Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Reader's Imagination

For not having written anything on WIP #1 since June 30th, I think I've made some great progress. I've received  three full-novel critiques back and, while it needs work, the results have been very positive and encouraging. In fact, I was so elated yesterday at work that I had a hard time concentrating on the matter at hand--getting ready for the candidate orientation. I'm well into the municipal election season, and things are getting crazy at work. Not a time to make mistakes because I'm distracted; those kinds of mistakes can get me sued. *sigh*

But an issue I've been trying to deal with in my tale (and is something others have raised as an issue) comes down to how much I should leave to the reader's imagination. I've mentioned before that I suck at description. I'm learning, and I think I'm getting (a little) better, but it will never be my strong point. It's hard to describe something that your mind's eye doesn't really look at.

How to explain it better. My stepmother was wonderful at creating silk and dried flower arrangements. She could just grab a little of this and a little of that and in minutes have this beautiful creation. I realized I had a problem the first time I went to a flower display, walked around looking at different kinds of flowers for nearly an hour, and then left the store empty handed. The lovely creations that popped in my stepmother's mind were on vacation in mine.

Or maybe retirement, since they still don't show up for me.

I like to leave some things to the imagination of the reader. I will describe my characters somewhat, but I don't want to say too much. I like the reader to be able to fill in the blanks, so to speak. I read somewhere that one of the reasons the Bella character in the Twilight series is so popular is because it's possible for the young girls reading the book to superimpose themselves on her, to be Bella. I'm completely good with that. I just don't know if I'm good AT it.

I'm struggling right now with how much description to put into the physical, romantic elements in the story. I don't want my story to be a substitute for an aphrodisiac--unless it's the readers' own internal thoughts that are taking them there. If the readers prefer an image of a more chaste relationship, I want them to have that option as well. I just hope the creative juices for this aren't on vacation, when I start working on it in August.

How do you approach your description? Do you prefer more or less?


  1. I'm with you Donna. I think some basic things you have to leave to the imagination and some others you are better off discribing. The odd thing is that sometimes (like Bella Swan) it works to basically say she had brown hair and brown eyes and leave it at that. While describing in more detail another character that is lesser (like a bad guy, because you want the reader to see how ugly and smelly and crooked his teeth are). Charles Dickens did this and his characters are my favorite! I actually re-read him all the time, just so I can study this about him!
    S.B. Niccum
    Author Website
    Author Blog
    Chicks In Lit Blog

  2. I like less description and more dialogue. Dialogue moves the story more. Also, you can sprinkle description and action around it. That's my favorite way of doing it. Less is more.

  3. This is my problem too. I tend to skip a lot of heavy description when I read, so when I write I leave a lot of it out as well. I've been busted twice by agents now for not having enough details to fully illustrate the world of my novel. So...I suppose I gotta get over my aversion to lengthy description. Blah.

  4. Hi Donna!

    I'm with L.G. Smith. When I read, if I see big chunks of words, with no quotations, I skip over them. If I find that I'm confused, I'll pop back and see what I missed.

    I think we have to give them just enough to get them on 'the right page' as us (haha), but let there imaginations take them from there.

    I've had a few critiques on my manuscript, and overall the balance seems good. I'll be interesting to see if others who read it feel the same.

    Great post!

    Today's Post: Am I Cut Out for This? How do I Balance it all?

  5. I love description. I think it rounds out a story, but it needs to be concise so people don't skip it.

    Your mother's flower arrangement has inspired me. I'm going to post a more in depth answer to your question on my blog today.

  6. When it comes to romance, for me, less is more. I love the touch of his hand against the small of her back, the thoughtful way he brings her a glass of water without asking, the private intimate moments that are filled with laughter and sharing secrets.
    That being said, I love descriptions in writing. The more the better, but not everyone feels this way, so it's good to find a balance. I think you're finding yours!

  7. I'm a dialogue gal myself and sometimes I get really carried away, then someone reads it and asks, where is this happening, oops. Maybe I should go write a script instead, lol :)

  8. This is a great post, Donna! Very thought provoking.

    I think I'm in the same camp as the others on this one. To me, "negative space" is the way to go.

    Let a character's dialogue, actions, etc. carry the moment. An author risks condescending to his or her readers if too much is revealed.

    Let the spice make the dish.

  9. I wish I had more imagination as I'm sure it would benefit my poetry writing, I write on actual things that happen in my life, not much imagination there.


  10. I prefer a happy medium of description, enough to add to the scene but not so much it bogs it down. :) I do like the dialogue and action to carry a lot.

  11. I just started reading a book called Word Painting, which is all about description. So far, the best insight I'm getting from it is that description should do double duty. It should show what is around but also tell us something about the character or move the plot. I'm anxious to find out more good ideas from it. Thanks for the post.

  12. I have the same problem you do with description. I cannot see it in my mind's eye which is why I generally don't write fiction.

  13. Draft after draft, I'm getting this exact criticism. I need more description. What does this look like? I can't see your world. Can't you describe what he looks like? What he's wearing?

    Truth is, I normally skip the descriptive parts of books while I'm reading. Skipping is hard for me as a general principle, but when I realize I've been staring at the same paragraph for 10 minutes, if I don't force myself to skim/skip, I'll never get back to the good stuff!

    So why would I write boring stuff into my book? Any tips on making description interesting?

    (Also, if I don't care what a character looks like or is wearing, why should anyone else? Are we here for the pretty pictures or for the story?? *grumblegrumble*)

    :)*Is having a bad-attitude day*

  14. I do like description, but not too much that I start to skim over the words. You know what I mean? It's a delicate balance I think. Add enough to pull the reader in, but don't drag everything out so you have pages and pages of description and no story. ;)

  15. I think it depends on the story.

    Or, more accurately, I think I like short stories to have more description and novels to have less.

    I'm more likely to want to superimpose myself or my own thoughts onto a character when I'm sticking with him/her for an extended period of time.

  16. I think the object is to give the reader a glimpse, not paint them the whole damn picture.

    20 years ago, when I read romance novels, I used to skip over the long-winded sex scenes, of where the characters hands were, and what parts were throbbing or what have you because, not only did I find that embarrassing, but I wanted the scene to play out in my head as I saw fit, what made me excited.

    The story is better served with a sketch, a loose idea of the setting, the character's expression, the clothes they wear, or the look of the sky around them.

    You can apply some color to the sketch and give it definition, but don't paint it 'til it's clear.

  17. i know what you mean. some features arent necessary to get into detail. but sometimes i think i give too little. i could use a beta reader...will look harder when i get through this third edit (2/3 done, so much to do!)

    yay for your good news!

  18. I try to find a balance. I had one of my betas recently tell me that I was fine with descriptions on everything except physical things--that I needed more of that connection with the characters. (This hasn't been something she's said with other books of mine that she's critiqued--it was just THIS book that I was lacking. And she was right.) But then I rewrote and had too much, LOL, and my next critiquer was like "these first ones need to not be so much." So now I'm rewriting and finding that balance--and obviously, it can differ from person to person and book to book, but I could see where my critiquers were coming from with this issue.

    Good luck with the book! It's great to have critiquers and to be able to continually work on our writing--it sure is a process.

  19. This is tough, and it's definitely a balance. I've read some characters that don't need to be physically described much because their voice is so distinctive that you don't miss the physical part. I personally like to know basic things so I can get a general idea in my head, but it's important to introduce those things naturally. I think I'm more of a basic girl, letting the reader imagine some things, but some details here and there are nice. I don't need to know what brand of shoes a character is wearing, though. Some people get great boosts of inspiration by filling out those character charts that have things like, "What's your character's favorite song?" "If your character bought a dog, what kind would it be?" I don't think about that kind of stuff, but I'm open to anything that helps me improve :)

    Good luck with the orientation!

  20. Less is more, if the story carries the feel of the work.

  21. Silvina - I like the idea of giving more detail to show the lesser character to make it clear about that character.

    Shelly - Dialogue can do it when used in a balanced way.

    L.G. - When I read, I tend to do the same thing, even in SciFi/Fantasy where you need to have more detail because you're describing a different world. Ugh.

    Kelley - That's awesome that you seemed to have found the balance. I'm not there yet.

    Angie - Some description is wonderful. I've always loved Mary Stewart's.

    Emily - With romance, I feel the same way. I just had way to little, and now I'm going to have to stretch in this area.

    Jen - Your comment made me smile. I did the same thing in my first run through and my helpful critique group taught to understand the whole thing with beats vs. tags.

    Bryce - I like that about the spice.

    Welcome - I'm okay with imagination. I can think of all kinds of stories to tell. Just don't expect me to paint or decorate things. I can copy something someone else has put together, but I can't come up with the original work myself.

    Stacy - Too much description an definitely bog it down. I loved a pacing class I took at Storymaker. It really should have been a duh moment, when I learned about it, but sometimes I need to have someone take my hand and show me the way. *blushes*

    Renae - Word Painting, huh? I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

    Sharon - I love fiction, so I'll have have to work threw my shortcoming.

    Robin - *hugs*

    Chantele - I've talked to a lot of regular, casual readers who say the same thing about description they skim over. It makes me a little crazy to think of agonizing over a section of description that the reader will just pass over anyway. O_o

    Britney - That's easy to do. I've been editing this particular project, which is my learning project, for a year now. I wrote it in 30 days (my own private little NaNo). Who knew that editing was where the real writing takes place?

    Nancy - "I think the object is to give the reader a glimpse, not paint them the whole damn picture." I love that! Especially about the romance stuff.

    Tara - If you're looking for a critique group you might consider the David Farland writing groups. There are lot of different genres. Mine if awesome.

    Laura - that dang pendulum!

    Jess - Yes, I like the natural introduction of information. When I went to bootcamp in May, my drill instructor really liked the fact that the love interest isn't physically descripted until a little bit into the chapter (besides his height). But in my latest critique, someone wanted to know that sooner. Different strokes.

    Jeff - Exactly.

  22. I majorly suck at description because I hate reading so much of it in other books. Bare walls, baby. My CP has to put little comments all over to remind me to describe certain places/people.

  23. Hi Donna. :) I know what you mean. And often what you think doesn't translate completely on paper. I agree about the character. My heroine is someone that many can pretend to be...the girl next door with the added fantasy. What do I prefer? Should I really answer this question? I'll be nice. I prefer a combination. Let me have a taste at first...and then hit me on the face with the icing. ...^-^....

  24. It sounds as if you received the perfect critiques, Donna, constructive ones that have left you fired up to enter rewrite mode.

    As for descriptions ... as long as they're showing and not telling and as long as they're not too long, they'll probably be just about right. :)

  25. Donna, I forgot to mention that I left replies to your comments at and

  26. Alleged - It's so nice to see how much company I have! =D

    Laila - I'm so not surprised that you love the frosting. :P

    Michelle - That balance thing again and knowing when one works or doesn't. *sigh*

  27. I don't write romantic scenes (at least I haven't yet) but when I read a scene I prefer to have much left to the imagination. In mysteries and thrillers, having them walk into the bedroom or get undressed is enough for me. Regardless of the subject matter, I think it best to say only enough to stimulate the reader's imagination. The reason Sue Grafton won't allow movies of her books is so her readers' individual images of Kinsey Millhone aren't supplanted.

  28. Gail - you know, that's a good point. I can promise you that Robert *gag* Pattinson is definitely not my idea of Edward Cullen. He might have been okay if he could act and if he'd cared enough for the role to put even a fraction of the time into it that Lautner kid did. Seriously. Airbrushed abs? O_o

  29. I always prefer less - but this is a balancing act that I struggle with too. It's hard to remove yourself from your own writing to see what's obvious and what's overkill. :) Great topic.

  30. Alexis - yes, being too close to something to see it anymore. That's why I'm taking what's turning out to be an entire month from my project.

  31. I'm very much like you, in that description is my weakest skill as a writer. Having said that, I prefer reading books with minimal description. Less is definitely more for me!

    Ellie Garratt


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