Keeping the description clean


Does the description fulfill a function?

Quick questions to ask yourself to keep from swamping your narration with descriptions:

  • Who needs to know this? Is it actually important information for the plot or does it simply make the scene prettier?
  • Are you going to use it later? The way the sunlight touches the corner of the room. Does it mean something? Does it help the character realise what time it is or demonstrate that he finds himself in a different world entirely? Then great, keep it. Otherwise, leave it out. Description in the now should become an active part of the story soon. Don’t describe simply for the sake of describing.
  • Do readers truly need to be told? Obvious information doesn’t need to be provided by the author, unless the detail has special significance. For example, don’t tell the reader the polar bear has four paws, they’ll fill that in for themselves. Do tell them if the polar bear only has three paws.

Stealth Description: Weave description into the story.

Now it’s time to incorporate sensory detail and atmosphere without slowing down the story. Combine the description with narration by tying it to actions and attitudes. For example: Sarah brushed by the ugly little man standing in line at Moonbucks, squeezed past the fatso in the puke-coloured chair and crashed into the maroon booth in the back, securing the last free table in the coffeeshop.

Stealth Description: fill-in-the-blanks

This one requires audience participation. Instead of telling the reader exactly what something looks like, you tell the reader the effect it has instead. For example: her eyes could level an army / even voltures would gag at the smell of him.

Description Revision

When it’s time for revision, don’t bluntly delete the seeds that didn’t quite grow. Read the manuscript one more time and make sure you’re not missing the opportunity to use those goodies.

Morrell, D. (2008) The Successful Novelist