Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Devil Is In the Details

The descriptive details, that is.

I signed up for an online course on writing descriptive settings this week, as I am finding that description is a real weakness for me.

When I am writing, I can see a scene or a character perfectly in my head, but when I transfer the physical details to words, I think my descriptions are lacking. I have a terrible time describing the clothes characters are wearing, or the details of where they are, whether that be an office, their home, or somewhere outdoors. My biggest problem is I find myself getting stuck on using the same words again and again, so I wind up scrapping the whole thing and ending up with a blank page.

I read a lot, to put it mildly, and I have started paying close attention to the way the writers I am reading describe the details of their characters and locations. I know how important this is for bringing a story to life, and I want to improve my skills in this area. But I also want to avoid over-doing it, as I have often found myself bored with stories that go into so much descriptive detail that I feel like the book is more about the physical description of a location than it is about the characters and plot.

At the same time, I am not a fan of what I consider "flowery" writing, so I want to be able to convey the physical details of scenes and characters without going overboard with unusual words. Along those lines, I have always liked this quote from Stephen King:

"Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."

I suppose when it comes to description, I struggle with how much is too much and how much is not enough. I feel much more comfortable writing dialogue, and about the emotional aspects of characters and their actions, but I know I need to include physical details as well.

Does anyone else have trouble with this issue? If so, can you suggest any tips or resources that have been helpful to you?


  1. This is SO my problem. I remarked early today on Donna Weaver's blog that I tend to skim over a lot of description in novels. It doesn't really do much for me, and so I think when I write I use a light touch on details.

    Apparantly I'm in the minority in this preference. People like having everything drawn out for them. I got a rejection on my manuscript last week and the agent said she was specifically rejecting it because the world-building details weren't fleshed out enough, even though the writing was fine. Bleh. On the bright side I suppose I can always go back and add more stuff in. Oh joy, another revision. :)

  2. Well I am not a writer, or aiming to be a writer so I guess this isn't a problem for me. :-) I have never given it much thought either. I guess that can be a real problem.

  3. One thing I can say about this is that well-written description is a joy and when it's poorly written, best to leave it out!

  4. Very interesting to read and have taken note.


  5. Firstly, Thank you for following my blog. Secondly, I have the exact same problem you do. I always skip the extensive descriptions in the books I read and personally, I don't do a lot of description in my novels unless it is really necesarry or if a certain scene demands it. But I think it is awesome of you to take a class in which they can teach you how to write better description.

    I don't know if this helps but the way your story is told will depend on your own personal writing style. So maybe you won't give too much detail on the weather or location but your characters might just be amazing and your novel might be more character driven, so much so it makes the reader forget about the weather. Hope you find the answer you are looking for soon.

  6. I tend to err on the side of lesser description. I think some of it depends on the type and genre of book you are writing as to what and how much you need and to what area's you want to pay descriptive detail to. No help whatsoever I know, just musing the question out loud.

  7. This is a great post. How do we, as writers, after being hammered with 'less is more' for years, find the balance?

    How far do we go? I believe in negative space, leaving a lot to the reader's interpretation.

    I remember a Creative Writing teacher from high school. One day, she MADE us write 1000 words about a button. Yep. A button. We couldn't leave until we had the 1000 words done.

    I just finished last nite. Pretty embarrassing to walk out of high school at 53 yrs. of age.

  8. @LG, that's exactly what I do, I skim over a lot of description. I'm sorry to hear that you got that rejection though, that's a real shame. I think it's hard with the revisions too if you feel like you are adding things in just to please someone else. :(

    @Retired Knitter, your comment made me laugh!

    @KarenG, good point, better to leave it out than to have a mess!

    @Yvonne, thanks, glad you thought the post was interesting. :)

    @Murees, you're welcome, thanks so much for coming by and for your great advice, I think you make good points.

    @Rebecca, that's true about the genre, and maybe it would be best for me to just write without worrying about it for now, and then go back later for more detail. Thanks for your comments!

    @Bryce, oh, that's just the kind of writing I hate. I took a course one time and we had to write a ton about a candle, very similar to your button. That kind of thing is what turned me off of creative writing when I was younger. You made me laugh with your last comments, I'm glad you finally finished! :D

  9. I write when it flows, then worry about editing stuff out later. Easier to edit out than to have to go back and write new material to bridge gaps.

  10. My first drafts are always more flowery - then I go back with a chainsaw :)

  11. When I'm reading I hate to be spoon-fed descriptive details, like colour of hair, unless it's relevant to the plot and so this is how I always try to write. Less is more.

  12. I'm brutal with description! I went to a workshop once that said to remember there are five senses, and to not be quite so visual about it all the time.

  13. @Stephen, thanks, I think that is what I need to do as well. I've been editing too much and need to just let things flow for now.

    @Samantha, LOL about the chainsaw! :D

    @Rosalind, I feel the same way, many times I get fed up with details like that when I am reading. Glad I am not alone in that.

    @Talli, good point about the five senses. I do forget that and tend to focus on the visual. Thanks!

  14. I wouldn't say I really struggle with it, but I tend to give too much description. I'm okay with that though, because for me it's easier to cut than add later.

  15. Since blogs tend to be shorter, it hasn't been a problem for me so far, but I remember my English professors were after me to be more descriptive. Bravo to you for taking this class! Julie

  16. @Beth, I think providing too much description is better than not enough, I know I need more in my writing. Right now I am trying to add and I can see where it would be much easier to cut instead!

    @Julie, thanks! I've only had one class so far but I think it's been a good choice for me. In any event, I figure it can't hurt.


Thank you for your comments!