Thursday, July 22, 2010

How To Avoid The Description Bog.

Steph asked me to talk a little bit about writing description, which made me happy, because she thinks it is one of my strengths as a writer. It also made me laugh, because it hasn’t always been my strength ... or maybe I had too much strength in my descriptions.

When I first started writing, I thought I ROCKED at description. After all, I could take an entire page to describe one sunset, or one landscape, or the d├ęcor of one room. Since I write historical fiction, I rhapsodized about the clothing (especially the women’s clothes) and the horses and buggies and the chuck wagons and weapons. No detail was too minute to talk about.

I’m going to be brave here and give you a peek at part one paragraph from my first attempt at a novel, written six years ago, before I met Stephanie, before I’d ever read a book or blog on how to write, and when I thought I knew it all already. After you’ve read it and stopped laughing, we can dissect it a bit to see what wasn’t working.

In the stillness of the late afternoon she examined the room that was to be hers. There was a light colored wood wainscoting with a pretty chair rail trim. Above was flocked wallpaper in silver and gray-green. The floor was covered with a rug in navy, gray and dark green flowers. Creamy lace curtains covered the windows. A seascape hung over the fireplace, masts tall against the sun, seabirds hovering over the windblown grasses of the shore. There were candlesticks on the mantel and lamps with painted globes and crystals hanging from them. Aside from the rocking chair, there was a dresser, a wardrobe, and a single bed in the corner. Between the bed and the rocker along the wall was a cradle.

Keep in mind, this is one part of ONE paragraph. The manuscript is littered with these ponderous gems. So, what wasn’t working?

Nothing is happening here. If nothing is happening in a paragraph, it’s a big, fat invitation for the reader to skip it. The blah, blah, blah curtains, the blah, blah, blah carpets. Who cares?

It’s unnecessary. Nowhere in the book does it matter one iota that there is a picture of a ship hanging over the fireplace. Wainscoting never makes another appearance, nor do the colors in the rug have any bearing on the story. If it has no bearing on the story, why am I going to such great lengths to get it onto the page?

It’s passive. Everything in the paragraph is telling the reader instead of showing the reader. It’s kind of like reading a grocery list. Walls, check. Floor, check. Artwork, check. Furniture, check. Count how many times the word WAS appears. Five times in nine sentences, then, just to mix things up, I threw in a ‘were.’

Now, before you head back to your manuscript and hack out all the descriptive parts, let me say this. Description is necessary, and not just for historical fiction. Readers want and need to get a sense of the setting of the story, of the time-period, the place, the economy. So, how do you do it without using the dump-truck method I used in the sample paragraph?

Here are a few tips:

Less is more. Description should be like salt. A dash here and there to flavor the story. Nobody wants to down a tablespoon of straight salt, but a little on your fries makes the fries taste better.

Make it active. Instead of telling your reader the office had stained glass windows and a thick carpet, say: Virginia paced, her footsteps plowing through the blocks of colored sunshine on the rug.

Show, don’t tell. Show how the character feels about her surroundings rather than a laundry list of telling what those surroundings look like. Different feelings are evoked in different places. You feel differently in a well-tended garden than you do in the school hall-way between classes. A street corner in Manhattan is going to make you feel differently than a street corner in my hometown of Salina, Kansas.

So, fixing the paragraph above. Keeping in mind that less is more, the character should interact with the setting, and we should show how the character feels, this is what I came up with:

She couldn’t resist stroking the velvet drapes and fingering the tasseled fringe. The fine strands caught against her laundry-reddened hands. Did they really mean for this room to be hers? Fingering the worn collar of her best—and only—dress, she sighed and surveyed the room. She must look as out of place as a tin cup at a tea party.

With a few words—velvet drapes and tasseled fringe—I set the stage for what type of room she is in. (Less is more.)

She’s touching the fabric and her calloused hands snag on it, and she touches the collar of her only dress, and it’s frayed. (Make it active. Make the character do something that allows you to describe the setting.)

She compares herself to a tin cup at a tea party. (Show, don’t tell – She shows how she feels with this comparison, and it is feelings that the reader will identify with.)

As you can see, with fewer words and more action and emotion, description flavors the story. I have by no means perfected writing description, but I can tell I’m better at it for practicing using these few tips. I encourage you to try it with your own writing today!

Thank you to Stephanie for inviting me here to share a little of what I’m learning on the writing journey.

ERICA VETSCH is married to Peter and keeps the company books for the family lumber business. A home-school mom to Heather and James, Erica loves history, romance, and storytelling. Her ideal vacation is taking her family to out-of-the-way history museums and chatting to curators about local history. She has a Bachelor’s degree from Calvary Bible College in Secondary Education: Social Studies. You can find her on the web


  1. When I read Erica's books, I actually study them for description. I flag the pages with the ones I like best. Thanks for posting, Erica!