How to write descriptions your readers won’t want to skim…
We know it when we see it. A character enters a room and spends paragraphs noting the location of each piece of furniture. Pages devoted only to describing every dish at a feast. The dreaded purple prose. We’ve all come across excessive, unnecessary or just plain dull description when reading, and we know the temptation to skim-read it or skip it altogether. But how do you avoid it in your own work? How do you make sure you’re engaging your readers with your descriptions, not turning them off? There are loads of strategies you can apply to your descriptions so that they’re serving your story better and keeping your readers interested, these are just some of my favourites. I’ve turned the strategies into three questions that you can ask yourself when you’re looking at a descriptive passage in your writing and trying to work out how to improve it, starting with:
Can you get rid of it?
You definitely don’t want to ditch every instance of descriptive writing from your story, you’d be left with a pretty poor piece of fiction if you did, but I think the best writing (descriptive or otherwise) comes from looking honestly at every sentence and asking yourself: what purpose does this serve? And when it comes to descriptions, particularly in an early draft, sometimes the main purpose was actually just to help you, the author, visualise a scene better. It may have been useful, even essential, for you to work through the layout of a room so that you could make sense of the characters’ interactions when you were first writing the scene. But does that layout actually matter to the reader? If not, you can and should be getting rid of it.
How about the criteria for deciding whether a piece of description is necessary? You’ll want to keep the description (or some of it at least) if:
- The description tells you something about a character (beyond what they look like)
- It reveals something that is or will become important to the plot
- The thing being described doesn’t exist in the real world (a function of writing sci-fi or fantasy is that you may have objects, animals or races that you’ve invented—they’ll need describing to some extent)
Obviously, you don’t have to get rid of every piece of description that doesn’t fit into one of those categories, but if you’ve got a description of a character that doesn’t give the reader any information about their personality, have a think about whether you can be putting that description to better use.
Once you’ve determined that your descriptive passage is truly necessary to the story, it’s time to work on making your description better. So, we move on to question number two:
Can you engage other senses?
Sight is the go-to sense when it comes to description, but when you bring in other senses you can write more vivid descriptions and engage your readers much more deeply with the world of your story. When you leave the house in the middle of winter, yes you probably notice that it looks grey, but does that make a stronger impression than the icy wind that slaps you across the face as soon as you step outside? As your character descends into the sinister basement, do you want readers to know that it looks dark and menacing, or do you want them to smell the mustiness of the air and hear the way sounds are deadened? I mean, maybe both, but just make sure you’re not purely relying on sight. We experience the world through so much more than that.
That’s not to say you want to include every available sense in every description. Over-description gets tedious, no matter how varied and clever that description is. Pick the most impactful or relevant sense for the job, and while it might well come down to sight more often than not, challenge yourself to think about the other senses at your disposal as well.
While we’re on the topic of avoiding over-reliance on visual descriptions, let’s have a look at my third question:
Can you be less literal?
Look—it doesn’t matter how perfectly you describe the placement of your main character’s every facial feature, no two readers are going to imagine the same person. It’s important that you know what your characters look like, but impeccably literal descriptions of people and places aren’t interesting, and they don’t actually help readers to envision things the way you want them to. Think instead about what you want to convey, and whether there’s a more compelling way to do that. If you want your reader to know that your main character’s height of six foot four and strong build make him intimidating, consider whether you might not be better served by writing that he has an imposing presence, towering over most of the other people in the room.
By injecting your description with some metaphor, you can give your reader a sense of the appearance of a character or place without getting bogged down in detail. Take this example from Transcription, by Kate Atkinson:
“She was a swan, pale and elegant. ‘Do you want a fag?’ she said. She spoke with a debutante drawl herself – a laryngitic, smoke-infused one, it was true, but nonetheless it betrayed the unmistakeable timbre of the upper echelons.”
This is how we’re introduced to Clarissa, and although we’re given very little detail about what she looks like we get a strong and immediate impression of her. The comparison to a swan implies a kind of long-necked elegance, and swans are generally considered to be beautiful birds but, to me at least, swans call to mind a kind of haughty attitude which could be borne out by the fact that the character’s voice tells us she’s from the upper class. That said, the description of her voice as “laryngitic” and “smoke-infused” humanises her. Clarissa may have had a posh upbringing, but she’s still a little rough around the edges. Tell me that isn’t a more interesting description than reading about her hair and eye colour?
In first person or close third person perspective, description can also be used to give an insight into the way your main character thinks. Here’s an example I love from Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor:
“The falling snow and the early hour conspired to paint Prague ghostly, like a tintype photograph, all silver and haze.”
Karou, the main character, is an artist, which informs the way she sees the world. Prague has been “painted” ghostly by the snow and the time of day, and she likens it to a “tintype photograph”. You don’t need to know what a tintype photograph is, the author goes on to clarify what that means visually, but the use of the term tells you something about how Karou thinks and her frame of reference. It’s also just a beautifully atmospheric sentence.
Applying this to your own writing
I’m not telling you never to specify a character’s height or eye colour, those things can absolutely be included. You probably do want people to know whether your protagonist is peroxide-blonde or has a springy afro. You don’t have to come up with an elaborate metaphor just to tell your reader that somebody is muscular, or has green eyes. The idea is that, when you’re looking through the descriptions you’ve used throughout your story, consider whether there are places where it might be beneficial to give more than just surface-level information. Sometimes the pacing of a scene is better served by just giving the basics, and waxing lyrical is just going to derail the action and annoy your readers.
It’s a tough balance to strike, and that’s one of the many reasons it can be helpful to get an outside perspective on how the description’s working in your story. If you’ve got beta-readers, or friends and family members who take on a similar role, this can be a great aspect to ask for feedback on. And if you’re not happy with the descriptions in your work, but you can’t quite work out how to fix it, you might want to look into hiring a professional editor to help pin down what elements of your descriptive style are working and which are holding you back.
What are your top tips for writing great descriptions?
Share them in the comments, I’m always on the lookout for better descriptive tehniques! And if you disagree with any of my methods for writing better descriptions, let me know, it’s great to see how different writers approach this issue.