This is one of those hugely debated topics with no right answers, only taste buds. A lot of writers have issues when it comes to this part of receiving feedback.
My advice when it comes to that aspect of it, do what you think is best for your story. There will always be someone that believes the descriptions are too much or too little. Unless it feeds into a greater problem in your book, or all of your readers notice something is wrong. Chances are there will be someone out there that agrees with and loves your style.
The following article is full of my opinions on the subject and if anyone disagrees or wants to add anything feel free. I am not claiming to be right. What I like, someone else may not.
The things that I have noticed that bother me while I’m beta reading:
I like it when an author assumes I’m blind and describes any new elements in the world or characters that I need to be familiar with. Personally, I don’t like lengthy descriptions. I usually call that “pulling a Dickens”.
The number of candle sticks or clouds in the sky isn’t what I’m looking for as a reader. (Some do look for that). I tend to like things a bit minimal unless it has relevance to the story.
If there is a new character, what is something that will always remind me of who he/she is? If we are living in a castle, is it big or small?
A few sentences are enough for me, but I still need those few. If something is introduced treat it like a dinner party, “This is a castle. It has towering stone walls and minimal defenses.” (Okay, maybe not that basic but I hope you get my drift)
Let me introduce a couple of categories that I’ve found helped me in the past when I’m stuck in description nightmare territory.
During the Action
A trick that I use in my own writing when I need to describe things is placing description in the middle of the action.
“Roger’s bulky frame blotted out the light overhead as he moved forward to shake my hand.”
We learned a few things:
- Roger is taller than the protagonist, tall enough to block the light
- He’s bulky
- He’s polite enough to shake your hand
- The protagonist finds him intimidating even with the hand shaking
Or for a scene, we’ll keep using a castle because I’m in that mood I guess:
“We scaled the high castle walls carefully because the stones were beginning to crumble. I focused on the climb without fear because we had known that sentries hadn’t been posted there for years.”
We learned a few things in those few sentences:
- It’s old and falling apart
- It’s big
- It’s unguarded
- The character isn’t afraid of climbing the wall to begin with except for the crumbling bit maybe
Using Atmospheric Conditions to Demonstrate a Character’s Mood
“Jennifer felt the strenuous climb in her bones and the cold rain soaking through her clothes made the frustration that much greater.”
What we learn:
- The climb is difficult
- Her joints are tired
- It’s cold and raining this would definitely affect my characters emotional disposition given the scene she is in.
- She is tired of doing this
Just like anything else in a book the description doesn’t have to be a huge wall of text (unless you’re into that, there are plenty of people that are).
The Magic of Dialogue
Another place where it’s easy to inject descriptions to make them feel a bit more organic to the style, dialogue.
What comes out of a character’s mouth can say volumes about him. So can internal dialogue moments. But there are other useful ways to use dialogue to help your descriptions:
“Dude! You need to get out of the system before it swallows you whole.” said Doug, wearing a distressed American flag t-shirt and drinking out of a mug proclaiming ‘I SAW THE MAN ON THE GRASSY KNOLL’. His long, fine hair dreading at the ends making the original blond almost indistinguishable.
- He talks like a hippy maybe
- He’s a conspiracy theorist type
- He isn’t very clean
- These thoughts dominate his life if he has all that stuff.
Those couple of sentences after the dialogue speaks volumes more about the character than only his words. And the reader, will naturally make leaps and create a whole person based on their experiences with a guy like this. I chose a controversial stereotype to illustrate this point in a louder way.
“Dude! You need to get out of the system before it swallows you whole.” Doug said as I looked around his room at posters with various JFK conspiracy themes with dirty clothes were strewn across the floor.
It still illustrates the same characteristics of Doug but instead using his environment to paint a picture of him.
What about when it isn’t someone’s room? Let’s move our attention away from Doug for a moment and try a new fantasy filled example.
“Look over there. Wow! It’s a dragon. I can’t believe those really exist.” Moira yelled over the wind drowning out her voice in the box of the air balloon. Her brown eyes widened as the gigantic yellow creature turned to her and smiled.
I know you wouldn’t want an air balloon near a dragon but I’m having fun!
- Moira has brown eyes, excited, possibly even innocent or young
- She’s in an air balloon (that the writer doesn’t have as a pivotal thing)
- There is a yellow dragon
- She’s from a world where dragon’s don’t fly everywhere
- Dragons in this world smile
And a host of other things that the reader infers from their experiences with dragons.
My example is explaining technology (this can apply to any kind of world building element).
“The Zephyr wasn’t always space ready. During it’s first phase of development, this cigar shaped ship was solely used for commercial flights on Mars.” Dr. Trevors told the pilot with a pompous air about him.
Introducing a character that’s an expert on an element of the world is a great way to have a tour guide without bothering the reader with lengthy descriptions. Since the other examples I stated above show how you can develop a character easily with dialogue it can be like killing two birds with one stone.
Creating descriptions that are woven throughout the action and dialogue, in my opinion, makes a more dynamic and fluid story for the reader. Plus, it’s my favorite way of writing description because it makes the world in the readers mind more vivid.
It’s also really fun.
In the end, it’s your opinion that matters. Write the book you want to read. Just remember that the reader can’t always see everything that you can.
If anyone has any questions or suggestions for any situation that I haven’t covered, leave them in the comments. This is a great subject for me and I would love to make it a Part II.
This is the fifth installment of my “Story Elements” series. If this advice was interesting for you feel free to check out some of my other posts for story element advice: