Last time, we discussed the need to keep your descriptions to the minimum needed amount. Here are a few tips for doing so.
Determine how much description you need: Here’s some useful questions for figuring out how much description to give the reader.
What genre are you writing? If you’re writing a long epic like War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings, then you’ll be able to take a bit more time on description than you would be able to for, say, a fast-paced thriller like The Sum of All Fears or Carrie. Short stories should generally give less time to description than novels. If you’re writing romance, you’ll probably describe character appearance more than you will in, say, a murder mystery; if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you’ll probably spend more time describing the fantastic settings than you would in a comedy.
How familiar will the setting or character be to the reader? Some things don’t need description (if a character is buttering toast while they talk to someone, you don’t need to describe the butter knife); some things don’t have to be described but could definitely benefit from some brief description; while other things absolutely have to be described. You can’t just say “the policeman dragged a plangle into the room” without telling me what a plangle looks like.
If your scene features a police officer on the streets of New York City, then the odds are good that your reader will be able to picture the scene clearly with very little description. If the scene focuses on an alien flying a spaceship into a tear in spacetime, then you might need to give a larger amount of description.
How important is the description to the story? If this is a brief scene in a setting that the story won’t return to with a character that won’t be important later, then it’s not that important that the reader picture everything absolutely perfectly. If the setting or character are central to the story, then you’ll want to spend more time on the description. Again, what is important will depend on the story: if your protagonist is going to recognize a disguised character later because of a scar on their neck, then you’ll probably want to describe the scar when we first meet the character. And for all that people have complained about the nigh-excruciating detail with which Stephanie Meyer described Edward Cullen, let’s face it: those descriptions were important to her audience.
If your reason for describing something in detail is that you really like the amazing and vivid metaphor you’ve concocted, well, too bad. That is not sufficient reason for spending a whole paragraph describing a woman’s hairstyle (or whatever). Now, that doesn’t mean you have to cut the description; give it to some friends, and let them tell you if it’s too much. Try at least ten readers with different tastes; if four or more of them tell you that it’s too much, then cut it down, no matter how much it hurts. Listen to Spock:
Focus on a few strong details: Generally, I recommend focusing on two or three details that give a clear picture of whatever you’re describing. For a very expansive scene or a completely alien and unfamiliar creature, a little more could be allowed. So for an old woman, I might focus on her long white braid, the deep creases in her dark skin, and the slight hunch in her back. Bam: three details, and you’re now picturing something close to what I am. Strong, vivid details often enable the reader to fill in the rest on their own.
Use multiple senses: When writing description, most writers tend to focus on the visual elements of a scene or a character. However, describing the sounds, smells, feel, or even taste of something can often convey a setting more quickly or more vividly than visuals. Let’s say your character wakes up in a white room that smells strongly of blood and antiseptics—your mind probably immediately jumped to a hospital or operating room, right? And the smells are probably giving you a more vivid image than if I’d simply said “your character wakes up in a hospital room.”
This can be especially effective when combined with the two-or-three-strong-details rule: the protagonist is tied to a chair in a dark and windowless room. It is cold and drafty and smells of mouse droppings. That’s three things: the lighting, the feel, and the smell of the room. I could spend more time on each of them, to make things more vivid, but the bulk of the description has been accomplished.
Don’t use two words where one will suffice: I once edited a story where a character approached a sea where “along the shore was a row of several straight wooden walkways that jutted out into the ocean, held up by thick pylons sticking up out of the water.” I edited this to say, “Along the shore was a row of wooden docks.” So that you don’t have to count for yourself, that’s nineteen fewer words. Everyone does this, at some point—I’ve done it myself. Always look for the shortest, most descriptive word possible. A white dog with extremely curly hair should be shortened to a white poodle. He didn’t swing the long black bar with a curved end, he swung the crowbar.
Work in details through action: We’ve already discussed blending action and description a bit in these posts. Paragraphs of pure description can grow tedious very quickly, but purposeful action almost never does. So if your character walks into a kitchen, you might give a brief overview of what the kitchen looks like and who is in it. Then, when your character begins conversing with one of the people in the room, you can use the conversation to give more details about the person—maybe she scrunches her nose when she’s thinking, or perhaps the scar along her arm seems to pain her as she kneads dough. Maybe she tucks a strand of brown hair out of her eye, leaving a smudge of flour on her tan forehead. The protagonist can help her cut vegetables, and you can use this action as an opportunity to describe more details—the appearance of the countertop, the vegetables, or the cutlery; the lighting, the smells. Since the details are smoothly blended into action and dialog, they don’t grow tiring.