I wrote this post on having trouble with details over a year ago. It was really hard for me for quite a long time getting even basic details into my stories. In fact, I had to keep hitting at it with a battering ram. Sometimes I have to hear something that seems obvious to everyone else before it starts to make sense (though, in this case, I think that a lot of people don’t get that obvious piece).
I’ve found that a lot of the writing advice approaches description from the outside looking in, and often portrays it as frippery, something that is always excessive and should be deleted. I’ve heard this from the writers on message boards:
“I hate description.”
“All description is boring.”
“I’d rather leave it to the reader’s imagination.”
And from a recent blog:
“Editors hate description.”
That one was from a published writer with three or four books out.
The message seems to be that description isn’t important to the story.
What’s missing from pretty much all of the advice is that the description is done through the character’s eyes and is a function of the characterization itself. It shows who the character is and where they are at that point in the story. How could that get left out of everything about description?
Maybe it’s because description is often treated as an exercise, rather than a functioning part of the story. I’m not sure how much of that steeped into my brain over the years and influenced the dysfunction. But understanding this at least helped give me a better foundation for getting the specific details into the story.
To find the details, I do some research — not extensive. If I know there’s going to be outdoor scenes, I try to get names of some of the local plants and trees that most people would know. That’s actually harder than it sounds, because most sites and books focus on the scientific side and list everything. Tour books can sometimes be helpful, and sometimes be terribly unhelpful, so it’s like a gold mine when I find something. A visit to local Fort C.F. Smith mentioned White Pines and Magnolia trees, so I grabbed that for a future story set in Virginia. If I can get three names, I’m happy, though I may search for additional ones as I write.
I also look at photographs. I was writing a scene on a Hawaiian trailhead with a waterfall at the end of it, so naturally, I headed for waterfalls. If I have a specific picture, I can build the details better; if it’s just a picture in my head, it’s very easy for me to go vague and fuzzy. When I was originally doing the scene, I planted this waterfall in front of the characters and had a stream flowing out, and that was about it. There was also a kind of a clearing because I needed a place to have a fight scene.
Once I got a picture I liked — I was focusing on terrain — then I started building the details in based on the main character’s situation. This is an incredibly beautiful place, and he’s thinking about the danger that’s coming. How does that play into how he describes it?
Indoor locations are a lot harder for me. Rooms tend to go fuzzy for me. I’m working on a scene in a living room, and I keep wanting to leave it at “sofa, some chairs, and there’s a door to another room on the left.” It’s really forcing me to stop and think about what this character has in this room and why. What kind of art does he like? Does he like heavy furniture or modern furniture? If you watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, we’d go into most of the character’s quarters, and they’d be pretty spartan. White room, neutral colors, clean lines. Then we’d go to Worf’s quarters, and it looked like a dungeons. Dark, weapons on the wall, flickering candles.
I also don’t necessarily try to get all of it at once. I move back and forth in scenes, adding to them as I do more research, or just get further into the story and realize something else is needed. (Breaking another rule here: I continue to make changes all over my story as I create.)
So the details are a matter of a bit of research, but mainly a matter of the character.