Description—The Good the Bad and the Just Please STOP

Odin The Ridiculously Handsome Cat

Odin The Ridiculously Handsome Cat

In the last post, we talked about revisions and how often when we are making those next passes through we need to flesh, cut or refine our description. Can we be really honest about our description? Is it truly remarkable or just filling space? Are we weaving a spell that captures readers or are we boring them into a coma?

Okay, okay, do you have a point?

For those who never use description or very sparse description? Don’t fret. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice.

But obviously all writers will use some kind of description. We have to in order to draw readers into the world we are creating. If we don’t give them anything to sink their teeth into, they will wander off in search of something else.

So whether you are heavy or light on the description, here are some tips on how to do it well…

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.

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

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

For some help with finding just the right words? Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have put together two setting thesauri, the Urban Setting Thesaurus and the Rural Setting Thesaurus.

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?

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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.


For the Literary Folks I will use 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.

Weather/Setting/Information Without Being Info-Dump

For the sake of brevity, 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?

Yes, my cat Odin the Ridiculously Handsome Cat has his own fan page 😀 .

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Now including a log-line class! Can you tell me what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t SIGN UP.

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

Blogging for Authors  (August 26th)

This class will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.

I am here to help with that 😉 .

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

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Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line

September 7th

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

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  1. Reblogged this on authorkdrose and commented:
    Kristen’s “How to” never fails to entertain and enlighten!.

    1. Love “getting to the marrow” but my first pass is often a sketch. My edits take some time as I agonize over a better, more succinct, powerful description. I pepper them around for spice. It try not to make the whole too rich.

  2. this was all quite valuable

  3. Even better, how great would it be if Sheriff Bell’s act and thoughts had been performed by the ‘soulless’ and ‘pure evil’ criminal? I dislike villains who are one-dimensional – as we often say and try to remember, even the most relentless antagonist is the hero of his own story. It should be only the fact that the reader has already given his/her loyalty to the protagonist that keeps us from cheering for him.

    • Sky Burr-Drysdale on August 15, 2016 at 9:20 am
    • Reply

    Minimalist, I’m afraid. To the point that some readers of my early work commented it felt like all my characters were standing around talking in a white room. Great post as always. Thank you.

  4. I always learn something from your posts. You have a way of distilling what I’m struggling with into clarity. Thank you!

  5. So helpful! I loved your examples.

    I’m just remembering a scene I wrote where I described where everyone sat and where the tables and chairs were, and …. That scene is now cut. But, it was handy for me to figure out what the house layout was, at least?

  6. I’m a description junkie. I love it when it’s well done–No Country for Old Men is an excellent example, of course. And I work hard on the description I include. It if doesn’t enhance the characters and their story, out it goes. Loved this post. Long, but worth the time to read.

  7. It made me happy to see you expanded on your line about description from your last post. Excellent post!

  8. Reblogged this on Jens Thoughts and commented:
    Another fantastic post from Kristen!

  9. Thank you, Kristen! I reblogged on Jen’s Thoughts

  10. I still maintain Stephen King does character description like no one else!

  11. I love description.It’s possible–just possible I made have overdone the room details at some point, too.

  12. So true! Trick I use is do a base, dull description for yourself, then build upon those. If that makes sense, so say he’s blond, what kind of blond is he? Then it turns into something like ‘his light hair reflected his bright personality, shining and cheerful’ or something like that. It helps to start small and grow like a seed. At least for me.

  13. Great article! In my early, “God I sucked” day, I had a character pause on a hill and look out over a beautiful, medieval city. I described it as “horse-shoe shaped, with the open ends forming a harbor with high walls. I went into the seven towers of the grand cathedral and the royal palace with its lavish ballroom. The market square.

    I never understood why my “inner-reader” was crying out “STOP! You’re killing me! I don’t care what the city looks like!” –and I screamed back at that inner-reader, “But this is a beautiful description! The harbor, the cathedral with the seven–” “I DON’T eFING CARE!!! I’m not on holiday in Barcelona! Tell me about Aaron. You said he was a magician! What is he doing? That’s what I want!”

    It took years for me to finally hear that voice.

    Descriptions through action. WRONG= she had curly, red hair. BETTER= She picked up a stiff brush and plowed it through the knots of her red hair.

    WRONG= The sun illuminated the stained glass windows of the cathedral as he strolled by. Seven towers cast their shadow across the streets where citizens went about their daily business. BETTER= He scowled at the cathedral. What a monstrosity. Did they really need seven towers? If only the streets were deserted, he would hurl a rock through a stain glass window.

    1. LOL.

  14. Knowing when to stop – key to readers and return readers.
    Excellent post.

  15. Thank you for this article, Kristen. Key for me is to think long and hard about why you have placed the character in that setting. What will it add to the story. How can you use it to convey information about that character.

    • Ken MacQueen on August 15, 2016 at 1:36 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you, Kristen. Just the sort of meaty examples I need as I prepare to have a go and ripping into my completed first draft.

  16. I struggle with knowing how much I need to say to evoke for the reader what I’m already seeing in my head. (Sometimes I go too far one way, sometimes too far the other.) This is where it really helps to have a gap between draft and edit, so you lose the mental picture and have to go off what you’ve actually written, just like the reader will.

  17. A major component of description is the character’s opinion, which that Spandau example has in spades. That’s what makes it interesting. And also makes one of the worst things is “leaving it to the reader’s imagination” because you’re ceding your control and your characterization to whatever the reader does or doesn’t do. Both setting and five senses are also awfully hard to get into a book without doing description–and both those are components that editors in the pro-rate areas look for.

    I actually dropped a book after two pages because it did not have enough description. The writer described the setting as a “mine” and nothing else–and in a genre where setting was was at the top of the to do list. It frustrated me as the reader that the writer didn’t do more with what she’d had.

  18. Great points. Thank you.

    • ratherearnestpainter on August 15, 2016 at 9:31 pm
    • Reply

    I always mean to highlight stuff I like, but I’m usually too engrossed to stop reading. Also, it’s not really an option with audiobooks. (I mean, you can bookmark, but that could be dangerous while driving.)

  19. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  20. I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with “high speed” internet my 90s dial up service would’ve laughed at. *ugh*

    Anyway, I am sparse on description. Been working on that quite a lot, but I do need to take it this step further. To try to use the description to tell more of the story, to evoke feeling, rather than just paint the stage background.

    Interestingly, the one author I rea that drips with description and makes you feel like you’re there is more of a stage painter. Elaborately and elegantly, but still a stage painter. I’ll have to keep an eye out for this deeper description.

    • Anupam Dutta. on August 16, 2016 at 1:07 am
    • Reply

    As always, an excellent post. Thanks for sharing such magic potions with muggles like me.

  21. I must be a minimalist, because those examples put a glaze in my eyes immediately. I have also stopped reading “the little book shop in Paris” because the endless descriptions bored me to tears. And In my own writing, I have been told to add to characters for the reader to get a “feel” for who they are…so yeah. Or maybe I’m just impatient.

  22. I’m a minimalist, but I feel like I do add enough to set the scene. Hmmm.

    Mainly commenting to plug the Antagonist class – before I took it two years ago, my antagonist was cardboard, had maybe two scenes, no background or motivation, and I’m not sure if he had a name… Today, he has his own arc, scenes in every chapter (some POV scenes) and is a fully fleshed out character. 🙂 Thank you, Kristen! 🙂

  23. It was a dark and stormy night…

    • Melissa Lewicki on August 16, 2016 at 2:47 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks. I have trouble with description. Mine are very spare. I haven’t read the Depp book. I wonder about the name of his protagonist: Spandau. The only Spandau i know is the prison in Germany. Is there a connection with that character? Can a character’s or place’s name be a kind of description in itself?

  24. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  25. Reblogged this on Pen in Her Hand and commented:
    Great post from Kristen Lamb about making your descriptions work for you.

  26. Love these examples! And the images made me laugh as usual. Thanks for another great post! Reblogged this on

  27. Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    This is an excellent post on writing description by Kristen Lamb.

  28. I toss a book if the first couple pages include mounds of description. I become so annoyed and distracted I completely miss the cool hook or intriguing character that would otherwise keep me reading.

    I would have continued reading (and did) No Country For Old Men, Would have chucked Loser’s Town. (BTW Adrian T. S. – absolutely loved your second example.)

    I’m definitely a minimalist, but one of my characters is a mountain whose “magic” changes the lives of the characters, so I suppose stingy description isn’t going to cut it. Photographs help, and I’m fascinated by cinematic techniques. The other senses are a bugger. A trip to Colorado for a first-hand sensory experience would be awesome, but I’ve found the next best thing in the Thesaurus collection by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi.

    Thanks, Kristen, for raising the shades and encouraging me to go where I sometimes don’t want to go (but know I should).

  29. I found this very interesting, particularly with the examples you provided. In my very few attempts at writing fiction, I always got caught up in trying to describe everything in the room — the color of the drapes, the history of the furniture, a full forensic analysis of every piece of dust on the baseboard. I never seemed to get to the part of the story where my protagonists actually did anything.

    • Kathy on August 19, 2016 at 7:38 am
    • Reply

    Thank you! This was very helpful. I love the sky raisins description!

    • R.C. Thompson on August 20, 2016 at 2:54 pm
    • Reply

    Good Post. A couple of guidelines I found helpful: Description should be concise ( less words are better), clear to the reader, use descriptive words infused with appropriate emotions that move or flavor the story, and be direct. Avoid passive language and restatement. If you show, don’t tell as well. An editor once said to me, “Whatever you say in 1000 words can be said better with 600.” Every word counts, so use double duty words when possible. Trust the reader to fill in the blanks. Don’t describe mundane things unless there is a planned reason to do so. Read and embrace Shrunk and White’s book The Elements of Style.

    1. Works for blogging too. Sighs.

  30. Very helpful post. I think I have a difficult time with descriptions. They tend to be brief and bland. Do you recommend any how-to books or practices I can do to improve my descriptions?

    Regarding Odin, he is ridiculously handsome. I love his silver coloring. 🙂 Is he an Egyptian Mau?

    1. I don’t know of any How Tos off hand. I just recommend studying authors you like. Highlight it and break it down and then try to employ similar tactics. And yes Odin is an Egyptian MAU! MAU! MAU! He is very loud and very talkative, LOL.

  31. Great Blog! I have just finished the first draft of my novel and am preparing to go back through and ice the cake. At least that’s what I call it. I have a great foundation but it needs a good dose of description. I am a minimalist. I’m also a skipper/skimmer. With that being said, I have had quite a few critique partners point out that I am a little sparse on the descriptives and need to help my readers picture things in their head.

  32. Even though it’s a fantasy I like going light on description when I can especially when the kettle really starts steaming and all the characters are scrambling to save each other’s butts. (I’m revising in a favorite chapter right now. It sucks having to analyze it and decide if it should be there. Boo!) Anyway, by going light I can save it for when it really matters. I mean, the main pov has to notice it so it’s going to matter otherwise why is it there? that’s what you’re saying, ya?

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  3. […] they scan them. Yes, my blogs go longer because often I also give examples (I.e. the post about great description). But, because I use bullet points, those who simply want to scan can gain plenty (and the examples […]

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