In the last post, we discussed how detailed description can be used to demonstrate that a character is unfamiliar with an object; we also covered how to describe objects that are unfamiliar to the reader but familiar to the character. Today, we’ll discuss two other reasons to dwell longer on description than you otherwise might.
When the character is intensely familiar with a type of object
Compare these three examples:
Xin looked out the window. There was a red car parked outside; she couldn’t see the driver. Strangely, a bone-mouth Shar-pei sat on the hood of the car, watching her window. Its fur was a deep blue-black, and it was taller than any other Shar-pei she’d ever seen, maybe as tall as seventy centimeters. Its ears and tail were also usually long; it couldn’t have been a pure-bred.
The dog barked suddenly, and the door of the car opened. A pale man in a dark suit and sunglasses climbed out, turning his gaze on her window. Xin ducked out of sight.
Xin looked out the window. There was a red car parked outside; she couldn’t see the driver. Strangely, a black dog sat on the hood of the car, watching her window. It barked.
The door of the car opened, and a pale man climbed out. He wore a black silk tangzhuang coat with gold snakes embroidered along the cuffs up to the elbows and around the stiff collar. His eyes were hidden by a pair of dark metal-framed sunglasses; Xin couldn’t see what brand they were from here, but she could tell they were expensive—not the cheap knock-offs most people bought on the street. The man turned his gaze on her window, and she ducked out of sight.
Xin looked out the window. A red Lamborghini was parked outside, a Gallardo LP 550 that looked like its suspension system had been upgraded. A pair of holes on the rear of the car indicated that the car had once had a heavy spoiler attached; based on the marred paint, it had been torn free violently.
Strangely, a black dog sat on the hood of the Lamborghini, watching her window. It barked, and the door of the car opened. A pale man in a dark suit and sunglasses climbed out, turning his gaze on her window. Xin ducked out of sight.
In each of these examples, Xin is a slightly different person, isn’t she? The first Xin clearly knows a thing or two about dogs, the second has a trained eye for clothing, while the last really knows her way around a car. And yet the only thing that changed was what object in the scene the writer chose to describe in greater detail. A person who is an expert in something—be it cars, dogs, clothing, guns, spaceships, a certain culture, or whatever—will discuss and observe that thing with a level of specificity that someone who is unfamiliar with the topic cannot.
Here’s a few things to keep in mind when showing familiarity through description:
Use specific terms. The first major difference between unfamiliar description and expert description is terminology. Someone who is completely unfamiliar with cars would describe one in very basic terms—large, loud, wheeled, shiny, fast, and so on. Someone who is an expert on cars will have a command of specific terms gained through years of study and osmosis—brand names, car models, engine types, and so on.
Make comparisons. The second major difference between unfamiliar description and expert description is that someone who is an expert on a type of object has a vast mental catalog of similar objects to which they can compare the one you’re describing. For instance, when our first Xin was describing the dog, she immediately noted the ways that this Shar-pei was different from others and concluded that it wasn’t pure-bred.
Keep it understandable to the reader. Using extremely specific terms can often be confusing to the reader. For instance, how many of you know what a “bone-mouth” Shar-pei is? I didn’t, before I wrote that example. I certainly couldn’t have identified a Lamborghini Gallardo LP 550 from any other Lamborghini, either. These specific terms add to the sense that the character knows what she’s talking about, but they don’t necessarily help the reader picture the object. You need to strike a balance between specific, in-depth terms and description that will be useful to the reader. For instance, the tangzhuang coat from the second example. Technically, the word “coat” is redundant—a tangzhuang is a style of coat and wouldn’t refer to a different style of clothing—but I included the word to help readers better picture the clothing. I also used the description of the embroidery to sneak in the fact that the coat had long sleeves and a stiff collar, so that the readers could get an idea of what a tangzhuang looked like without my needing to break perspective.
Don’t let the description get out of control. Xin number three was familiar with cars, so it was natural for her to notice several details about the Lamborghini but few about the dog or the man. However, it would be very easy for that level of familiarity to swell to unnatural levels. For instance:
“When was the last time you saw Li?” the man asked.
Xin thought for a moment. She couldn’t remember seeing Li since she’d dropped him off at work the day before in her 2013 Volkswagen Santana.
That was a little ridiculous, don’t you agree? The line should have simply ended after the word before. “She couldn’t remember seeing Li since she’d dropped him off at work the day before.” Just because a character is familiar with something doesn’t mean you need to shoehorn that familiarity in at every opportunity. Keep it real.
This is particularly common when the character’s familiarity with a certain type of object is one that the author shares. An author who is an expert on horses, for instance, might want to show that off at every opportunity in a story. Tone it back—give the readers enough to realize that the character (and by extension, you) knows what she’s talking about. Don’t shove it down their throats.
Another version of this problem is when every single character is inexplicably familiar with something that the author knows well. It’s fine to have a lot of characters who can identify a hint of saffron or rosemary from just a whiff of the dinner they’re about to eat, but not every character should be able to. To some people, it will just be a nice-smelling dinner.
When you just want to describe something
Our final reason for including in-depth description for something is the simplest, but the easiest to let get out of control: you just want to. Maybe you have a really vivid image of what a certain boat looks like, or you really feel like dwelling on the battered-up appearance of a character’s trenchcoat. Sometimes, you’ll just want to describe something. And that’s fine—go for it. Just be sure to follow the advice from this post; write the description, ask a lot of people to read it and tell you if it’s too much, and then pare it back if most of them say it is. And sometimes, if you really love that description, well . . . you’ll just have to hope you can find an editor who loves it as much as you do. Good luck!