I talked about describing characters last week. I wanted to expand on that a bit. Editors and writing instructors vary on their insistence that setting and characters be described fully. Some say leave it and let the reader imagine everything. Others say you need to paint the scene for the reader so they can see it.
If you describe nothing, you have what’s commonly referred to as talking heads, which is a string of dialogue coming from people the reader can’t see. And if you describe too much, you can pull the reader right out of the story.
I think somewhere in the middle is best.My editor, Jeff Gerke, in his book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, explained it to me like this. Imagine yourself in a dark movie theater. The screen is black. Then some people begin to talk. But there are no faces on the screen. If this goes on for too long you would become really frustrated with this movie.
Now two faces appear on the screen, but their heads are just floating there on a black background. This might be tolerable for a moment or two, but soon you'd want to know where these people are. What the setting is. If there is anyone else around.
Jeff says to think of description as if you were attending a play. You sit in the audience, the curtain opens, you see the set. The characters walk on stage. And everything you see is part of the story. All the props are there if the actors need them. And readers deserve no less in a novel. They should be able to picture the set in their mind at the start of each scene, and if someone picks up a chair and throws it, the reader should have been told about the chair already.
Another thing Jeff taught me was to start big and general, then give details, as if your point of view character's eyes are a video camera that see something and zooms in to get a closer look. Here are two examples from my book, By Darkness Hid.
The boat slowly rounded the rocky cape, and the land ahead came into view. Vrell gasped. The rocky coast on her left came to a point where it nearly met the flat, grassy land that curved down from the right. Two colossal pillars—clearly man-made—rose from the land on either side, each one wider than three redpines. An iron portcullis stretched across the sea between the pillars, its black bars woven in a tight, intricate pattern.
Beyond and slightly to the right, she could see the second set of the Reshon Gates standing sentry, looking much smaller from her position. Further right, in the distance, the stone city of Mahanaim sat like stacked yellow, brown, grey, and orange blocks against the velvety backdrop of Darkness.
And here is a shorter example from the same book.
Achan followed Sir Gavin to the fourth floor and down a dark hallway to the knight’s bedchamber. It was a nice room with a bed, a sideboard, a fireplace, and a chair by a window that overlooked the tournament field.
A boy Achan’s age stood near the fireplace, two stools beside him—one empty, the other holding a basin of water.
I'm not the best at description, but if we tear my examples apart, you can see that both descriptions start out broad and narrow in. First, what they see: A rocky cape or a bedchamber. Then the details. Vrell, because she is a girl who notices more detail, goes on longer than Achan, who points out the need to know facts.
Writing good description takes practice and many rewrites. I tend to ignore description in my first draft and add it in during the rewrite stage.
So when you go back in, try to start general and zoom in. Give us the type of place first and use simple words: alley, classroom, gym, girl's bedroom, hallway, office, sea. And then go into your details using specific words or phrases that provide easy visuals: oily street, rocky cape, black bars woven, piles of trash, grassy hill, cluttered desk, colossal pillars, velvety backdrop of Darkness.
Try to avoid using lots of “ly” adverbs. And use metaphors and similes whenever possible because they provide your reader with an instant visual. For example: Mrs. Daggett was huge, a wrinkled lineman in an Eagles green housecoat.
What do you think of Jeff's example of the movie theaters and looking through a camera. Do those examples help you visualize what it is your readers need to see?