Thursday, July 5, 2012

Description in Fiction

Write to Live

Welcome if you've just joined me recently. Hope you had a great 4th of July - yes, these newsletters are written in real time!

Y'know, the Internet is so distracting it's hard to make that shift sometimes. The shift that says, "Now I must start writing!"

I'm an hour late with this newsletter today because I had so many 'digital/social things to do' before I could begin. 

Ah well. Onward...

Lots of my famous writing resources here:

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell


Description in Fiction

 Rob Parnell

Is description in fiction a good thing?

I get a lot of emails from my cherished subscribers asking about description - anything from 'how does one do it?' to 'how does one stop doing it?'

We live in a busy world - different from the past when, before TV and the Internet, we had hours to soak up and enjoy writers who knew how to take us out of ourselves using long, long descriptive passages about the weather, the countryside and the buildings that housed the characters in a story.

Many new writers assume that there's some prowess involved in being able to use description effectively - and indeed there is. But these days, it's just as much about economy of wordage as the effective use of adjectives, nouns and descriptors.

A short paragraph is all that is really needed to 'set the scene' in these helter skelter times. The shorter the better. Plus, wherever possible - as in always! - scenes should be described through the eyes of the character, never through the eyes of the author.

If you find yourself locked into writing endless pages of long descriptive passages, you've probably lost focus on the story - which is really the only thing the reader is interested in.

Only writers are impressed with lots of description I've found.

Readers prefer dialog, action and, if anything, lots of internal monologues where the protagonist is weighing up the implications of particular plot points.

Static description is rare in fiction these days. So, when new writers ask me how they can improve in this area, my advice is the same.

Keep it simple.

Assume that your reader already knows what most things look like - even far off cities and foreign lands. Let the reader guess the minutiae from your shorthand. Let them feel the impact of your landscape through the main character who, logically, would feel no need to describe everything that is familiar.

Focus on what the protagonist would notice as extraordinary - and you'll be much more likely to satisfy your reader.

Of course, if you're writing about an imaginary landscape, you may feel the need to describe more - but really the same advice is valid.

Even an alien in a topsy turvy world would not feel the need to describe something it regarded as normal.

You need to find a balance.

But what if you're not good at description at all?

Hemingway once said you should never try to do things you're not good at because the reader would guess that you weren't playing to your strengths.

Hence, if you're not good at description, don't do it. Do what you are good at. Write your own way. Be unique, instead of beating yourself up over trying to be like someone else!

If you have a burning need to improve your description writing, there are some ways to do it.

For a month write nothing else.

Describe everything around you, either in your head or in words on a page. Get used to using all six senses when describing, say, a lamp or a kettle or a pet.

Write a paragraph about something you see every day. When you're on holiday, sit on one spot and describe everything you see - fill up a couple of pages of pure description: the sky, the land, your tabletop and the sounds, the smells and the sense of everything you see and feel.

A month of doing this daily will give you a feel for how you construct description - your particular style. Get to know your 'lyrical' self.


Leave your descriptive passages to mature for a couple of months and come back to them later. See if you can't edit out 90% of what you've written. Distill down the words into the essence of what you're trying to describe.

The musicality of your word use is much less important than what you're trying to convey. Don't fall in love with your sentences - as many writers do. Just see them as lumpy clay that needs remolding into something more beautiful, more pertinent.

Less is more when it comes to description.

Too much - more than a sentence or two - and you're getting into exposition anyway - as in, stating the obvious or overly guiding your reader into a point of view that you need to justify rather than merely show.

Good writers should never need to justify or explain their work, especially to the reader - and never to a critic, either.

As long as you care about your work - and can see your own shortcomings and are determined to fix them, you're doing the right thing.

If everybody wrote the same way, if there was just one right way to do things, then they'd have gotten computers to write stories by now!

My greatest respect goes out to writers who are obsessed with perfecting their personal style and worry chiefly about clarity.

Writers like Dennis Lehane and Stuart MacBride are modern, some would say gritty and confronting, but their messages are clear, easy to read and compelling. In private they admit they agonize over their words  - but you'd never know it when you read their stories.

That's the trick: to aspire to apparent effortlessness. And to do so your way.

So when YOU think there's too much description or it's not very good, you're probably right!

I always say that when you read your work to a critique group and receive feedback, no other writer should be able to say something you haven't already considered, at least four or five times.

If you're not giving your own work that degree of consideration before you release it to the world, you're not doing your own work justice.

Go ahead, try to be the best description writer you can be - but know your limitations.

Because, if you get bored or frustrated over your descriptive passages, so will, in all likelihood, your reader.

Edit out your weaknesses and play to your strengths, whatever they are.

Remember that readers - and editors, agents and publishers - prefer honesty and clarity of vision to anything else.

Plus technical proficiency of course!

It's better to focus on spelling, grammar and clarity as a primary concern - and let the other stuff take care of itself - as it will with practice - over time.

Keep writing!
 rob at home

““I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork.”
Peter De Vries
Post a Comment

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!