To celebrate the launch of my new editing venture, I’m writing a new series of blog posts that take us back to basics. These are the fundamentals of writing, the things you need to know before you’re ready to publish.
For many new writers, and even some experienced writers, description is the bane of their existence. I’m afraid that our English teachers in school didn’t help when they encouraged us to spend a thousand words describing the ceiling. They meant well, and the exercise is not without merit, but seriously, who wants to read a thousand words about the ceiling?
Well, I don’t know … Is it the Sistine Chapel? Are there blood stains on it? Is a ghost floating around up there? Is the ceiling not actually there at all? Has there been a sudden reversal of ground and sky?
What I’m getting at is the key to description. The key to many aspects of writing, for that matter.
Description is challenging to new authors for a variety of reasons. For me, it was the fact that I thought it was utterly boring and usually skimmed through it in the books I read, so I wasn’t that thrilled about writing it into my own books. I’m not at all alone in that attitude. For others, for authors who love the art of turning pictures into words, the challenge is wordiness, pacing, and inflicting boredom on readers. Description is something that tends to turn authors into minimalists or maximalists, and you can get some heated debate over which approach is “right” and which is “wrong.”
There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only personal taste and relevance.
In other words, as long as what you are describing is meaningful to your story in some way, then it is up to you, the author, to tell us just enough or to truly create a canvas of words. The risk you run with the “just enough” approach is that the reader will fill in details that you leave out from his/her own experience. The risk you run with the “canvas” approach is that some readers will skim those paragraphs. As a mature writer, I tend to try to split the difference, to aim for the middle, but always with a keen focus on the relevance of every word I write.
As an editor, your personal preference is my top priority, but I will guide you with the concept of relevance in mind. For wordy writers, this means that I might steer you away from describing every last item in a room that turns out to have no bearing on either character or plot. For minimalists, this might mean that I ask you to add description of important people, places, or things that I have trouble imagining without some guidance.
Concerns over quantity of description should always take a backseat to the quality of description. I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to bring in your five senses, and that’s true. You should absolutely do that. But the best description does more than share sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches.
The best descriptive sentences move the story.
Wait … doesn’t description slow the story down or even stop it while you provide some relevant scene setting? Sadly, the answer to that question is often yes. This is why I skimmed so much of it as a child and why it took so many years for me to appreciate the wonderful power of a descriptive sentence to do more than one thing, to be more than superficial. Because the truth is, description can do more than BE relevant, it can ADD relevance.
Let me give you an example:
The green chair stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.
This sentence does a lot to show you the scene. It even does it in the active voice, avoiding being and other passive phrasing. You now know something about the chair, and even what time of day it is. But is that all this sentence can do? Is there any other way in which that moment can mean more? Do more?
Lisa’s favorite green chair stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.
Hmmm … I changed “the” to “Lisa’s favorite” and look what happened …. now you know something about a character too! What else can we do?
Lisa’s favorite green chair, faded and worn from decades of use and abuse, stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.
Okay, now we have a bit of history … the history of Lisa and the chair. But I feel like we can take it one step further, to really connect this chair to this person and more, to whatever story is happening around her. Even assuming that I care about Lisa in some way, based on whatever has come before now in the story, right now the chair is nothing more than a prop in her environment.
Lisa’s favorite green chair, faded and worn from decades of use and abuse, stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window. What would happen to that chair tomorrow, when she left her home forever to live out her days in a nursing home? Would one of her kids take it, or would they throw it away like some useless relic that had lived beyond its usefulness?
Now, finally, we have description connected to story, interwoven so tightly that either one without the other would be incomplete. That chair is more than a chair now, it is a symbol of Lisa’s own fears about her future. If you chose, you could go room by room, showing more memories and deepening that emotional bond between Lisa and everything she’s leaving behind. It’s not absolutely necessary, because you’ve already said a lot, but you could. The bigger point is that you make magic happen when your words do double or even triple duty.
Good description stems from relevance; great description creates relevance.