Let’s Talk Description

Something I’ve worried about a lot with my writing is that I don’t include enough description. Of people. Of settings. Of all sorts of things. I recently re-read my first novel to get some ideas for some follow-up short stories and was surprised at how much description was in the book.

These days it seems like I don’t include much. I just want to tell the story. Leave the details to the imagination of the reader.

What got me thinking about writing a post about this was a realization I had for my recently completed novel. There are three main characters. The narrative is in first person and switches back and forth between those three characters — Lily, Sophie, and Pete. My realization? That I don’t think anywhere in the 80,000 words of this story do I describe what they look like.

Oh, there are little tidbits here and there. We know Sophie is in a wheel chair because she was paralized in an accident when she was five. But beyond that? I really don’t know. I don’t share the details of how they look Hair color. Body type. The size of their noses. Or the color of their eyes. They just are. Three people occupying space in this story that takes them through three years of their lives.

When it comes to setting, I think I use more description, but still it remains pretty minimal. Fireflies dancing in the yard. Ambulance lights flashing in the night. The rocky shore of the Great Sacandaga. Things like that. But the thing is, generally that minimal description fits within the flow of the story. Or at least I hope it does.

There are a couple of reasons I use minimal description. I go back to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference I attended a few years ago (where the first two chapters of this novel were what I submitted for critique in the group sessions I participated in). One of the writers in that group kept criticizing other people’s works because they didn’t explain this, or describe that, or reveal something else. Each time she offered that criticism, I wanted to stand up and say, “that is what your imagination is for.” I don’t think good writing involves revealing every last detail or every single element of the characters and their story. A good story includes some mystery, some gaps that the reader fills in with his or her imagination.

In writing, I’m also informed by my own reading habits. I tend to skim over description. Particularly when it goes on for lines and lines and lines. That kind of description, to me, pulls the reader out of the story. When I read books that include that kind of description, I may skip chunks of the text until I see something that suggests the story is picking up again.

As I mention above, I think it important that writers try to include description within the flow of the story. Instead of stopping the story to tell us every last detail of how somebody looks or what is in a room, ask yourself, “what is the narrator seeing? what is the narrator feeling?” Answer those questions with something that fits within the flow of the story. The articles listed below have some good examples of both doing this and not doing it.

A few months ago, I participate in a writing prompt exercise with a group of other writers. One of the other writers wrote a scene with some of her characters walking along a forest and meadow near the ocean. She dropped in small descriptors within the flow of the story based on what the characters were seeing, what they were going through as they walked, rather than setting off the description of the area in a paragraph that broke up the flow of the scene. I think that’s how to go about description.

And don’t be afraid, never be afraid, of leaving things to the reader’s imagination. Yes, somebody will complain that there isn’t enough description. But if you include more, somebody else will complain that there is too much description. As with most of these concepts and “rules,” it really depends on the writer and the reader. Each of us is different. But be aware of the issue and try to find the sweet spot.

Now, I need to go back to that “completed” novel and ponder whether I included enough description. I think I did — it’s the story that is far more important than the description.

What do you think? Description? Yay or nay?

* * * * *

A couple of other views on the topic:





  1. I probably write too much description. I agree it shouldn’t be presented in big chunks. Decide what really needs to be described and delete the excess in rewrites. This is one of the problems with critique groups. There’s always someone who says more description is needed. Regarding your work in progress, if the amount of description feels right, it probably is. A good beta reader would tell you if any more is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kingmidget says:

      Yes. If the critique group is big enough or diverse enough, you’ll end up getting every contrary tidbit of feedback possible. 😉 All critiques and comments should be taken with a grain of salt and only incorporated if it makes sense and works for your vision of the story, for your style of storytelling.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. kingmidget says:

      By the way, I don’t recall there being too much description in your books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m glad you think so!

        Liked by 1 person

    3. maggiedot says:

      I love it when a writer describes just a touch of setting or a person—just enough to serve as a jumping point for the reader’s imagination.

      I’ve been working on having a clear image of a setting (with multiple senses!) before I start a scene. It’s really helped cut down on “talking heads” sequences in blank space!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. kingmidget says:

        Yes. I participated in a writing workshop group for several years. The woman who led the group ran us through a lot of exercises that were focused on using our senses to fill the space. Not just with who the people are and what they are saying, but also with the smells and sounds and sight found in the setting. It can really help to add those things, but hopefully in a way that builds the flow of the story rather than interrupts that flow.


  2. I think you’ve heard my take on description, but to recap: when I started out writing, I believed that the key was to have as little description as possible. Then readers complained that there was not enough description. So, I started putting in a bit more and people do seem to like those stories better.

    I guess it depends on the type of book, and what you’re trying to evoke from the reader. I’m definitely more comfortable with descriptions of places, things, weather etc. than with descriptions of people. With people, I still tend to favor giving the reader a bare minimum of information, and letting their imagination fill in the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kingmidget says:

      I think I’m pretty much the same. Even in real life when somebody asks me what somebody looked like, I’m somewhat flummoxed by the idea of describing a person.

      Liked by 1 person

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