Busting Writing Rules: Keep Description to a Minimum


For September, we’ll have chapters on well-entrenched rules:

  • Keep description to a minimum
  • No adverbs (is that like “no wire hangers”?
  • Only use said for dialogue tags
  • Show not tell

And a reminder that you can sign up for my newsletter.  There’s always something about writing for the writings, and a topic about Hollywood or science.

Off to the first one…

I cringe when I see this advice show up on blog posts and even in a recent craft book. The writers say the following:

  • Keep your setting description to a minimum. No one wants to read about the setting.
  • Don’t describe your characters. Let the reader imagine them. Or, if we are to describe the characters, do it in quick bits here and there, like “she tossed her blond hair.”\
  • Don’t bother with the five senses. Those don’t add anything to the story.
    The problem is that it’s really bad advice.

If you’re getting form rejections, this is one of the reasons. It’s not that comma on page ten.

What it Actually Means

This rule exists because of how description is taught. If you go to a writing class, you’re assigned an exercise like “Describe a village marketplace.”

So you dutifully form a picture of it and describe it like a TV camera panning over the scene. Five senses get wrapped up in this description.

It’s boring.

For a character’s description, this lands us in mugshot territory: He was six foot one, with a medium build. His hair was black and curly, his eyes gray. He wore jeans and a t-shirt.

That’s boring, too!

So what’s a writer to do?

Busting the Rule

No one mentions that description is a big piece of characterization.

Let this sink in for a moment.

If you keep description to a minimum, you undercut your characterization. Writers starting out tend to think characterization is identifying a favorite color, what time the character drinks her tea or the name of her parents.

But if your heroine meets another character and the heroine’s first reaction is that the other character’s hair looks like she put a finger into a light socket–suddenly you know a lot about your heroine from a few lines.

Or let’s suppose your character is out walking and gets a smell of a skunk. His first thought is a memory about his Golden Retriever coming into the house with skunk stink and giving it to everyone in the family. That one even does duty as backstory for the character.

And setting? One person might walk into a room with 1950s decoration and think it’s dated and another finds it a fond memory of their grandparents.

But if you don’t believe me, pick up Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. He talks about it as the “telling details.”

Also bear in mind that if you don’t describe something, you hand over control to the reader.

If you don’t describe your spaceship, the reader is likely to imagine the one they are most familiar with from TV or film. So when your story does pull in the setting for a battle scene, the reader gets thrown out of the story because you didn’t do your job in the first place.

For characterization, common wisdom is that the reader will imagine themselves as the character—except that not everyone does. If you leave it off for this reader, I’m going to feel a lack of characterization. I might or might not stop reading, but I probably won’t pick up another book.

What You Can Do

This one’s pretty simple.

  1. Have fun describing everything–all from your viewpoint character’s perspective.
  2. Huge paragraphs can really slow down your story.

    To keep pacing under control, write a description and hit three aspects. Then have the character talk, or their mind wanders to the problem troubling them. Then swing back for some more description. You can see this is best-selling books. Michael Connelly’s done it to describe Los Angeles while his character drives from one location to another.

  3. All five senses should appear every five hundred words.

    This is really hard to do. But human beings constantly interact with their background. As I write this, a TV is running the news, I hear voices echoing all over the halls, and behind me, air rushes out of a big vent that stands eight foot tall. A man just walked by, his heels clicking on the floor, and a door banged closed. And this is just the sounds!

Immerse your reader in the world around the character right from the start.
For more to read on this topic, check out Do Sweat the Small Stuff from Wylie Communications.

3 thoughts on “Busting Writing Rules: Keep Description to a Minimum

  1. Pagadan September 3, 2019 / 2:53 pm

    When I read a Robert Parker story, I love his descriptions, and yet his stories move right along. And I recently read The Walk by Lee Goldberg. He describes Los Angeles before and after the disaster, including neighborhoods–and people, and you are swept into the story.

    Like

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