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Author Topic: To Describe or Not To Describe  (Read 3977 times)

Offline Bradley Darewood

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To Describe or Not To Describe
« on: July 13, 2015, 12:14:02 AM »

So, I've written a novel and I've had a ton of fellow writers beta-read it for me, and so far they've tended to prefer sparse description.  But I had my first "real person" beta-reader recently and he said I don't describe things enough.  I started thinking back to some of my favorite fantasy novels (yes, I like Robert Jordan) and the dude describes the hell out of everything. 

So what's your take?  Do the basics: quick and dirty location and set up the character a tiny bit and leave it to the reader's imagination?  Or set the scene in intricate detail and describe your characters physical appearance with precision?

Offline Doctor_Chill

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #1 on: July 13, 2015, 12:17:52 AM »
I never like to describe the physical descriptions down to the nitty gritty. Never. But then, I don't write Epic Fantasy.

My rule of thumb is to have flavor over detail. Describe something by the precision of the words, not by the number of sentences.
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Offline Raptori

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #2 on: July 13, 2015, 12:36:19 AM »
I like description that is short yet vivid. Too little and I have little chance of picturing things as the writer intended, too much and I have trouble picturing it at all.
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #3 on: July 13, 2015, 01:52:49 AM »
Personally, I don't think the level of detail in your description is as important as the mood that description sets, and what that description says about the scene, or the characters involved. For example, if you're writing in a limited third person and the character is very analytical, heavy detail would make sense, as it ties in with who that character is as a person. On the other hand, a character who is flighty and terse, might have sparse descriptions. In a bitter scene, your character might notice only the most negative aspects of what's around them. In a happy scene, they might appreciate the beauty around them.

Tie in to emotion, and what the character, and the scene are supposed to convey, and I think your readers are more likely to be swept in by the prose, and the mood it sets, than they are to focus on whether it's too sparse or too wordy.

In other words, I don't think you should have a template for description, but rather, match the amount of description to the specific instance, just as you would manipulate your sentence structure to short, biting sentences in order to build tension in a scene that is supposed to be quick, and jolty.
« Last Edit: July 13, 2015, 02:04:14 AM by Justan Henner »

Offline Elfy

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #4 on: July 13, 2015, 02:09:08 AM »
I think the trick is finding a happy medium between the two. In my opinion Jordan over described everything, he started off with fantastic detailed and vivid descriptions that really did bring the world to life, then he went too far. It got to the point in later books where not only did I know the style and type of dress a character was wearing, I knew the names of the seamstresses who sewed it, the people who made the cloth and the individual silkworms that wove the material in the first place. It also depends on your setting. If it's totally new and alien to the readers, then they need more description so that they can see what you do. If it's likely to be familiar then it doesn't need to be as complete. It also depends on what you're describing: a place, a person, a thing. I'm rereading The Lies of Locke Lamora at present and Lynch often drops in these great descriptions that give you a real sense of what he's talking about. He described an officious woman as being shaped something like a sack of potatoes, but perhaps not quite as warm or sympathetic. Now there's not a lot of words there, but it is a great description of a minor character. The reader knows what she looks like and largely how emotionless she is, so he's given both a physical and internal character description in one line.

Offline jefGoelz

Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #5 on: July 13, 2015, 03:16:29 AM »
Don't bore the reader.  If you can keep the reader's attention for a three-page description of a cat on a windowsill, do so.  I can't.

Offline Bradley Darewood

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #6 on: July 13, 2015, 06:06:19 AM »
This is all really great advice!

Offline tebakutis

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #7 on: July 13, 2015, 07:59:39 PM »
Quote
So what's your take?  Do the basics: quick and dirty location and set up the character a tiny bit and leave it to the reader's imagination?  Or set the scene in intricate detail and describe your characters physical appearance with precision?

Man, I hate to give you this answer, but I don't think you will ever please everyone. Some readers really enjoy detailed explanations of your world and everything in it, while others (sadly, I'm often among them) just want to get back to the action and dialogue as quickly as possible. It's *really* tough to find a balance, and something I constantly struggle with.

For my two cents, here's my advice in a few rules:

1) If the reader knows what is is, don't describe it. A reader knows what a sword looks like. Unless it's a glowing sword (in which case, say that!) cut any description of basic objects that readers have visuals for already.
2) Give readers descriptions of new or unfamiliar objects, but find the BEST details and ONLY those details.
3) Limit descriptions of anything to a single paragraph (three sentences) - rule of thumb.
4) Use all the senses - don't double up (e.g. give a visual, and a smell, and a touch, not three visuals)
5) If you have to break Rule 3, use dialogue and action to space out your descriptions, and *only* give each description when it's pertinent. E.g. describe a door's exterior when the POV character approaches, have them say something, then describe the unusual handle when they touch it. Split it up.

 I think the key to describing things in ways that don't bore action-oriented readers but satisfy readers who really want to see the world is to use sparse but memorable details and spread them out. And give those details at the absolute last moment the reader needs them to visualize the scene.

(Very rough) example below. This is probably terrible, but it demonstrates what I'm suggesting. :)


The corporate time machine was a tall gray cylinder with an oval window looking into its hollow center. Its steady thrum rose and felt like a heartbeat. When Joe grabbed the handle, it was cold to the touch.

"We're really not supposed to use this without authorization," Joe said, glancing back at Bob and his serious frown, "but hell. If it's for science..."

"Not science." Bob hurried forward and peered through the oval window. "We're going to stop a murder. We'll be heroes, won't we?"

"That, or in jail."

Joe turned the handle and freezing air burst from the manifolds attached to the top of the cylinder. Fresh ice crackled along the long black power hose wired into the ceiling. Joe felt goosebumps on his arms.


So, just some things to call out:
The first description of the time machine uses a visual, a sound, and a touch. Rather than three visual details.

I could have gone on to describe the vents on top, black pipe, and power converter immediately after, but I put some action/story advancement between both paragraphs of details, only describing the steam manifolds when they're actually doing something (shooting steam).

Like I said, very rough example, but hopefully this gives you some food for thought?




Offline Nora

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #8 on: July 14, 2015, 01:23:49 AM »
@tebakutis, haha, can't see the problem in your answer. It's the diversity of taste in readers that makes us all potential writers of our own genre.
When we say "write what you like to read" it's because we all assume that there are some people out there who like to read what we enjoy too.

I personally enjoy a fair amount of non-described things, even though they're new. I like to drop in hints, let the reader picture it the way they want, now that they know the use of it, or worse barely hint at what the thing used to do, but drop how critical it was and what it vaguely looks like...
This can work really well.. Not always, but I generally like keeping things a bit odd and mysterious. People who read SF/F have a good imagination.

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Offline tebakutis

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #9 on: July 14, 2015, 07:07:24 PM »
Quote
I personally enjoy a fair amount of non-described things, even though they're new. I like to drop in hints, let the reader picture it the way they want, now that they know the use of it, or worse barely hint at what the thing used to do, but drop how critical it was and what it vaguely looks like...
This can work really well.. Not always, but I generally like keeping things a bit odd and mysterious. People who read SF/F have a good imagination.

You're right, @Nora, this can actually work really well, especially when it's done in a way that's tantalizing, rather than confusing.

I find it works especially well in sci-fi (and cyberpunk) when a writer just casually mentions this super cool technology or gadget (or lets the reader see a glimpse of it) and the story moves right on. As a reader, you're left thinking "Wait? What was that thing? Go back to that thing!" and the writer will continue to tease out more details about it (some writers also call this the "iceberg" method) where you basically only see the tip of some awesome concept hidden beneath the ocean.

When you do this type of description right, you're using your descriptions of the world just like you'd use dialogue or action, building them up over time and keeping the reader reading to find out what happens next (or what next detail is revealed). So it's a good technique to mention.

Offline asabo

Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #10 on: July 14, 2015, 08:47:36 PM »
I'd like to throw in my 2 cents by saying the description should be flavored by the character. Joe might see a restaurant as a homey café that makes his favorite dish. Sue may see the same place as a greasy spoon with faded plastic flowers on the table and sticky floors in the ladies room. A cop or an accountant, warrior or royalty will all have their own unique take on something.

Seeing through the character's eyes makes it more interesting. Sue's bloodshot eyes might make Joe worry she'd been out late with another guy, but might tell Mary that Sue's mother is sick again. You can use description to drop backstory breadcrumbs, too. Maybe Sue's bloodshot eyes tells Bob that she's drinking again. Which gives the reader a new take on Mary in one sentence.
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Offline NinjaRaptor

Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #11 on: July 23, 2015, 10:07:49 PM »
I certainly consider myself on the descriptive side. I'm a visual thinker by nature, so I like to share with readers what's playing like a movie inside my imagination. But whenever possible I try to weave it into the story or what the characters are observing to keep the pace going. And I agree with another comment that short, clear, and potent is optimal for any descriptor.

When it comes to characters, I most commonly describe their physique, racial characteristics, clothing, and maybe weapons they're carrying. I believe these details can help establish the setting, who the characters are, and what they do in the readers' mind. A big white guy with blond hair, wolf-skin clothes, and a broadsword is likely a "barbarian" warrior from the northern hinterlands. And a svelte black woman with glittering jewelry, a colorful linen or cotton dress, and a crown suggests the beautiful ruler of an African empire.

As for setting, I often describe the architecture in urban or artificial settings. Mudbrick castles with jagged parapets and rows of wooden posts imply West Africa, grand limestone temples with columned halls and hieroglyphs are Egyptian, and timber longhouses in a conifer forest are Norse. Descriptions of natural environments may invoke sights, ambient sounds (e.g. jungle birds or desert winds), and temperature.

Description for me is an integral part of setting the mood and establishing characters. But it can slow the story down if you cram too much into any single moment.
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Offline Lady Ty

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Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #12 on: July 24, 2015, 03:35:54 AM »

My rule of thumb is to have flavor over detail. Describe something by the precision of the words, not by the number of sentences.

Although Fantasy is my favourite reading choice, I read widely and think this is best possible advice. Many modern authors do not seem to have heard of a thesaurus, which can always give you the one perfect descriptive word, rather than  long sentences of everyday adjectives and adverbs.
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Offline K.S. Crooks

Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #13 on: August 08, 2015, 12:42:02 AM »
For me the challenge is remembering that other people cannot automatically see what I imagine. To combat this I like to give a lot of detail about things that a person's senses would catch right away- the colours, smells, "feel" of a place. I like to provide the spice to go with the meat and potatoes of a scene or character.
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Offline night_wrtr

Re: To Describe or Not To Describe
« Reply #14 on: August 08, 2015, 01:29:12 AM »
Call me crazy, but I enjoyed Robert Jordan's description. Like mentioned above, its hard to please everyone. The wierd part is that I tend to limit description in my own writing. I vote for adding as much as necessary to show the scene as you imagine it, but still allowing the reader to find their own way. Look up the pyramid of abstraction sometime. Tons of discussion about the tug o war between abstract and concrete description.