Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Description: Walking That Fine Line
The cardinal rule of description is simple. Unless it furthers the story, don't include it. Really. It's that easy. So, for example, say you're writing an historical romance and the overwhelming urge to describe the draperies in the Duke's drawing room comes over you. You're feeling great and you're going to describe the dickens right out of those draperies. Readers are going to love how detailed you get.
Whoa, Dickens. Slow down with those fantabulous adjectives. First, ask yourself if the draperies and their length, their color, their fabric and everything else you want to describe further the story. Unless you plan to use those draperies for something in the story, they don't need to be described.
At this point, your muse protests. This Gabrielle woman just doesn't love our style, she whispers in your ear. She's obviously anti-drapery and anti-adjectives. (Not true. I am pro both. In fact, you won't find a bigger lover of draperies.)
Calm your muse with a drink and hear me out. Those draperies have to be integral to the story if you describe them. For example, they can be important to show how wealthy the Duke is, so you can give some meaty description of the fine fabric that hangs in that drawing room. That's useful description as it helps to show the reader something important about the character. Or maybe they're tattered. Describing them as moth-eaten and frayed after you've described him as finely dressed gives the reader the subtle indication that something is amiss. Why does a wealthy man have such shabby draperies in his expensive home? (This works especially well if the story is about the Duke posing as a man of wealth but actually being dirt broke and in desperate need of a wealthy bride.)
Or perhaps you plan to have one of your characters hiding behind those draperies later in the story as they spy on the Duke. Okay. Feel free to give some description of those long, red velvet draperies that block out all the light and make the room feel warm and cozy.
Look at the last word in that line. Cozy. It's a small descriptor but very powerful. Now change that last word to tomb-like. Just one word changed and the entire feel of the room has been drastically altered. That's what great description can do, and it often doesn't take dozens of adjectives and adverbs to do it.
But let's say you have no plans to use those draperies as a prop in future events and they really don't say much about any of the characters in the story. Then there's no reason to describe them. If they're just attractive draperies that hang nicely but don't do anything more for your story, skip the description.
I had a professor who used to always say that every word must pull its own weight when you write. Any that don't pull their own weight need to be cut out. (In my mind, I always called them slacker words. They lay on my manuscript's couch eating all the food and never doing anything useful.) When it comes to description, slacker words don't do enough. Always be on the lookout for that one word that can describe something or someone so perfectly as opposed to lines of description that simply make your story longer and bloated.
So description is part of great writing, but make sure it's useful and powerful and makes your story better.