Show–don’t tell. That has been my motto for this blog. “But how do I know what to show? There’s so much! How am I supposed to describe every little detail?!” The good news is, no, you don’t have to describe every small detail. “But I want everyone to see it exactly like I do in my mind!” That is a noble undertaking but altogether impossible. When I was a younger writer struggling with my craft, I argued with a wiser author on this very point, and he put it simply, “No matter how hard you write, if you show your work to seven different people, they will all see it seven different ways. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
When I stepped back and calmed down, this was liberating.
In junior college, an English professor demanded every detail. He used an example of a piece describing a feast. Every food, drink, crumb, color, texture, sound, person, and action was described. He wanted our essay papers to be just as detailed. What do I remember of that picture painted? Nothing. I only recall long lists of jumbled words, but it wasn’t alive, and it wasn’t a picture.
When I discovered I didn’t have to write all that, I could breath, relax, and have fun.
“When should you describe something?” Use description if only it is important to the story. I don’t care if Princess Agnes’ ball gown is made of silk, satin, or velvet with sparkles. I don’t care if it’s floor length with a train, ankle length, or even at her knees. I don’t care if it’s a pencil skirt hugging her curves, an A-skirt, or a big puffy skirt. Did she wear high heels or flats? I don’t care. All I care about is the color because that gives insight into her personality as well as sets a tone for the rest of the scene. All the other details can sneak in throughout the scene.
“Is there ever a time to include such detail?” Of course—if only it’s important. For instance, say the ball isn’t going to have a happy ending because everyone is going to be taken hostage, so no one can leave the building. Now, let’s add the element that Princess Agnes is trained in martial arts, so she is not defenseless in this situation and chose her dress accordingly just in case of disaster. She wouldn’t wear a tight dress but would wear something that would free her movements as well as hide any knives she might have. It wouldn’t be too short or too long. And her shoes depends on her balance and confidence. If she can sprint and do a sidekick in heels, I applaud her, but it’s doubtful she would wear 5-inch stilettos. Again, all these details can slip in throughout the scene. There is no need to write her intro into the scene and take up two pages describing every detail of her dress and shoes.
Imagine when you’re writing a scene, it is shown like a movie. The more details you add, the slower the scene passes. For example, two men are walking down a hall with purpose, and when they turn a corner, they run into a new character. Now, you have the option of describing this new character from head to toe in the most profound details. However, when you do that, the ‘camera’ suddenly slows. If your other two characters are rushing through the corridor when they run into this character, how much sense does it make for them to halt and take note of everything about this new person? Most people wouldn’t notice much about him other than the fact that he is present, blocking the way, and whether he’s a threat or not. If he’s perceived not to be a threat, then there is no reason why the other two characters would linger long but rather nod in greeting and pass him by.
Just keep in mind, the more details you add, the slower the scene will pass, and it’s likely the reader will skip these block paragraphs.
“I’m not worried about describing my character. I’m trying to describe the room—the setting.” It is vital to establish the setting of each scene before investing too much time in the scene, but there is a delicate balance. How much is too much, and how much is just enough?
Before you begin writing the scene, you must put yourself into it. Leave out the characters, the distractions, and the action. Imagine you’re a playwright, whose play is going to be performed for the first time on stage the following day. You can’t sleep, so you go to the theatre. It’s empty and dark, but the stage is set up for the morning rehearsals and later the actual performance. You wander through the props and gaze around at the wonder the world will see later.
This is where you need to be before you write the scene. Walk through the scenes, down those corridors, through the doors. What catches your eye? Does the rope fastened to the wall catch your attention and draw your gaze up, up, up to the crystal chandelier? Hmm, that gives you an idea, so you make note of that detail. Ignore how many steps the wide-sweeping stairs have where your protagonist, Princess Agnes, will walk down. Ignore the number of pillars lining the room—but note the way the shadows gather under the balcony. Note how the ceiling vaults but ignore how it is a dome style and not a cathedral ceiling. The windows too, they’re important, but don’t count every one of them.
These are the details Princess Agnes will notice when she enters the room, and through her eyes the picture will be painted.
“But what if there’s one small detail that the character wouldn’t notice but is important for another scene?” Details significant to the story should be mentioned but without disturbing the flow of the scene or seeming out character. For instance, after Princess Agnes descends the stairs, she might walk past a table just as a random individual sets down a sealed letter then slips away. It will strike the reader as odd, but they will go along with it just as long as the letter is explained either later in the scene or later in the story.
If you want a very detailed description of a room, don’t create an ‘all-observant’ character that notes every little detail! In reality, that is impossible, and stories are supposed to be a reflection of reality. Not one person will be able to notice everything in a room. However, what you can do is have several different characters enter the ballroom. Let’s say you have an ex-Marine, a hacker, and a thief enter the ballroom together (yes, this scene suddenly became modern instead of medieval). The ex-Marine will notice the number and location of each bodyguard as well as their body build. By their stance, he might be able to identify their fighting style and if they have any military training. The hacker will notice the technological security as well as the models of the computer systems in the room. He’ll notice the different phones and even the fancy digital watches. The thief will make note of the jewelry and identify any rare pieces of art. She’ll see the original paintings on the walls, ancient statues around the room, and unusual artifacts. Alone, each character would see the room differently, but when we see the room through their eyes, we get a clearer and broader picture.
“So that’s all? That’s it?” Well, I could go on a long rant about what makes good description easy to read, but that’s not my place. As a writer, you must discover your own style of writing description. Keep in mind what I said, apply it to what you already do, and see how it all unfolds. The only other piece of advice I can say is, keep it simple but poetic if possible. Movement description—not static.