The Power of Description

I have a couple stories to tell you.

Two weeks ago, I was in Europe, touring with my orchestra around Austria and the Czech Republic.  At the very beginning, we drove out to a place in Austria called Gmunden.  The site of our first concert, we found it nestled inside a circle of mountains, on the shores of a vibrant blue lake.  The concert hall was right up against a little wall that dropped down to the water.  Swans swam around looking for crumbs from us, the mountains towered over the sailboats gliding over the serene blue water, and the air was clear and cool.  As for scenery, it was probably my favorite place on the trip.  (The picture on the right, while also of an Austrian lake surrounded by mountains, is actually a different lake we stopped near.  Apologies for pictorial inaccuracy.  Picture by me.)

Now hold that thought.  Last April, while I was writing Gifts of Rith, I decided I would slow down and make sure I was using the right words to tell my story.  I posted my resolution here; I decided I wasn’t going to race ahead and write whatever I wanted, but make sure everything I wrote was relevant to the story.  Unfortunately, I realized as I reread the novel on my trip to Europe, I had left out too much.  Indeed, instead of merely taking out the fluff, I also took out some of the necessary pieces for telling a good story.  I took out almost all the descriptions.

Never let it be said that I make small mistakes.

No sounds, no smells, no images, except that which the plot required.  If people were fighting, I described their movements.  In more peaceful scenes, however, I pointedly did not describe the vistas, the people around them, or even the characters themselves.  I gave their dialogue and described their body language, but that was all.  In my imagination they could have been a place prettier than Gmunden, but that didn’t matter if I didn’t describe it.  Brian Jacques said the secret to writing is to paint pictures with words— to describe every scene so a blind person could imagine it.  I described it like a blind person would.

As with anything in writing, what affects one part affects the whole.  Removing the descriptions in key places had a larger effect than I knew.  It meant that at the beginning of every chapter, every scene, readers had a more jarring experience getting into the head of the viewpoint character.  Instead of carefully placing them in the scene, making sure they knew where everything was and who was present, I smashed them into the scene with nary an introduction, forcing them to scramble for information.  It wasn’t nice.  Occasionally a scene or chapter will call for an In Medias Res beginning, where you begin in the middle of the action and slowly fill people in— I did that all the time, without filling people in.  Bad writer.

Another thing the lack of descriptions caused was a strange perception of time.  Time in prose is strange anyway; for a slow reader, a scene will take much longer than for a fast reader.  However, there are a few constants with regard to portraying time in prose.  The more words you put between one thing and another, for instance, the more time passes between those two things.  (I’ve posted about this before, sort of.)  There were many instances in Gifts of Rith where I could have used descriptions to change timing, but without those descriptions everything felt too fast.  Here’s an example:

“Do you like ukuleles or kazoos better?”  “Kazoos.”

That’s a quick snippet of dialogue.  It flies by, and you get the feeling that the person replying to the question knew the answer beforehand and didn’t have to think about it.  Now look at another example:

“Do you like ukuleles or kazoos better?”  Bill found himself rotating slowly as he waited for Dave to answer.  The rough hemp of the rope had been biting into his ankles over the past hour as they hung upside-down in the tannery.  The air was nigh unbreathable, full of putrid chemicals from the cured hides.  He had given up trying to get his hands free long ago, and they had fallen asleep in retribution for his carelessness.  “Kazoos,” Dave finally replied.

That took significantly longer to say, read, and imagine, just because of the block of description in the middle.  You get the sense that Dave actually had to think about his answer.  You also get a little bit of a sense that Bill is terribly, terribly bored.  (Just a tiny sense of it.)

And that’s the third thing I missed when I forgot to describe things: character.  Descriptions, as setting-based as they are, portray character as well.  When Bill starts thinking about the hemp in the rope, or the chemicals in the tannery, you get a sense of his mood.  If he was asking Dave whether their mortal enemy deserved a sword or death by rubber duck, you’d get an entirely different sense of his attitude toward the moment.

It’s a little disappointing to reach the end of a novel and realize you forgot to actually, you know, acknowledge the setting nine times out of ten.  But realizing that is a lot better than forgetting descriptions and having no idea anything is wrong.  I’ve got all the time in the world to edit this novel to perfection (and this time I mean perfection).  I’m going to get this right this time.  The setting I imagined for Gifts is too good to go unnoticed, just like Gmunden.  Thus, I offer a word of warning to you: if you’re going to leave something out, make sure you know exactly what you’re doing.  It doesn’t pay to forget it and find out you messed up the timing of your entire novel.

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37 thoughts on “The Power of Description

  1. Yes! And I think you’ve just helped me with my writing, too.
    Two things I noticed in your example snippet: One, if someone has been hanging upside down for an hour, they will either be unconscious or dead. (Hello, useless trivia Robyn has stored in her brain.) Two, do we now have another character for what will one day be the epic The Search for the Mayonnaise Spreader of the Apocalypse? I hope so.

    1. Yay!

      Indeed. I think I mentioned that in Phil Phorce 1, actually— I had that in mind when I wrote the example. And Dave was mentioned in the Stylize Your Demise post, where I give his death scene several times as an example.

      1. The capillaries in your brain burst after about ten minutes, so yeah. But I got that from the internet, so it might not be true.

      2. Yeah, I’m not completely sure about that. In fact, it’s not true— one guy (David Blaine, look him up on Wikipedia) holds the record for longest time spent upside down, at around 72 hours.

      3. *goes to look up David Blaine* I think I actually have heard of him before, but that didn’t make reading the Wikipedia article any less fun.
        I’m still not going to hang upside down for more than a few minutes, though.

  2. Well, I think you’ve sufficiently scared me into describing things and never, ever hanging upside down (though I never really liked that anyway).

    It seems you had the overcompensation problem. Stakes was way too full of stuff to cut out, so you resolved not to do that again. And…you got the other end of the spectrum. I know this problem well! I overcompensate all the time, unfortunately. I should work on that…

    Also, two things. One, my observant eyes noticed the new URL. Very nice. Very…professional.

    Two, Czech Republic–lovely. My family has friends there. Two people I know just visited there…and one other family moving there. Huh.

    Oh, one other thing…Ukuleles! Ukuleles! Kazoos are too…squeaky.

    1. Indeed. Stakes was probably mostly fine, actually— I just cut out all the description there too. I went crazy on the cuts, and that informed Stakes.

      Thank you. I like it.

      As you like it. Kazoos are more versatile.

      1. It’s a good thing you like it. It would be unfortunate if you disliked your own name.

        Yeah, but kazoos have that funny buzzing sound…

      2. True…

        I greatly admire people who can produce decent sounds out of woodwind instruments. I am not usually one of them, although I did sort of get the hang of recorder.

  3. I don’t suppose this post was written directly at me, was it? Because this is what I do. Always. Always, always, always. Even when I’m trying to write description, I…never write description.

    Anyway, thank you. This was a helpful post. I will try to remember it when I’m writing…

  4. I always find it helpful to sketch in the setting on the second draft, to bring the whole text more to life. There are small sign posts, but those need to be clarified.

  5. Three cheers for Gmunden! I think description is actually one of my stronger points (or less weak points). These days my problem is not so much including too little description, but including description that isn’t super relevant. My main goal now is to get my description to do more — not merely describe the setting, but also cast a light on (as you said) character and also be really interesting and insightful to read (because haven’t we all read books where the author spent too much time with boring descriptions, so we gave up?).

  6. Description is definitely awesome, but (for me personally) it has to be done right. Like, too much? It can be worse than too little. But sorry…I’m stuck on the fact that YOU TOURED EUROPE WITH YOUR ORCHESTRA??? THAT IS SO COOL. THAT IS REASON FOR ALL CAPS. I didn’t know you played! (I’m a cellist, but got too old for Youth Orchestras and am not really pursuing it all right now.) Anyway, Europe = awesome.

    1. Indeed. Too much description is no good.

      YES. I play string bass, but I don’t mention it much around here because it doesn’t have much to do with my writing or reading.

      1. Ah, yes, I don’t mention music a lot on my blog either for that reason…buuut, hey. Sometimes I claim randomness. My parents forbade anything bigger than a cello or it wouldn’t fit in the car. x)

      2. That’s a very real problem with basses. My sister wanted to try it, but I think she lost interest after we decided we couldn’t do two at once.

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