Thursday, 2 February 2012

Drowning In Description

photo credit
Think of your favorite place described in a book. Mine is Honeydukes Sweet Shop in Harry Potter. I can still conjure images of glass jars filled with glistening magical treats; the colorful shelves and pyramids of candy displays.

But guess what? When I re-read the scene, none of what I have in my mind was actually written. What is written is a description of smells and the fantastic things the magical candy can do. We follow Harry under his invisibility cloak, breathless at the variety of wonders, wishing we could fall into the pages and sample some Fizzing Whizzbees.

Even now, reading this, you're envisioning your own version of Honeydukes. And that's okay, because we all have a slightly skewed image catered to our own ideals and life experience.

As a writer, it's easy to fall into the common mistake of putting too much description in your scenes. We want the reader to see in their mind exactly what we imagine, and we tend to overcompensate.

And why is that bad? Because loading down the page with adjective laden paragraphs slows down the pace and bores the reader.

Here's an example of bad description. Let's say I want to start my story with my main character having to spend the night in a haunted house.

photo credit waatp
The old Jefferson Mansion was a dark, rambling Victorian house on the outskirts of town. Every window was boarded up, except for those that were broken. The front porch sagged under the four pillars, now rotten and threatening to collapse. As Janice walked closer, she saw how the black paint was peeling back. She opened the door, and it protested noisily.

She paused in the foyer, taking in the staircase that curved up the wall to the first and second floor, and then eventually the attic. She approached the door to her right and gripped the rusty door knob. After jiggling the suborn handle a few times, she decided it was locked.

Across the hall, Janice found a large room with ceilings much higher than her own modern home. The furniture placed around the room, was covered in sheets. Even though it was a full moon outside, the boarded up windows hardly let in any illumination. She got out her flashlight and turned it on.

Right away something caught her attention. On the far side, approximately in the middle of the wall, was a sooty old fireplace. Janice walked closer and inspected the portrait above the mantle. It was a picture of a beautiful girl, probably the same age as Janice. She squinted and leaned closer. There was something familiar that made a shiver run down her spine.

Holy smokes, hit the snooze alarm, right?

  1. Remember your readers have a brain. Don't write the exact lay out of the haunted house. It's not the blueprints we're interested in.
  2. Write what is important for the reader to remember. Give attention to objects that foreshadow what's going to happen in your story.
  3. Have a character describe how the setting makes them feel.
  4. Use all the senses, not only visual.
  5. Dialogue creates a connection with the surroundings through your characters point of view.
Here's the same story, but with better description.
anice hugged her elbows, looking around the derelict parlour, careful not to brush against anything. The antique furniture was covered in sheets, gray and stiff with years of mildew. She made a face imagining the micro pores of mold she was taking in with each breath.

The cracked bay window was so thick with grime the full moon barely shone through. She dug into her backpack and pulled out the flashlight. Her finger paused on the switch, wishing she hadn't agreed to this stupid initiation. Being in the dark was way worse, but Janice wasn't exactly eager to see the inside of Jefferson County's 'Bloodiest Haunted House'.

She sneaked a glance through the archway to the front door, pretty sure the cheerleaders were waiting outside to make sure she didn't bolt. “Damn it,” she said. Biting her lip, Janice flicked on the light.

Her heart rose up and she swallowed it down. “This is where they film all the horror movies,” she whispered, expecting a corpse to rise from the broken floor boards. The shaky beam of light swept along the room, then stopped at the fireplace.

Resting on the mantel, in an ornate frame, a pale face smiled down at Janice. She took a few steps forward, making streaks in the dust with her sneakers. The girl in the painting looked to be around Janice's age. It was hard to tell though, since most teenagers today don't wear ball gowns and ruby necklaces. Janice stood on tip toe and squinted at the choker, wondering why it looked familiar.

See? We still get the feeling of being inside a creepy house, but we also have a clearer idea of who Janice is and why she's there. And hmm...what about that necklace?

Which scene would you want to keep reading?

How would you re-write the scene?

Next Monday I'll be blogging the latest episode of Once Upon A Time.



No One said...

Thanks. I read through a draft of mine and found that it was more description than plot. I am so precise about location etc. that I forget it's not that important!

BR Myers said...

It's a trap we all fall into. Now you can fill up those spaces with plot.


Jenny Kaczorowski said...

I have a bad habit of getting overly descriptive & flowery, so I edit with a machete. My last round of betas were all disappointed with the lack of description. Oops. Like everything, it's a balance. Fortunately, it's easier to split a few succinct bits of description back in. I think mood is more important than actual visual description and I'm trying to apply that to my current WiP. Less work later!

BR Myers said...

So true, Jenny. If you can't 'feel' a scene it doesn't resonate with the reader and ends up being dead weight. Thanks for the comment and good luck on you WIP.

Emy Shin said...

I fluctuate between under- and over describe my scenes, and am trying hard to strike the correct balance. I definitely agree with Jenny that mood is more important; it's trying to make all the descriptions count. :)

BR Myers said...

Thanks, Emily. Striking the balance is the key.

Yvonne Rediger said...

Excellent article, I'd love to share this with my writing group.

Yvonne Rediger said...

Excellent article, and too true.

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