One of the biggest writing rules is “show, don’t tell.” But how much should you show? Specifically with description. How much is too much? What should you let readers picture on their own?
This is a pretty controversial topic and it’s one that every writer seems to have a passionate opinion about. I’m no exception, so here we go.
If I pick up a book that has dense paragraphs describing each character and each room, I’m going to put it down. Because to be honest, I don’t care what color the character’s living room is. I don’t care if there’s carpet or a glass door to the patio. I just don’t care.
This is a pretty common stance for middle grade and young adult novels. Adult fiction tends to have more description, but I still think there’s a limit.
Here’s my take on when and what to describe with two exercises at the end.
First, when to describe. Always describe things that will be important later. If I mention in chapter 30 that Juliet has brown curly hair, then I better mention it the first time we see her. Otherwise, readers are going to picture her differently and be jolted by the description. But, if I’m not going to mention her hair color at the end, then it’s okay if I don’t mention it at all.
The best times to describe rooms and people are when a character sees them for the first time. People don’t describe things they see every day and if you have a character do that, you're no longer showing, you're telling. Don't tell me she has blond hair, show me the strand that always falls out of her ponytail. I'll do another post on how to sneak in description with some examples from my own writing later.
Also, keep in mind that description slows the pace. Always. If it’s a high stakes scene or tense moment, don’t you dare stop to tell me the wall color. I don’t need to know. I only need to know what the character is focusing on. Tighten the focus, accelerate the scene. Nothing else outside their direct focus matters.
Which brings us to what to describe. It’s easy to describe wall color and furniture for rooms and hair and eye color for people. But which shows more, the blue walls in bedroom or the pile of dirty clothes right next to the hamper? The layout of the living room or the books stacked neatly on the mantle? A character’s blond hair or the shattered face of his watch?
Everyone has seen a bedroom. Readers can picture a generic bedroom. If you tell them where the bed is or that the walls are white, now they're picturing a generic bedroom with white walls and a specifically placed bed. You've shown them nothing. Even worse, you haven't really told them anything either.
Show what makes this bedroom different. Like alphabetized books or cat toys under the bed. The same goes with people. Show their all neon outfit or eclectic jewelry. I don’t need to know the color of the walls or their hair unless they're noteworthy (like purple hair or multi-shade green carpet). I need to know the details that make the character and room feel real.
Details describe better. They not only show the readers the room, but the people who use that room. The don’t just show the character; they show who that character is.
Think about what your eyes bounce to when you look at a room. Next time you go somewhere you've never been before, notice where your eyes are drawn. I'm willing to bet it isn't the paint color. And if it isn't for you, it probably isn't for your character.
Better yet, different characters notice different things. Describing a room or character gives you a chance to not only characterize who or whose room you're describing, but the character describing it. Do they focus on the condition of the furniture? The overall feeling of the room? Or small details like book titles and nick-knacks? Each character will be different, don't waste an opportunity for characterization by talking about something generic.
To sum up, don’t describe what readers can picture on their own or details that don’t matter. Mention things that advance the plot, will be important later, or characterize. Other than that, don’t bring it up.
How much description do you use? What kinds of things do you describe?
Exercise 1: look at your bedroom and list three things that make it your bedroom instead of a bedroom.
Now do the same with some of the locations in your story.
Exercise 2: picture your best friend and find one trait that makes them stand out in a crowd. If you were describing them to someone who had never seen them before, how would you finish the sentence "they're the one with..."
Now do the same with some of your characters.