Today we’re going to address a topic that—GASP—I don’t believe we’ve ever covered in almost 800 blogs. Namely because it is a tricky one to address. We’re going to talk about description. For those who never use description or very sparse 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.
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, if you are a writer who does like description, maybe I can offer some tips to make it stronger.
Avoid “Police Sketch” Description
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.
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).
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:
(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:
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.
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?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Winner of JUNE’S COMMENT CONTEST: Linda Maye Adams. Please send your 5000 word WORD doc to kristen at wana intl dot com in an attachment, please. Or, if you prefer, you can send a 500 word synopsis or 300 word query letter. Your choice which one. Congratulations!!!! Thanks for being part of the discussion that makes this blog so much FUN.
THIS SATURDAY is my Antagonist Class PINKIE-SWEAR! ( JULY 5th). Use WANA15 for $15 off. This class will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.
For more help with your social media/author platform/author brand, please check out Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.
I am the reigning QUEEN Of Info Dump! It’s such a hard habit for me to break…such pretty pictures with my words….shiny….fun post as always Kristen. Thanks!
I read that all description should be the POV character’s opinion of whatever is being described. All your examples are the characters’ opinions, which is what makes them shine. 🙂
Love this, love this, love this! I must blast it on to my buddies on Critique Circle, Okay?
Share what you need, Babe 😀
I’m learning so much here – even the tags you used are food for thought. I used to think I kinda knew what I was doing, lol. Thanks Kristen.
Reblogged this on Lynne St. James and commented:
Another amazing post by Kristen Lamb. If you’re an author you should really follow her blog. Her words of wisdom are priceless.
This is a great post! When I write, I like to be very vivid when I describe character. I also try to stay away from ” fluff” as what I call it. No one wants to read the same thing over and over, but with different ways to say it. I think mysteries and suspense novels do great with character and using description.
Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog….. An Author Promotions Enterprise!.
Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen.
I’m more of a minimalist, especially when it comes to characters. That’s probably because, no matter how much detail an author puts into describing a character, I make up my own picture based on the character’s behavior, thoughts, and dialogue. I like to describe characters like: She’d never get noticed until she grabbed your face and turned it toward her, then you couldn’t stop looking. To a man, anyway, that sums it up. I can paint that image and move on.
This is awesome stuff. Thanks.
I think one of the reasons description gets a bad rap as being boring is that it’s often treated as an exercise. Teacher points to a picture of a beach and says “Describe this. Get in the five senses.” No context whatsoever as to what’s important and what’s not. Boring.
Good description is the opinion of the character. It’s the world from his or her perspective. So that beautiful beach might become annoyance to the character because the sand is hot or he steps on a broken seashell. Or the quiet of it might help the character settle stormy nerves. A puddle of jellyfish might elicit a memory of growing up visiting the beach.
Kristian Britain (Green Rider) is really good with describing the setting. Not just what things look like, but sounds and smells and the world.
AGREE TOTALLY. Oh, and you saw you won my contest, right?
No, I didn’t know. Cool.
Enjoyable and a learning experience each time I read your blog. It’s important to be a reader. What you are doing is studying other writers and that is how we actually learn. I haven’t done a whole lot of underlining, but you have inspired me to do so from now on.
I love deep description which is why I enjoy older books and stories – pre 1920’s – more than modern novels. Everytime I get something published in an antho or magazine, the editor usually pulls some of my description of the characters out. I am learning to say more with less and mask these character physical descriptions. I also think the setting you find a character in defines them, so I like when there is a good description of the setting. If your character is in a bar, what kind is it? A Pub? a Fancy Upscale meeting place? A biker club? I’ve started a few books that had so little description, I asked, “What, are these characters floating in space?” (These were usually self-published tittles from newbies) Needless to say, I couldn’t finish these books because I felt a disconnect from reality.
I love description in my stories–but like you, not too much, not too little. I don’t want my characters to get lost in the minutia of their lives. Instead, I love writing those one or two crystal-clear sentences that suddenly gives the you image you want to see–and by doing so somehow seems to bleed backward through the entire scene so that the reader can picture that, too. Great blog post! I feel that too often these days, we’re all being told to write like Hemmingway when some of us prefer Dickens.
Interesting! Great examples of description.
I am a kinesthetic learner and I NEED examples, so I am glad they helped.
I’m so afraid to over-describe that I tend to go the opposite direction. I’m a fan of throwing in tidbits as I go along, but in YA I don’t think the readers would like it any other way.
Maberry’s sample is a great one. Too bad he writes about zombies. Otherwise, I’d be tempted to pick up a book just to copy down some of his description. The piece you shared gives insight into the character of both Benny and C.M.
Thanks for approaching this difficult subject with your usual professionalism. It gives me much to think about.
I love description, good description in stories, but honestly will find myself skimming if the scene doesn’t draw me in – I think a hang-over from being force-fed stories in high school where the author wrote like two pages to describe a chair. (You know which ones I mean?) I just could never get into that and never understood how that made anything interesting.
It’s a struggle, to find that balance for showing the reader what is going on in our mind when we are telling a story. Much like a painter, choosing the right colors or even the right brushes to illustrate what is inside of us is difficult and in the end, you just have to do your best and hope your message gets across.
Thanks for sharing with the examples, Kristen. I always understand better if I can see some examples.
You’ve given some stunning examples there, all writers I haven’t read but really feel the need to now, lol! My reading list has just gotten a few books longer… thank you for that!
I’m an enabler that way, LOL.
I’ve recently found an author who brings words to life for me. His name is Michael Koryta. I believe his descriptions of people and places are a work of art.
Very good tipps! Love the examples. My favorite of all times must be Dickens. Noone can describe people and places like Dickens.
Excellent blog on description! And great choice of examples. I just finished reading “The Invention of Wings,” by Sue Monk Kidd, and realize after reading your blog that one of the reasons I enjoyed the story so much was the descriptions. Passages like: “I heard the commotion of her petticoats as she crossed the rug back to me. She was a woman the winds and tides obeyed, but in that moment, she was gentle with me.”
Ooooh, I love that!
I don’t usually nit pick, but this sentence “He pulled over and got out and walked back and squatted on his boot heels and looked at it.” would make me throw away the book. The word and four times in a single sentence? Really? That got past the editors?
It’s “literature” *shrugs*. He repeated a lot of words to the point of distraction for me, but eh.
PS, great post. I believe I’ve learned a lot from it. And not withstanding. 🙂
A line that stops while you’re wanting it to move sucks as bad as pathetic descript. The reader SHOULD be racing toward your end. Meaning your clunky info-dump ambushes them! HOWEVER< if you want to con them into descript along the way think of it as serenading, or impromptu magic shows! WOW look a that! This is how I think of it if I go longer than say a word or two in the descript. Crafty, manipulative, and always debonair!
I’ll have to give Rot and Ruin a try. I’m always looking for new books to read.
I like some description but will scan over it if it’s too long. I tend to leave too much to the reader’s imagination or rather not enough for them to work with. I’m better at describing character emotions. My critique partner loves description so it makes for an interesting combination.
Thanks for great post and examples of the different ways to describe something. I think I lean toward minimal description, always afraid of sounding cliché or not authentic. But, when describing I do try to ‘show not tell,’ and hope the reader creates an image in their mind. Like you I love, love, love to read and have so many favorite authors; a few contemporary writers that I’ve read most, if not all, of their books are Kate Christensen, Wally Lamb, Richard Russo. Right now I’m reading “The Goldfinch.”
My eyes glaze over with too much description. I remember trying and trying to read Ivanhoe and LOTR, and I just couldn’t get through them. Heck, I fell asleep during the movie of LOTR, and I think I have only fallen asleep through one other movie in my entire life.
I try to write short scenes with a lot of dialogue, because that’s what holds my attention. I do have descriptions, but I was very happy to read that you can leave it up to the reader’s imagination. My readers need a good imagination. 🙂
Thank you for this information. I always look forward to your posts. I must share this little story with you…
I just spent about an hour writng on Ginger, which I was trying for the fist time today. All of the sudden a problem occured and it just went off. I lost about 3 pages of work (at least). I was in this great flow and had just introduced a new character. it was all gone. I wanted to sit down, calm myself and try to rewrite it all, but I was so frustrated, I thought it would be best to wait untill tomorrow to begin again lest my anger come out in my work.
I jumped onto wordpress to clear my mind and stumbled across this lovely post of yours. It made me so happy. I feel like I descibed my new character in the way you descibed above, with emotion, only to realize that all the work is gone.
Has this ever happened to you? How do you deal with the loss of multiple pages before you have even had the chance to read through them?
Thanks in advance for the reply. Hae a nice day.
Kristen thanks for this! So great to get such meaty and practical advice. Do you have any tips for how you push yourself beyond the typical police report description to what’s really behind a character? Especially if you’re basing it on a real person…
I can write a blog about it. Let me noodle over this. 😀
Hi Rebekah, I SOOOOOO feel your pain. Been there! I have accidentally erased stuff that felt SOO good and right and then, boom! I somehow accidentally erase it. On those occasions, I’ve gotten so upset that I couldn’t write for the rest of the day. Heartbreaking! I’ve since learned about Ctrl X or something that bring that undoes the erase and brings the work back.
Still, I try to back up major stuff. If I have a great idea that I LOVE, I write it down, long hand, (old school) and then if I lose it on my document page, I still have it on good old fashioned paper.
Hi…. wish I could edit my last note, but there’s no edit button. Anywho, I WANTED to say the CTRL X (?) brings back the work, but I interrupted my own statement. Too much coffee. Or not enough.
Reblogged this on Ten Years in Germany and commented:
There are no two ways about it. This is the blog to follow if you want to be a become a better writer. I almost don’t want to share my gold with you and keep this all to myself.
Wow. Just wow.
Really loved these tips. Still not able to hack it at fiction just yet but really thankful for these tips. I’m more of a minimalist and really identify with your ideas towards description. You have to be subtle, I think. Throwing it all out there to begin is just wasteful, in my opinion. Thanks for sharing this.
I’m a new author (unpublished – my blog has absolutely NOTHING to do with my writing hobby btw besides being a place for me to blab!) and description is something I struggle with! I hate info-dumps and try to avoid them the best I can, yet I still find myself swinging from being too descriptive to not at all. This is amazing information and advice and I can’t wait to try it! Thanks a million. I love your blog!!
Thank you!! I love your blog. It’s education with built-in giggles 🙂 I’m a prepublished writer and your blog keeps bringing me one step loser to loosing the “pre”. And this post here was just what I needed. Spot on!
I tend to info-dump and over-describe, so thanks for a great post Kristen, to help me keep this in check.
Thank you, Kristen – another post saved to my “how to do this stuff better” file…
Reblogged this on Eclectic pleasures and commented:
If you’re a writer and don’t read Kristen, you should; this post is a classic example of why.
I blame high school English teachers for the tendency new authors have to over-describe things. Hey, I once got a perfect grade on a short story (okay, novella — Mrs. B should have known better than not to set a maximum word count as well as a minimum) I wrote for 11th-grade English class partly because I described everything. The teacher was pleased that I even mentioned the color of the chair where a character sat during one scene (it was dark red), because apparently my classmates mostly didn’t give any description of environment at all. …And as a result, I picked up some bad writing habits that took me a few years to get rid of. I’m still inclined to write more detail into a scene than my twin does, which makes collaborating interesting sometimes. (“Really? Can we please say more about this character than just that he’s the one with the rifle?”) One of my favorite authors had a talent for getting in a lot of description with just a few words, though, and that’s what I hope to be able to do someday.
One of the most enlightening ideas I’ve read is how descriptions should come from the point-of-view character. Rather than simply describing the scene or another person, what goes on the page should reflect something about the POV character — what he or she notices about the surroundings or the person who just walked in. Thus, picking a few stand-out details can do the trick in giving enough description for the reader to fill in the rest and in revealing something about your POV character.
In life, I always look at people’s eyes. So, in my writing, I often describe the eyes. I also like to use a technique like this: He looked like a cross between Tony Randall and a beauty queen, tall, thin, a sway in his hips, way too pretty for a dude. That example is not the best, but you get the picture. My literary juices haven’t started flowing for the day yet. 🙂
Maggie Stiefvater’s descriptions of her characters in The Raven Cycle are phenomenal – you get such a clear idea of who they are. Not to mention that “Ronan was everything that was left: molten eyes and a smile made for war” is just beautiful anyway.
I vary hugely in how much I describe things. It depends on the novel – in one of the ones I’m working on, I describe characters primarily as first impressions, often focused on what they’re wearing. They’re uni students, and sarky tshirts vs flowery dresses says a lot about them, but I don’t usually bother describing their appearance again unless something changes. In a different novel where I’m dealing with fairies etc, more detailed description is necessary because there are absolutely no givens about how someone looks. They could have skin of any colour, they could be any size, they might have wings…
And in my current WIP which I started this morning, I have no idea myself what my protagonist looks like. I know a lot about how she behaves and thinks but I have no clue about her physical appearance. I’ll figure it out as and when it becomes relevant…
I love Pat Conroy’s description of place–though it can get a tad “drippy” in places. Great for teaching detail to sophomores in high school who prefer the “sketch artist” style. Love love love Cormac (yes, I’m on a first-name basis with him because…well…just because. No Country is one of my favorite books by him–even Blood Meridian (though a bit too violent for me to finish) has the most wowsers description of battles with seriously bad dudes and Native Americans and Mexicans.
I used to be decent at writing descriptions. I’d even put it in letters to friends and family. Somewhere along the way, I’ve misplaced this ability. Hopefully I’ll find it again.
Wonderful examples there that have made me want to read the whole of the novels they’re extracted from.
As I write a lot of haiku and tanka poems, the same minimalist technique seems to spill over into my prose writing in that I hate overuse of adjectives and like to make use of power verbs. I try to slip my character descriptions in on the move. Certainly there’s no standing the character in front of a mirror and imparting a description of themselves as seen through their eyes!
Wonderful post. Now I feel I need to go through my MS and reread and check every description and make sure they’re as elegant as those you illustrated! WOW!
I can’t check out library books, either. I’m an underliner and margin writer. Even before I wrote my novels, I couldn’t help underlining passages that were very thought provoking or beautiful.
Thanks for adding another tool to my toolbox, or at least providing a good yardstick Have a wonderful 4th of July!
In my first scene, I have a (bad) description of the two men who walk in to the bar where the mc is working. It’s mostly a police description, with a little cynicism tossed in. But – I had a line in there about his eyes sparkling when he smiled. The last time I read through it, it suddenly made me think of sparkly vampires, and I cut it… Argh.
Awesome post Kristen. I’m always worried about how much description is enough. Funny enough, I lent my mom a Stephen King book and her comment was “He describes to much it’s annoying” I nearyly died. I love Stephen King. Normally we like the same books so it floored me.
Great post Kristen! I’m one of those people who writes very little description, but my critique partner always pulls me up on it – so I have to go back and add it. I think you’re right. You need to see the scene through the eyes of your character. An architect and a windowcleaner would look at the same building and see two very different things.
Kristen, as a new blogger amongst the millions, I am happy to have fallen in with you. Your perspective on language is acute and sensitive. About Cormac McCarthy– I believe his description is meant to convey the pent-up emotions the sheriff feels. He concentrates fiercely on each single action so as to avoid being overpowered by his emotions; thus, the “he-this” and “he-that” style. Maybe the “4-and’s” sentence is meant to highlight the overlap of one action into the next. If he hesitates even for a second, he may have room to think about what he’s doing. Then, he might get right back in the car and flee. In his mind, sheriffs are not supposed to have tender feelings. Hemingway was a master at this kind of writing, but it’s not much in favor these days, with men encouraged to express their inner selves. Another great is John Steinbeck–he can make your skin crawl, without a person in sight. My favorite, though, is Stephen Crane, who conveyed so well the mood between Civil War battles he never witnessed: “The trees began softly to sing a hymn of twilight.” and “A glaring fire wine-tinted the waters of the river.” I’ve remembered since my high school reading of “The Red Badge of Courage,” his image of a column of men parting at a corpse in the middle of the road, its beard lofting up in the wind, and another of green light filtering through a cathedral of trees, where a staring corpse sat upright against a trunk.
This is a tough skill to master. I think it’s easier to recognize good description in a book than to write it. Rainbow Rowell is really great at unique description (Fangirl, and Eleanor and Park). I’ve tagged pages of her book and refer back to see HOW she does it. It’s there but so challenging to emulate.
Excellent advice and wonderful examples. Some months from now I hope to take you up on your offer of feedack. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reading your essays.
I love descriptive writing. I will read a 2 page description of a pond in a Steinbeck novel over and over. Snow Falling On Cedars is another great one for description. Your examples, showing how it can be done well through very different styles is prescriptive yet freeing. I write middle grade fiction, so description must be short and straightforward, but also never boring. Rowling is a master at this. Thanks for this post. I will follow you and take a look at your previous posts.
Welcome! Great to meet you!
I love writing and I fit your description of the minimalist. My descriptions are short and I usually only include what I absolutely have to. I really believe readers can fill in the blanks as far as description so I concentrate on story line.
That being said, I have to try some of the tips you’ve provided here. They sound wonderful and I think I can add a new prospective to my writing with your help. Thanks Kristen – wish me luck.
What a great blog post! f love it that you not only give us reader’s peeves, but also examples for each. I tend to be more of an info dump writer, but I’m gradually learning that less can be more and that there’s always a more interesting way to describe things. Your take is fresh and wonderful! Thanks.
Thanks for these great selections, Kristen. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’ thing. As I read your examples, I kept saying to myself, ‘ahhhh, now I get it!’
Reblogged this on jean's writing and commented:
Reading Kristen Lamb’s blog is like taking an online writing course that is jam packed with vital information.
I was horrible with info dumps when I began, too. I’m definitely more dialogue driven, but I will underline a great description in a book when I see one. My editor is always telling me I need to add more description *sighs*
Fine stuff. Lots of good ideas.
I’m a newly published author and this is my first experience with your blog. I enjoyed it very much, in particular the part about info dumping. It’s not necessarily a problem I have, but I enjoyed your quote “Novels are for the reader not for us, which is important to remember and easy to forget.” I do find myself sometimes including something that is purely nostalgic or personal for me that I realize should probably just be taken out and recognize it was for me and not the reader. I plan on mentioning it in my blog this weekend.
I agree. I love description, and I tend to get annoyed with a book if it is left COMPLETELY up to my imagination. That being said, my own book series and my personal style are based on immersion techniques, so often I CAN’T just break into description and make it witty like a lot of the descriptions given as examples.
What I mean by this is, everything ever described in my book is through the eyes and perspective of whatever current character’s head you’re residing in. Nothing is ever supplied just from me, i.e. “the hand of God” (if I’m doing it right, that is). So every description you ever get is clouded by my character’s interpretation of what they are seeing. An unreliable narrator through and through. Therefore, one of my characters may appear terrifying and ugly to one person, yet be beautiful and amazing to another person. Like in real life, I try to be aware of the “eye of the beholder” concept and really give my characters a voice.
It is an interesting way to do things, and I love it, but because of that approach, I sometimes have to focus on the surface things because that is what [insert character here] would most likely notice. However, in order to fulfill the literary requirement and make it interesting, I try to mix the physical mentioning in WITH that personal interpretation the character is going to have. For example, if the character is happy to see someone, their eyes might be brighter than normal, or if the character is afraid of someone, more creepy imagery goes into it. Getting to know who the character truly is, is conveyed through their dialogue and their actions, just like in real life when we are getting to know someone.
I don’t know if anyone else does this, but that’s my technique for character description as well as description of everything else like cities, cars, horses, boats etc. Of course little descriptions here and there come from me, but the major moments that really give you a glimpse into what someone looks like are ALWAYS conveyed through the eyes of someone else. Also, because of this, if no one directly looks at them or every other character they meet already knows what they look like, therefore making it less likely for them to look at them in detail, I am forced to be lighter with the description of those characters until I discover an opportunity for a stranger to give them the “up and down” so to speak.
Does anyone else do this, or is it just me? Hopefully I explained my technique right. 🙂
No, you are DEAD ON. Everything is subjective and colored by experience. What you are doing is digging below a surface realm and into the emotive. Sounds great…and intriguing 😀
Great to meet you! THANKS 😀 And congratulations on being published!
Oops. Did I make it sound like I was published? Sorry, my bad. I’m still working on that part. 🙂
Because I was just published and mentioned it in my comment directly above you, I’m wondering if the reply wasn’t directed toward me but perhaps the wrong button was hit 😉
Reblogged this on Write of Passage and commented:
Definitely a hard topic to tackle, but as always, Kristen Lamb nails it.
I was just struggling with my lack of description. I thought I needed more, but this certainly broadened my understanding. Very helpful! The way Tolkien described characters in the beginning of the first book of Lord of the Rings made it seem like he wrote a history for each of them. They were apart of that world, and had been living there for years. As you read, you just knew that they were real. He had quite a unique way of introducing characters.
I never thought of describing a character in a “feeling” rather than “visual” way. Love it! I’ve already started trying to apply this to some characters I’ve been writing and it’s working out really well.
Wonderful! Post some short excerpts here in the comments if you are feeling brave 😀 .
I feel moderately brave, so here you go. Feel free to let me know which one worked or didn’t work, and why.
He looked like a puppy that was accustomed to being kicked.
His smile seemed to apologize for itself.
Bernard gave a jubilant squawk, launched himself off of his bar stool, and flapped toward them.
He played his fiddle like a parent rocking a child to sleep.
Then again, not exactly sure if this is what you meant by an excerpt, but it was what I came up with. I’m still struggling with being able to get the essence of character, like the fellow you’d “forget about even while you were looking at him.”
Reblogged this on GlendonPerkins.com and commented:
Kristen Lamb shares some insight on description.
I applied this today, and wow! A huge improvement from previous descriptions. Thanks so much, Kristen!
Kristen, I’ve nominated you for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award. No obligation to accept – not sure if you have time for awards what with the outbreak of zombie warfare and all – but I thought I’d nominate you anyway as you are on my never-miss-a-post list 🙂 Details are in my latest post if you’re interested.
I used to find description challenging. I wanted the audience to “see” the world in my head as clearly as I did, like painting a picture. But I think you spot on — the audience should “feel” the world. Making the audience feel something will make it more manful than a well described room. You worded that beautifully. I’ve never written with that mine set, but I going to try it out in the future. I tried to set the story’s tone through describing characters and the world, but now I want to use it to pull the reader in emotionally as well. Man, everything in writing is so layered!
As promised, I referenced your blog in mine, Kristen. http://www.chadlutzke.weebly.com
I like a few choice descriptions. I have some imagination, though, so I like it when the authors let me use it! I started reading a story earlier this week, but trying to get through all the descriptions was like wading through tar. Eventually, I couldn’t go forward and I set the book aside.
Reblogged this on The Daily Noesis and commented:
Setting the perfect traps for the readers!
I really like the style of description in the great Gatsby if you’ve read it…
Reblogged this on and commented:
From my fav social media jedi and Texan writer guress, Kristen Lamb:
Very insightful, thanks so much!
Thanks, this was helpful. If for no other reason, your comments reinforced my belief that if the description has nothing to do with the outcome of the story, then delete it. For example, in Goldilocks and the three Bears, it isn’t necessary or helpful to include detail that Goldilocks is wearing a blue taffeta dress handmade by her grandmother. That detail has nothing to do with her sleeping in Weather three beds or eating the porridge or breaking a chair.
I learned to despise intricate, in Maine detail while attempting to read Das Boot. I nearly gave up reading when Winds of War and its sister Novels hit the stands. Thankfully, sci-fi pablum of extraterrestrial beings soon flooded the market, and I returned to reading novels.
Thanks so much for your encouraging and insightful posts!
Yes, I too am a description junkie. My most recent decadent read was Ruth Reichl’s new novel DELICIOUS. She makes food sound so delicious and amazing that I gain ten pounds just from the reading, without taking a bite of anything! I often blog about holistic description, and even so, your fresh perspective broadened my horizons. Thanks to Cate Russell-Cole for pointing me your way. 🙂
Cate is WONDERFUL! Fabulous to meet you!