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Description in Fantasy: Finding the Sweet Spot

We fantasy authors do have our demons, don’t we? Besides those in our stories, I mean. We’re prone to prologues and infodumps. We think a novel of 150,000 words is a little on the short side. And we roll around in description like pigs in mud.

thick-booksI totally understand why we love our long descriptions and passages rife with adverbs, adjectives, and superlatives. We want to build worlds that our readers can visualize and appreciate as much as we do. We want the world to “pop” in the reader’s mind the way it does in our own, and sometimes, language just feels woefully inadequate to carry out that task. We might also bring our writing backgrounds into our worlds. A writer of poetry might be looking to recreate that kind of lyric imagery in prose, or a journalist might overcompensate for all that time spent trimming words and watching length. And then there’s just the fact that we love using all those words. It can be dang fun to try out the thesaurus, you know?
The truth is that it’s really easy to go overboard on description. While you do want your reader to have a clear visual of your world, you also have to remember that too many descriptors can make a reader feel like he or she is wading through a swamp.

So how much is too much? And how much is enough? Well, obviously, there’s some subjectivity to it. One reader might find an author’s use of description poetic and lush, while another reader thinks the same description is heavy and painful to slog through. But with that caveat in mind, consider some of the guidelines that I believe lead to a healthy amount of description.

• Limit character descriptions. Readers actually need far less physical description than we think. Give a few lines when a characterfirst steps on stage and let the reader take it from there. You can also drop subtle reminders throughout your story. Rather than repeat that your hero is tall, show us that the heroine has to stand on tiptoes to kiss him.

• Remember to show, don’t tell—but don’t overdo it! I love this Chekhov quote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” It’s a wonderful quote because it’s true—the glint of light off broken glass tells us a lot more about the scene than “the moon was shining.” However, consider the entire scene before you dive into intense, lush descriptive passages. If you have a lot of strong, intense dialogue going on, breaking it up for the sake of some poetic description may make your tension drop off. Will putting in description mean that you sacrifice something else that’s more important at that moment?

• Replace verbs and –lyadverbs with stronger verbs. I’ve written about this one before. I’m not a complete adverb hater, but the –ly adverbs do tend to be weak descriptors, especially when overused. When you find yourself modifying a verb with an –ly adverb, see if you can find a stronger verb. For example, “he walked quickly” might be better as “he marched” or “he sprinted.” “Marched” and “sprinted” both tell us that he’s likely in a hurry, but there are different connotations to the words, and you can set the scene better with a stronger verb. Stronger verbs make better descriptors.

• Take out one adjective (or descriptor) before you declare a sentence done. When I write long, descriptive sentences, I tend to put an adjective or two before almost every noun. I’m learning, though, that descriptive words and phrases are like fashion accessories. Take the advice of Coco Chanel: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” Quite often, if I pick one noun that I want to highlight, I can eliminate most of my other adjectives, streamline my sentence, and actually make the description more vivid. Because, as Chanel also said, “less is always more.”

• Try to avoid overwriting or exaggerating. I always get tense when I hear people say, “my business just exploded.” I know what they mean—that business got really busy really fast—but I always picture widgets strewn all over the street. Make sure you aren’t using verbs or descriptions that will make skeptics and cynics raise an eyebrow and think, “really? Exploded?”

• Trust the reader. Readers are smart, and they like to use their imaginations. Your goal should be to describe your setting, people, world, magic, etc. just enough to seed the imagination. Let the reader’s mind be the soil where the world takes root and grows.

Again, this is all really subjective stuff. I think a decent starting point is to follow some of these guidelines and then read your work with a cynic’s eye. If there’s too much description for you, chances are good that there’s too much for other readers. Likewise, if your beta readers say they can’t picture something, you probably went too light on the description. Finding the right level of description for your work is tricky, but when you hit that “sweet spot,” you’ll know it.
Next week, some guidelines for writing flashbacks.

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20 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Fantastic! Thank you so much for this article Amy – Description is something I’ve really struggled with… especially description of setting. Often I wonder what I should and shouldn’t say… How to make the scenery sound beautiful or real and yet not dwell on it. This article will really help and I think I’ve taken a lot away from it – I guess we’ll see later when I sit down to work on my latest creative piece 😉

    • I struggle with describing setting, too, for all the same reasons you noted. There’s such a fine line between lush, vivid description and flowery, overwritten description. I think it’s part of finding your voice. You just have to play around to see what feels “just right.” 🙂

  2. Absolutely fantastic and definitely an advisable read for writers who aren’t too sure on using description to the best effect.

  3. Avatar Louise says:

    Sometimes I think that it’s what is left unsaid that can speak more than the author’s description. No matter how hard they try, a reader will never be able to imagine exactly what the author imagines, but therein lies the beauty of interpretation. By filling in the blanks it pulls the reader in to a world that has been created not only by the author but also, in part, by themselves.

    I wrote a story once that was so heavy on description it went beyond the ridiculous. I described nearly every room my characters went into and what kind of furnishings they had. I re-read parts of it not so long ago and found myself cringing at just how bloated and stodgy it was. This is a great article and I think really crucial in all forms of writing. To overuse an old phrase, “less is indeed more.”

    • I absolutely agree, Louise. In fact, I think it’s the writer’s *responsibility* to seed the imagination that was to the best of his/her ability. We should never rob readers of the pleasure of envisioning our worlds on their own. 🙂

      Amy

  4. I saw the Terry Brooks novels in the picture above. Now those are some thick books. I managed to dig my way through only one of those and I was done.

  5. […] Fantasy Faction (Amy Rose Davis) on Description in Fantasy: Finding the Sweet Spot. […]

  6. Avatar Anne Lyle says:

    I guess fantasy’s tendency towards excessive description derives from the fact that we’re setting our stories in a world the reader will never see. It’s easy to write a tight, 70k thriller set in modern-day London; 16th-century London, not so much!

    However it’s worth remembering that today’s readers have a wealth of visual “reference material” tucked away in their brains that previous generations lacked. I’m sure a good percentage of my readers will have seen “The Tudors”, “Elizabeth” or “Shakespeare in Love” and therefore don’t need detailed descriptions of Elizabethan costume or buildings.

    I try to go for just one key detail in a scene, rather than a huge paragraph of prose. I’ve just written a scene in which a character walks across Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, and rather than describe the whole basilica, I just had him notice the gilded angels on the top edge of the facade, catching the last light of the setting sun (the basilica faces west). As you say, let the reader fill in the rest with their imaginations 🙂

    • Anne, I thought of something very similar when I was writing this. In today’s world where people are bombarded and inundated with visual media, chances are pretty good that readers will bring a LOT of “reference material” to anything they read. If you’ve seen LOTR or HBO’s Game of Thrones, you can probably come up with some pretty visually stunning images of a Medieval world, for example.

      I think going for one key detail is brilliant. You also give yourself a chance to build character and even plant plot clues that way.

      Thanks for your comment!

  7. I believe the real issue isn’t so much the desire to describe everything, it is the lack of faith the reader isn’t seeing it the way you do. Sometimes your reader is intelligent enough to see it, sometimes they see it better than you do. It is easy to forget that the readers can have overactive imaginations. As long as you leave a breadcrumb trail, you should be able to have them explore the scene in their mind with minimal description.

    Great article though, glad you shared this with us.

  8. […] almost always have roots in folklore. Speaking of fantasy, Amy Rose Davis explains how to find that sweet spot of description in fantasy—and her suggestions can be used in any […]

  9. Avatar L.S. Taylor says:

    Oh, this is wonderful. Description is something I quite often struggle with, but I like how you’ve laid this out. This is exactly what I needed to read to help me get into the headspace I want to be in. Thank you.

  10. Trust your readers… is a great mantra to keep in mind. I think the idea that many genres have ‘assumed knowledge’ to rely on, makes Fantasy authors more likely to want to use flowery descriptions. Recently I put down a Fantasy novel because every noun had been given at least two adjectives. The beat of each sentence became over burdened by the unnecessary descriptions. Your article is so vital to read and understand. Finding the fine line is essential to improving our writing. Thanks Amy Rose, this is another keeper!!

    • Rosalie, thanks for the kind words. 🙂 I think you’re totally right about the beat of the sentence being overburdened when there’s too much description. That’s where reading out loud can help, I think. I know I notice a lot more of my unnecessary descriptors when I read out loud!

  11. […] Description in Fantasy: Finding the Sweet Spot […]

  12. […] Finally, author Amy Rose Davis talks about Finding the Sweet Spot for Description in Fantasy Writing. […]

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