grounding. So, whether you use a little or you lay it on heavier than a Texan with hairspray? These tips will help you be a master at description…

Avoid “Police Sketch” Description 

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I assume most of you have watched TV. A witness is asked to give a description of the mugger, murderer, whatever. Well, he was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes. Very muscular.

She was short, blonde and fit.

The reason I (as an editor) don’t care for this kind of description is a good writer is a wordsmith and we should be able to describe characters better than someone who’s been at the wrong end of a purse-snatching. Is there anything wrong with this description? Nah. Just it’s something anyone can do. It isn’t anything unique.

Avoid the “Weather Report” or “Google Maps”Description

Weather can be vital and even its own character (which we will get to). But putting in weather just to tell us it’s a hot sunny day? Again, surface. Same with describing a location. Cities, streets, stores can come alive with the right description.

Avoid “Info-Dump” Description

I was really bad about this when I was new. I described everything in a room. I believed the reader needed to know all the positions of the furniture, what was on the bookshelves and end tables, the colors of the walls, just to “get” what I was talking about. They didn’t need all that and likely lost interest in the point I was trying to make anyway.

I didn’t give my readers enough credit and most of that information was for me anyway. Novels are for the reader not for us, which is important to remember and easy to forget.

Good description doesn’t automatically mean MORE description 😉 .

What Makes GOOD Description?

Again, this is subjective, but I read…a LOT. I need a 12 Step Program for the sheer number of books I buy. Since I dig description, I often highlight it when it’s done WELL (which is why I cannot check out books from the library or EVER yell at Spawn for coloring in books). The common denominator I see in great description is it delves beyond the surface and evokes some kind of feeling.

In this post, I’m merely giving some of MY favorite examples (from many different genres). I recommend that, if you want to use description, go to those stories that spoke to YOU. Those highlighted spots can be telling about your voice, preference and style. You don’t need to copy, but you can deconstruct how the author did something WELL. And likely, if you are a fan of that kind of writing, others are too and you might share the same kind of readers.

Characters

One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. He describes people in a way that instantly evokes a visceral resonse. Sure there is a tad of physical description, but not much. Most is left out and yet we SEE these people.

For instance, Rot and Ruin (which is a YA series about our world 12 years after the Zombie Apocalypse. A teenage boy is the protagonist and my entire family is now INHALING this series, too).

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This is a scene in the first book when the young protagonist Benny goes to hang out with his zombie-hunting hero, Charlie Matthias:

“It was a 1967 Pontiac LeMans Ragtop. Bloodred and so souped-up that she’d outrun any damn thing on the road. And I do mean damned thing.”

That’s how Charlie Matthias always described his car. Then, he’d give a big braying horselaugh, because no matter how many times he said it, he thought it was the funniest joke ever. People tended to laugh with him rather than at the actual joke, because Charlie had a 72-inch chest and 24-inch biceps, and his sweat was a soup of testosterone, anabolic steroids, and Jack Daniels… (Page, 24)

In this example, other than the size of Charlie’s muscles, we get very little literal description. Everything in this is “feeling oriented.” We get a real sense of who Charlie is and who he might be. As a zombie-hunter, he seems the epitome of who we’d want taking out the undead, but there is an undercurrent of tension that makes us (readers) uneasy.

To me, this is far more powerful than:

Zombie-Hunter Charlie Matthais was well over six-feet tall with bulging muscles and wild red hair. (Zzzzzzzzz. Btw, I have no idea what color C.M.’s hair is, but did I really need to know?)

For the Literary Folks: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men:

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(Sheriff Bell) came across a hawk dead in the road. He saw the feathers move in the wind. He pulled over and got out and walked back and squatted on his boot heels and looked at it. He raised one dead wing and let it fall again. Cold yellow eye dead to the blue vault above them.

It was a big red tail. He picked it up by one wing and carried it to the bar ditch and laid it in the grass. They would hunt the blacktop, sitting on the high power poles and watching the highway in both direction for miles. Any small thing that might venture to cross. Closing in on their prey against the sun. Shadowless. Lost in the concentration of the hunter. He wouldn’t have the trucks running over it (Page 44-45).

In this story, a good lawman is after a soulless criminal who is nothing short of pure evil. This above description is important. The red tail hawk is a parallel of Bell. Bell is also a hunter who’s in danger of being so caught in the pursuit, it could get him killed. Even though the lawman is tracking a criminal, he takes time to honor a fallen hunter even though it’s “only” a bird, something the psychopathic antagonist, who has NO VALUE for any life, would ever do.

Part of that “Show, don’t tell” thing ;). We don’t get a description of what Bell looks like, but through action, we know who he IS.

If you are into the “Less-Is-More-Description” here’s an example from Daniel Suarez’s cyber-thriller Daemon:

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Merrit stopped short and turned to glare at the man—a federal bureaucrat type, late twenties. The kind of person you forgot even while you were looking at him (Page 242)

Short, sweet and we all know this kind of person. We fill in the blanks and it’s emotive (or rather non-emotive, which is the point).

Weather/Setting/Information Without Being Info-Dump

For the sake of time, we’ll bundle three into one. Depp does a fabulous job of weaving weather, setting, and information in a tight cord of emotion. This selection is from Daniel Depp’s Loser’s Town.

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The protagonist, Spandau, is a P.I. is following a Hollywood agent to a movie set to meet a client who’s being blackmailed:

Spandau smoked, and thought the city gliding past was much like an overexposed film, too much light, all depth burned away and sacrificed. All concrete and asphalt, a thousand square miles of man-made griddle on which to fry for our sins. Then, you turn a corner and there’s a burst of crimson bougainvillea redeeming an otherwise ugly chunk of concrete building. Or a line of tall palm trees, still majestic and still stubbornly refusing to die, stubbornly sprouting green at the tops of thick dying stalks, guarding a side street of bungalows constructed at a time when L.A. was still the Land of Milk and Honey….There was a beauty still there, sometimes, beneath all the corruption, like the face of an actress long past her prime, when the outline of an old loveliness can still be glimpsed through the desperate layers of pancake and eyeliner. (page 23)

In this description, we get more than a play-by-play of the L.A. streets he passes. Additionally, I feel the description is very telling about the character. Note the contrasting biblical references or even the tension inside the character. He hates this place, but can still see the loveliness that tears at him and keeps him there, keeps him coming back.

The description is an extension of the feel of the city—no depth, manmade, hardened, lost (but still something beautiful worth staying for).

Note the description is processed through the feelings and backstory of the character. Instead of sounding like a travel brochure, there is emotional flavor adding depth. We pretty much know the weather—bright and hot. We experience the place rather than just “seeing” it in a boring “and then he turned on this street and then that street” fashion.

The description also shows us Spandau is likely an excellent detective—he sees more than the surface and instinctively searches deeper.

Again, description–how to do it, how much, how little—is subjective.

But, I believe that good description can make the difference in a caricature verses a “person” or “place” so real we’re sad to say good-bye when the book ends. Also, I hope I’ve given examples of how we can describe a character or a place without “describing” it.

Are we describing with the same depth as any literate person with a laptop could do? Or are we digging below skin and into marrow?

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself skimming description and didn’t know why? Do you highlight great description, too? Or are you a minimalist? There aren’t any wrong answers, btw. Who are some of your favorite authors who ROCKS description? What are maybe some tips/thoughts you have that takes description from blasé to beautiful?

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28 thoughts on “Description—Writer Crack & Finding the Write Balance”

  1. chellypikechellypike

    Love your examples. I shared on twitter. 🙂

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  2. lanettekauten2016lanettekauten2016

    I’m one of those freaks. Knowing how cold and clinical that can feel to a reader, I make description an important part of my second and third drafts. Even then, I’m still working on attaching description to emotions. One of my favorite authors who does this extremely well is Khaled Hosseini.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  3. Bridgett MorignaBridgett Morigna

    Reblogged this on Writing and Musing and commented:
    Want to get better at writing description? I know I do!

    This blog post provides some great examples of description done right.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  4. Darlene Steelman McGarrityDarlene Steelman McGarrity

    I like some description, but not so much that I get bored. I am interested in the character arc and development.
    I am currently editing my manuscript and the room or scenery description is there because it comes into play.
    Why are the walls sea green? Why are there no bars on one window, yet bars on another?
    What’s up with the baby goat? (My WIP)
    I love symbolism. If the description has a deeper meaning, I’m hooked.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  5. Jennifer Jensen (@jenjensen2)Jennifer Jensen (@jenjensen2)

    I’m like Darlene above, I like description but don’t want to be bored with it. You’ve hit wonderfully on the points that make something good to read, and what I’m working on with my writing. Once again, kudos to you!

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  6. Susan GourleySusan Gourley

    Jonathan Maberry is amazing. I’ve heard him speak at conferences and he’s inspiring. Rot and Ruin is great.
    You’re reminded me off all the work my WIP is going to need in the second draft.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  7. foovayfoovay

    Tony Hillerman – I love a mystery but I read his novels for his in depth descriptions of New Mexico. How much did I fall in love? I moved to New Mexico. Now I endeavor to capture that magic in words.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  8. Linda Maye AdamsLinda Maye Adams

    Description tends to get a bad rap because it’s often taught as it were separate of the story and the character. Yet, the description comes from the character’s viewpoint and their opinions about it are what makes the description more interesting. I just read a section of a book where the setting description runs two paperback-sized pages, and it wasn’t boring at all because it brought in that the character woke up in an unfamiliar place and was trying to figure out what the routines were.

    Dave Farland just posted a newsletter about KAV–Kinesthetic, Audio, Visual (plus Smell), or Doing, Hearing, Seeing, and Smell and getting that on every page to pull the reader in. I think the tendency is to think that description should be a big paragraph of flowery text, but sometimes a sentence will do. A character can jump to his feet, causing a chair to scrape the floor, and we’ve nailed setting, characterization, and sound all in one sentence.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
    • sharablesarcasmsharablesarcasm

      I agree, Linda. Description should tell us a lot about the character doing the describing, and the one being described.

      Reply
      February 21, 2017
  9. Deborah OsborneDeborah Osborne

    I started reading Rebecca last week and Mr de Winter is first described by the sort of historic setting (medieval streets, shadows, rapiers) that the heroine imagined he’d fit in to.

    It was quite long, but provoked a real reaction. I’m going to try something similar if I can find the right moment.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  10. Ernesto San GiacomoErnesto San Giacomo

    Thanks for the different things to bear in mind.
    I’m selective when it comes to description. Because my creative writing classes in college were for screenplays, I tend to write pages of dialog in a first draft. Then I have to go back and add in description as I deem necessary.
    Now I have to go back over the manuscript, because I’ve been ignoring the weather.
    “…lay it on heavier than a Texan with hairspray.” As a former Texan, let me say muahahaha. 🙂

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  11. Ms. Stretchy PantsMs. Stretchy Pants

    I love this kind of post! Would love to see this sort of play-by-play using examples as a regular weekly thing 😀 Also, I’m going to take your suggestion and go through one of my favorite books today and highlight only the descriptions and try and reverse engineer a bit and see what I come up with.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
    • Linda Maye AdamsLinda Maye Adams

      Try typing it, much like an artist paints a Monet or a Renior to learn the skills. It is amazing experience to discover something this way.

      Reply
      February 20, 2017
  12. alisonstalesalisonstales

    Thank you for this article. It’s tremendously helpful to be reminded of the power description can lend to a work.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  13. Ontyre PassagesOntyre Passages

    I’m a moderate. I don’t want to stare at a heaping plate of description and gag at the thought of downing it all, no matter how good. I also don’t want an empty plate. Give me moderation and quality so that when I’m done I realize I gobbled it up, not because I was starving, but because I savored every bite and realized after how it wasn’t a meal at all. It was an experience. A great post, and the best I’ve read on how to do it well, and why it matters.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  14. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    I’m a freak! I always knew it 🙂
    I have to go back and consciously put description in, because otherwise I assume that since I can see everything in my mind’s eye, so can the reader.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  15. richardpietersrichardpieters

    Great advice. I try to keep this in mind, but sometimes, in revision, I see where I’ve fallen in love with my words at the expense of the deeper connection to the story. EDIT!. I once had a beta say they didn’t know what the person looked like, or the place. I was being too minimalist (like eschewing description altogether.) I’ve found places where the description fit but was way too much, and had to select the few details that evoked the place or person. Such is the craft.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  16. BotanistBotanist

    Brilliant examples, Kristen. I used to be more in the infodump category and learned to pare back, focusing more on feelings and reactions than the description itself. BTW, regarding description telling us about character, what kind of detail catches a character’s eye can be highly revealing.

    Reply
    February 20, 2017
  17. sharablesarcasmsharablesarcasm

    OMG Kristen, in the section on info-dumps you just described perfectly the reason I DNF (Did Not Finish) the copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations I was *supposed* to read in high school. There was a scene where EVERY INCH OF A ROOM was described in intense detail. The pattern on the curtains. Each piece of furniture. The pattern on the bedspread. The stuff siting on the table. NONE OF WHICH HAD ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE PLOT. Granted, I realize Dickens wrote at a time when there was no TV or internet or (I shudder at the thought) social media, so if people found a book boring they were probably going to keep reading anyway, because what was the alternative? Stare at the wall for an hour? Today, I don’t think Dickens could sell that book, JMHO.

    I personally don’t love to read a lot of description UNLESS the author just manages to describe things in a way I find insanely funny or interesting. Most authors don’t. So a lot of the time, when I see a long stretch of description, I’m probably going to skip over it until I get to the next piece of dialogue or action. That’s just me. I also probably write a little light on description for the same reason—if I find it boring to read, I’m not going to write it and bore my readers.

    As far as weather goes, I think it’s fine to describe if it has something to do with the story. If it’s going to rain on Romeo and Juliet’s wedding day, hell yeah, tell us there are clouds in the sky or something. But if it really has nothing to do with the story, I don’t much care about the weather.

    I maintain that Charles Dickens was wordy and desperately needed an editor, I don’t care how famous he is.

    Reply
    February 21, 2017
  18. familytreedetfamilytreedet

    Great tips for writers. I am a novice and I am always looking for ways to improve my writing skills. I am also a Maberry fan, but it was his comic work that I followed. I will have to keep your tips in mind.

    Reply
    February 22, 2017
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