The Devil's in the Details
How to write effective and purposeful description
By Michelle Barker
As fiction writers, we aim to fully immerse our readers into our imagined world so that we achieve what Stephen King calls telepathy: a perfect transference of our creative vision from our head to the reader’s.
One of the tools we have at our disposal to achieve this is description. If you don’t ground a scene physically or are vague or abstract about your character’s surroundings, you will lose that reader immersion almost immediately. A scene cannot take place in a vacuum. We’ve all heard the advice to be specific and use sensory detail. So, it must follow that the more fully we describe our setting, the better the telepathic connection we’ll achieve. Right?
Well… not exactly.
Writing description is like wielding a zoom lens. You, the author, need to decide what’s worth zooming in on and what can be left to blend into the background. You decide this by knowing what’s important—either to the scene, the atmosphere, or the character who’s observing these things. What you choose to zoom in on sends a message to the reader: this is important.
However, if you zoom in on everything, you are telling the reader that everything is important. That simply cannot be the case. What this does is cause confusion and end up making nothing important. Your reader stops paying attention and, even worse, stops trusting you. The tool you’re using to create immersion has backfired.
The timing of your details is also crucial. When a character’s life is being threatened, they’re probably not going to stop and consider the clothing their attacker is wearing or the smell of a meal wafting in from an open window. Not to say those two examples couldn’t work if they were properly handled. But I’m talking about stopping the action to lay down a paragraph about tweed and onions. Save details like that for when the timing is more appropriate.
Stylistically speaking, when you pile on the detail, you risk creating sentences that feel encumbered: The tall boy lay on the wine-coloured duvet in the bright sunlight next to the mangy brown dog. Sure, you can visualize it, but it’s too much for a reader to process all at once.
Instead of providing a list of images, make sure your description is always doing double-duty: it’s showing the world and revealing something about the character who’s experiencing it. What I mean is: if your character is jealous, she will experience another woman’s kitchen in one way; if she’s in a position of superiority to this woman, she’ll see it in another way. If she admires her, if she’s secretly in love with her—each of these scenarios changes what that character will notice and how they’ll evaluate it. Emotion colours description.
Character also colours description. Recently I was watching (all right, rewatching) the episode of Schitt’s Creek when Rose Apothecary is robbed. The police officer asks David for a description of the robber. David can’t remember how big the man was or what he looked like, but he knows the man was wearing an aubergine poly-blend hoodie. If you’re familiar with the character of David, you’ll know the writers couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate thing for him to notice. It says as much about him as it does about the robber. Only David would describe him this way. That’s what you’re aiming for when it comes to description.
Another solution: focus on what’s unique in a scene. Don’t tell us the kitchen has a fridge and a dishwasher. Trust your reader to get there on his own. Tell us about the sink full of dirty dishes. Show us the cockroach on the counter. Ask yourself what mood you’re trying to evoke with this description and then choose your details accordingly.
Don’t describe a room if a character isn’t already moving through it. That stops the story—and we never want to stop the story for anything. Instead, show your character moving through the room, noticing and/or interacting with various objects or aspects of that room. This is how you keep a scene active and fluid, rather than static and, well, boring.
Don’t show us everything. Show us the important things. If you’re going to spend time describing your character’s breakfast, there had better be a good reason for it, and that reason had better have a bearing on the details you choose and how you convey them. If it’s just breakfast, skip it. As Elmore Leonard famously said: skip the boring parts.
Description should not exist in and of itself. It should be used in the service of something else: character development, atmosphere, action. Our aim is not just to help our readers picture the scene; we want those details to have an impact on them. We want our readers to feel what our character feels.
That is reader immersion.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in literary reviews around the world. She has also published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). She loves working closely with writers, both at the developmental level and on finer line-by-line issues. Many of those writers have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.