In defense of description.


You’d better not include it in your story. Because don’t you know? Kids can’t focus anymore long enough to read it. They’ll put your story down and move on to their video games.

I’m not so sure.

Along with telling and backstory, description is another aspect of writing that has been banned. As in beginner writers fear to put more than one line of it anywhere on a page. Or they don’t know any better and they have pages and pages of description that aren’t relevant to the story.

What I’ve learned about description:

  • When I describe something it should be in proportion to its importance to the story.
  • I don’t need five sentences of description every time I introduce a character. Instead, weave it in through out the action and dialogue.
  • Description helps to set the mood of a story.
  • Description brings my story into focus.
  • Description or showing the details makes my story world believable. Think Hogwarts.
  • Description is more than what a person or place looks like.
  • Word choice in description should reflect the main character’s pov or narrator.
  • Description offers a great opportunity to plant clues, mislead the reader, add to the emotional impact of a scene, or add symbols of your theme.

So, the trial is over. Telling, backstory, and description can throw off their black capes and masks. They aren’t the villains. They’re your friends.

Analyze books you love to see how the authors managed these aspects of writing. Some books require more or less depending on the audience, genre and effect you want.

Here and here are two links about writing description. Check them out!

Do you have any tips for description?  Are there other aspects to writing you feel have been given a bad reputation?

24 Responses to In defense of description.

  1. Carole Anne Carr September 23, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Yes, it is amazing, when looking at popular and much loved children’s books that have stood the test of time – not to mention Dickens – they are full of back story and oodles of description. No such thing as show don’t tell..

  2. Andrea September 23, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    Laura, I confess that my eyes glaze over when there’s too much description in a novel. But only if it feels unnecessary. Description is important in action scenes too. I think the key to good description is to use it sparingly and make sure it’s essential to the story at the point where it’s included.

    Great series! I’ve enjoyed your posts about writing “no-no’s”.

  3. Jennifer Hoffine September 23, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    Great posts on the three anti-villains!

    With description, I would add a few things:

    1. That it be organic to the story, fitting in with the flow and pace.

    2. With first person especially, the description should fit what’s important to the character and what’s less familiar. Like, a teen girl would rarely have reason to go on about how her mom looks or describe her own room in great detail.

    3. I try to make description pull double duty. Like adding to tone or giving clues, like you mentioned above, and (probably most common for me) have it reveal character and/or character relationships.

    • Laura September 23, 2010 at 11:02 am #

      Carole Anne – It’s all in the storytelling and the voice.

      Andrea – I totally skip some kinds of description in novels. But some with great voice, I’ll read every word!

      Jennifer – All very good points! Thanks!

  4. Creepy Query Girl September 23, 2010 at 11:41 am #

    I’ve definitely gotten over the whole ‘insert setting here’ type discriptions. I think description jars for me when we’re in the middle of a really tension filled part of a book. Like- the mc is on a mad hunt to find her sister who was kidnapped and the author puts everything on stand still to describe the bus trip across town. Those are passages I end up skipping. Another hard part is describing action. I have a lump of space where there’s very little dialogue (no people) besides my mc’s internal dialouge but a lot is happening to him physically which requires description. it’s really hard to find a perfect balance there.

  5. dirtywhitecandy September 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    Nice summary – especially the point that description should do something other than just provide ‘visuals’.

    And I’ve enjoyed this series – many of these points you’ve discussed don’t deserve to be on writers’ forbidden lists, they simply should be used wisely. How about tackling prologues?

  6. Shelley Moore Thomas September 23, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    There has to be enough description, enough details or the reader simply cannot connect with the story. In easy readers and picturebooks, there are illustrations to help the reader form a mental image of the story. In books that cannot rely on illustrations, the author must provide enough details for the connection to occur.

    Otherwise, a kid will just put the book down.

    So it is a balance,I think, between tooooo much and far toooooo little.

    Great topic.


  7. Benoit Lelievre September 23, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    The problem with description is that it’s been so wrongfully defended for so long. I was told all my youth by people with grey hair and glasses around their neck that “only REAL readers could appreciate description”.

    The same people kept telling me that everything after Hugo was crap. It can’t be more false. Back then, writers were paid BY THE WORD, so the longer the better.

    I have nothing against description either. That can breathe life into low-key moments and make the picture clearer

    • Laura September 23, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

      Katie – Right and we use description through out our whole story for action scenes especially.

      Roz – Prologues, huh? We’ll see about that one. 🙂 All I know is that sometimes I read them and sometimes I don’t. There must be a trick to them.

      Shelley – Yes! Without description a storyworld does not come to life.

      Benoit – Especially for novice writers, description is really hard to understand. Along with telling and backstory.

  8. Patti Nielson September 23, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    I’m the same, my eyes skim description, so I think putting little bits and pieces in work better. I had four pages of description once, but cut it when I realized it really stalled the story. Instead of describing everything in the city, I only talked about things that were important and only briefly.

  9. Karen Strong September 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    As an underwriter, I always thought that description was boring and not really needed but it is — especially with making the story world believable. And if you can make your description pop and active by using your character/narrator voice.

    I’ve enjoyed this series Laura.

  10. angela September 23, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    Yes, this. Exactly! *hugs Laura* Great post–everyone should be reading it. 🙂

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  11. Benoit Lelievre September 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    I agree with you Laura. I have hard time not thinking myself as novice, but I can recognize the mistakes and patterns we all fall into. Not everybody is Cormac McCarthy. Not everybody can create wite little bits of nothingness.

  12. Laura Marcella September 23, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    I know about the “experts” unfavorable views on telling and backstory, but I didn’t know they’re degrading description now, too! How silly. I understand it needs to be written in moderation (that’s true for pretty much everything) but I believe kids love description! They want to see the story and imagine themselves there with the characters, just like when they watch a movie or play a video game. It wouldn’t be as compelling if they only heard the action instead of seeing it. I think kids today need a little more credit than the “experts” are giving them!

    Great post series this week, Laura!

  13. patti September 23, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    WONDERFUL post! Camy Tang taught me to pick up the paint brush and let description cover the canvas BUT tie it to emotion.

    That was HUGE to me. So if the trees shimmer with frost, tell why that matters. Is her heart hard and cold?

    Sigh. Until 11/15, I’ve been relegated to the writer’s cave. That first draft MUST BE pulled out.

    I would so covet your occasional hop over to my place, just to wave and tell me about the world!!!
    Yes, no coffee dates, no nothing. This is SERIOUS!

    Blessings, dear one.

  14. Paul September 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    Excellent post, Laura. Your list is comprehensive.

    When I’m revising I look at the description and ask myself does it help dev. character and move the story forward. It doesn’t always have to do both but that’s what I strive for.

    • Laura September 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

      For the record, description doesn’t seem to have as bad a rap as telling and backstory, but I believe description is just as misunderstood as the former. And from what I can tell, all publishing professionals advocate the proper use of telling, backstory, and description – they just tend to point out novice mistakes, which then some misunderstand as taboo. When really, it’s just a matter of learning technique.

  15. Marcia September 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

    I emphasize to my students that description isn’t about adjectives and adverbs; it’s about appealing to the five senses. And then in any one passage you choose which of the senses to use based on what fits the POV of the MC in that moment. If he’s fleeing down the street with a snapping dog at his heels, he’s all about how his legs and lungs feel. He doesn’t care how the sky looks.

  16. Susan R. Mills September 23, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    Great post, and thanks for the links.

  17. Kay Bigelow September 24, 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    I’m so glad that telling, backstory, and description are my friends again. I missed them. Thanks for letting me know I can safely use them once more.

  18. James Killick September 24, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    Loving this series you’re doing, Laura. Great idea. I’m afraid I wrote a post called ‘Description is for Wimps’, but then I was being somewhat provocative – I’m on your side really.

  19. Botanist September 26, 2010 at 2:38 am #

    I dropped in from the “compelling characters” blogfest and saw this post. It really struck a chord with me. I can understand what the “description naysayers” mean, up to a point, but everything has its place.

    Something I’ve noticed in critique forums is that some people (not all) seem to spout “rules” at every opportunity rather than put real thought into what they’re saying. Every line of description gets picked on, every adverb rooted out. “Infodump”, and “show, don’t tell”, the cries ring out. I wonder if that is where the “banning” stems from?

    Description, backstory, adverbs, even the occasional bit of telling, are all tools in the writer’s armoury, to be used in the right way at the right time.

    • Laura September 26, 2010 at 2:56 am #

      Botanist – I’ve been on online critique sites and yes, many writers when they begin to critique jump all over the rules of show and tell, description, using ‘was’, adverbs – it’s just part of growing up as a critiquer. They’ll eventually move past that. Sometimes the rule really did fit and I showed instead of told – only you can decide what’s best for your story.

  20. Wizards Wand October 16, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    JK Rowling found witchy sounding names including toadflax, goutwort, grommel, and others in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, a famous book of herbal lore from the 1600s.

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