I’ve never been big on long passages of description. When I write, I normally leave all but the essentials out, then go back and layer things in if I think it’s too sparse. I also try to make sure descriptions help move things forward and are true to the character’s POV.
Nothing irritates me more than having a character describe someone’s outfit down to the fabric and designer. Unless that character has a reason to be able to know a suit is made of lightweight wool and is an Armani, or that the shoes are Jimmy Choos (actually, having that brand in a book is enough to make me throw the book against the wall—way overdone), it’s going to stop the story for me. How does he know? And can you tell the difference between nylon and silk from half a block away? Pearl buttons or shiny plastic?
Different readers have different opinions about description. Some love it, even when the story comes to a crawl while the scene is described at length. If a character walks into a convenience store to buy a gallon of milk, I don’t want to see every other customer in the store in detail. I don’t need a description of the produce aisle, down to the price of corn, unless the character loves corn but only has enough money for milk. If the character strikes up a conversation in the checkout line, or has to ask someone were to find the milk, a short visual might be nice. But unless something drastic is going to happen in the store—which the reader might assume is going to happen, or why else bother showing the scene in the first place?
In a mystery or suspense, of course, often these forays into description can be a way to plant clues. Could one of these customers come back later as a suspect? However, too much detail can wave red flags at the reader. Or it might cause them to grind teeth or pull out hair. I recently read a book I felt had way too much description—from street-by-street directions through the setting, to describing a character wearing a “baseball cap with a bill.” Are there baseball caps without bills? A garage sale scene ended up with paragraphs of exactly who bought what, yet none of these buyers came back into the story. While reading—again, especially in a mystery—readers are always on the alert for possible villains. Don’t strain their brains with details that have nothing to do with advancing the story.
However, I’m sure just as many readers will praise the author’s use of description in the book.
Another caveat: repetition. If you’ve described the character’s dog as a border collie named Suzie, you shouldn’t need to repeat that same information again. Suzie, or “my dog” should suffice. If your character puts her red-highlighted hair into a ponytail, we now know what color her hair is. (I disagree with characters thinking about their own hair color, but it’s frequently done.) You don’t need to describe her brushing or braiding her red-highlighted hair again. Of course, if you have an outside character noticing the hair color, and you think your reader might have forgotten, use that character to report it to remind the reader.
Another thing I have trouble with is metaphors. To me, they just make the reader stop and see or hear something twice. When I walk outside, the aspen leaves rustle in the breeze, and they sound like…aspen leaves rustling in the breeze. Now, I concede that if I’m describing something a character might not have heard before, then he might connect it to something he has. One of my early critique partners was a master of the metaphor. When I try them, my crit partners usually tell me they’re over the top. I guess I’m of the “a rose is a rose” school. If you’re lucky, I’ll tell you what color they are. But they’re going to smell like roses.
Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society