Descriptions Do More than Describe in Fiction

Stormy Day Clark Fork 2013“It was a dark and stormy night …” That most cliched beginning to a novel is used to warn novice writers about the dangers of boring descriptions. And yet, I see problems with descriptions pop up again and again in fiction I help edit. Here are the typical problems I see.

Overly done descriptions with no connection to the point of view character: These usually occur with my older clients. Like me, they grew up in the era when readers seemed to have longer attention spans, and a long description was tolerable. Those descriptions also tended to be more flowery and wordy. But, still, in the gifted hands of an author like Pasternak, you might get:

Beyond the window there was no road, no cemetery, no kitchen garden. A blizzard was raging outside; the air was smoky with snow. One might have thought the storm noticed Yura and, knowing how frightening it was, reveled in the impression it made on him. ~Dr. Zhivago.

And it goes on for several more sentences from there. In the hands of a novice, however, the same description may thud onto the page:

There was nothing but snow outside. Everything else had disappeared. There were thousand of flakes going toward the window. The howling wind made Yura frightened.

(Okay, I exaggerated, but you get the picture.) There is no emotion and no connection to the point of view (POV) character, Yura, in the second description.

No description: This occurs more often with my younger writers. The reader follows the characters from place to place without really knowing where they are.

Overuse of “There was …”: This is a common problem, particularly with clients who aren’t used to being emotional in real life. When I worked for IBM, I took a leadership class. We were asked to right a description of the room.

I gave them “soft gray walls … uncomfortable chairs …” The majority had things like “There are four walls and thirty-six chairs.”¬† If you fall into the second category, you are going to need to learn to flex that emotional muscle.

A Description Must …

  1. Entertain. Don’t write boring descriptions. You will lose your reader.
  2. Perform a function: It can set your reader in time and place, provide mood, or describe a character¬† It doesn’t have to be a lot of detail, but it has to be there at least some of the time.
  3. Not be too detailed: Leave the reader some room to insert their own details. This generally enhances the reading experience.
  4. Ideally, tell you something about your POV character. This can be optional, especially for the brief setting, e.g. “The following Tuesday morning was a crisp and clear Montana day.” But if I added something like “perfect to play hooky and ride Misty to the mountains,” you know something about the character.

The author Robert Parker was gifted at using brief and telling descriptions. The following description of a person is given by Spenser, who let’s face it, never saw a woman he didn’t make a comment about. Rita is a long-term character in the series. To my mind, this short description does a lot of heavy lifting–a description of Rita, a sense of Spenser, and an idea of their relationship.

She sat on the edge of her desk in front of me, her thick red hair gleaming. She had on a black suit with a very short skirt. Rita knew her legs were good.

Improving your Descriptions

If you want to improve your descriptions, here are a few suggestions:

  • Pay attention to descriptions when you read. Too often we skim over them.
  • Check your own descriptions to see if they meet the criteria above.
  • Check out Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively. This book and its exercises helps flex the descriptive muscle.

Happy Writing!


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