Sunday, February 17, 2013

LTUE Update - Writing Fantastic Description

I've never hidden the fact that writing description is hard for me. I think I'm getting better at it as I do it more and pay more attention to it as I'm reading. Hopefully, I will continue to improve the more I do it, and it won't be such an agonizing experience.

I'll be honest, though. I don't like too much description. I've been in bootcamp critique groups where some of the input I receive is they want more description. And it makes me feel . . . conflicted. Yes, there needs to be adequate description but since I tend to skip too much description in books, I don't want to write stuff people like me are going to skip.

As author Elmore Leonard said: I try to leave out the parts that people skip.

Um. Yeah.

So I was particularly interested in the LTUE panel on Writing Fantastic Description (and Knowing Where to Put It) with Amber Argyle, Michelle Davidson Argyle, Frank L. Cole, Chad Morris, Peter Orullian, and Andrea Pearson.

Following are some of the snippets I jotted down during the class:

  • With epic fantasy, the world is important and must be described in detail - I was always amazed at the way Robert Jordan could describe clothing. In some books, the kind of detail he put into would be overdoing it, but he wrote epic fantasy and the clothing in many ways was part of his world building by how it represented the various cultures.
  • Don't just describe the physical traits of characters--make what you describe say something about the character as well
  • Be aware the attention span of the target audience--middle grade doesn't require as much detail as genres for older readers
  • The words you use should set the tone - what your characters see when they enter a room or check out people says a lot about your characters. So don't just mention that the sofa was green unless the sofa being green means something to the character.
  • Reveal information gradually so the reader has 'aha' moments along with the character
  • Every word has a job--don't use words that aren't doing something for the story
  • Using description tidbits in dialogue lets those words do double duty
  • Metaphor and simile can be a great ways to describe
  • Let your content mirror the action
  • When you're writing a sentence you don't want to bury what you're describing, so list what you're describing at the end - oh, my heck. Some years ago I was reading a book aloud to my husband and one of our sons. It was Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Both hubby and son are great audio learners, but we were all getting lost in the excessive description  The point of the paragraphs was being lost. Without telling them, I started reading only the first and last sentences of each paragraph. After a few paragraphs, hubby and son looked at each other and said, "Wow. Why is it suddenly making sense?" 
  • Some kinds of description are easier done in third person than first
During the iWriteNetwork Winter Workshop last month, I taught a class on writing a one-page synopsis. As I was reviewing my notes from the LTUE class, I realized that writing a short synopsis could be an excellent exercise is making sure that you don't have any lazy words. You have to give each one serious consideration to make sure it's doing that job you need it to do.

My oldest son's amazing at it--in seventh grade he knocked my socks off with his ability to paint a picture with words. I have no idea where that gift came from.

How about you? Is writing description your friend? Or are you more like me?


  1. Not my friend! Maybe I should write for five year-olds?
    I'm working on it as well, Donna. Don't want to do Tolkien though. That was overdoing it.

  2. Speaking as a non-writer but an avid reader, I must say this has to be a tough task. I like a lot of description but I know my wife is less desirable of much description. She bores easy in that respect. I need it to visualize what I am reading. I have a very hard time getting into a book I cannot "see" in my mind. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, love your tips and I'm going to borrow them. Thanks!

  3. It is very tough to do, trying to get just enough but not too much.

  4. I have to agree, I don't write a lot of description either. I really don't care what character is wearing.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  5. You just nailed one of my biggest writing issues. I don't like a lot of description when I read either. George R. R. Martin drives me nuts with all the descriptions of people's clothing. It's not something I care much about and so I end up skimming. I want to know what's going to happen next and that's about it. But I do understand that fantasy requires more elaborate details and that some people truly enjoy having all that information filled in for them. I enjoy it in historical fiction when the author throws in enough authenticity to make the scene come alive. There's got to be a balance between action and description, though, to keep the pacing up.

  6. No, I don't do description easily. I have to fight to get it in there at all.


  7. Your one point, about describing a character using aspects reveal characterization, is something I was fortunate enough to learn early on. I think it's served me well, though I might tend to go light and hope my reader will fill in the blanks.

    Thanks for sharing those other tidbits you picked up. Very grateful to hear them.

  8. I love description, but as a writer I find it comes as a natural part of revising and editing, not that first draft.

    But these comments do show the subjectivity because I could read Tolkien's descriptive prose for hours.

  9. I'm not a big fan of long descriptions and will skim those parts in most books, whatever the genre. I also dislike poetry. I wonder if there's a connection there?

    Great post.


  10. I'm not sure. I've been told by people in my writing group that they love my descriptions, but I feel I could be better at it. Of course, I may not be the best judge of my work.

    As for your bootcamp critique, that's a tough one. You have your own particular style, which I guess tends toward minimalist in description. You have to decide how much to add without losing your particular style. It's a fine line to walk.

  11. I'm terrible at description. Not that my descriptions are terrible, but I more often than not forget to include them at all. I saw a comment recently that suggested this may be a result of the fact that I'm terribly near sighted. It seems people who don't see well also don't do visual description so well. This may also be why I don't really visualize the books I read the way many people do.

  12. I'm the same as you, and really enjoyed that class. Thanks for sharing your notes.

  13. So many great points! It depends, sometimes I overdo description, and sometimes I have not enough!

  14. Glad you enjoyed that panel and got good stuff out of it! It's all kind of a blur in my head, lol.

  15. Thanks for sharing the tips, Donna! I've been trying to keep my descriptions down to "just enough". :)

  16. I can write description when it's necessary. The point is knowing when that is. I think the very most important part of writing description is NOT showing what things look like, but rather how they make the character feel. If you can relate the description to the emotion of the character(s), then it's relevant to the story and therefore to the reader.

  17. Thanks for the notes Donna. I missed this class but wished I had gone.

  18. I love description - way too much. I want to visualize EVERYTHING both when I read and when I write. It's an area where I have to keep reminding myself to show and not tell so much. I particularly like your suggestion to relate it to the characters and their feelings. I love it when I or any author is able to 'sneak' description into the dialogue.

    Now can you give me that class on the short, sweet and to the point synopsis?

  19. Like you, I don't do a ton of it, especially in my first drafts. Just enough to set the place and tone. BUT, I do find that it is often one of the major things I am adding when I go back through (again and again) because it is very handy thing to use to control the pace of the book. If you read my rough drafts, you likely feel like you've just won a race--it's very fast. The description helps me slow it down where needed.

  20. Description is a sticky point for readers, some love it and some hate it. I love it, but you really have to stick with whatever works for you:)

  21. I believe there should be a balance.

    That's interesting about Dandelion Wine. Although I love Bradbury, I detected his wordiness.


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