Teaching Descriptions

Easing back into this blogging gig with a good old getting-high-and-mighty about writing.

One of the questions I got a lot when I was tutoring was ‘how do I write descriptions’. Description, I feel, falls victim to two problems. First, as always, incomplete and misleading common writing wisdom, and second, overemphasis on certain techniques of description.

Probably the most obvious problem is “good description transports you to the world and lets you see what the characters are seeing. It’s another one of those ‘show, don’t tell’ pieces of advice: True? Yes. But complete? No.

Because yes, it’s true that good description should give the reader a clear idea of what’s going on in a scene or setting, but the advice leads to a whole lot of people trying to describe scenes like a movie, which books are just not meant to do. What a movie can show at a glance bogs a book down – you can’t list all the details of a scene. And while you can list only the most important details, as and when they become relevant, that often leaves readers with no idea what’s going on in a scene, desks to lean on, writing paper, or ‘opposite door’s appearing seemingly out of nowhere and disrupting their image of the scene.

The imperative that new writers often have to maximise the number of impressive words also contributes a little to this – description is one of the places where we often want our writing to soar. This is even more pronounced in genre fiction, where writers want to pay close attention to the sweeping setpieces in their scenes – fantasy landscapes, or awesome gadgets and technology, or a particularly attractive new co-worker, or a gripping fight scene. The temptation is to make it big and sweeping and grand and therefore the writing tends to follow – unfortunately, writing like this rarely lives up to the intent behind it.

The final big problem, I think, is that there’s so much conflicting information on it, and so much of it is a matter of preference. Do you think that you should get a full description of the characters on their arrival in the story, just enough details to draw a picture, a gradual description as the story progresses, or no description at all save for what’s necessary to tell the story? That’s all going to depend on the person reading it, and possibly even more so on the kind of story you’re telling, and what tone suits it.

I will fully admit that I am also guilty of teaching bad habits with this. When I need to teach writing, I tend to teach the Three Detail Rule.

I call this a rule – it’s really more of a writing thought exercise, seeing as it’s more useful for testing out how to think about description in writing than being a reliable method for good description.

The basic idea of the Three Detail Rule is this: When you describe something, pick the three most important details and give them roughly equal description in the text. This stems from a rule I started using when I was GMing games, where to avoid being too obvious with my plot-relevant description, I would pair the one plot-relevant description with two other interesting but irrelevant details. For example, if the party needed to look for some papers under a desk, I might tell them that the desk has long legs, long enough that someone could crawl under the desk, but also that it’s got scuffs on one drawer in particular that looks like it gets used quite often, and scratches near one of the wood panels – the other details might lead them to believe there are secret compartments, or might lead to some more information about the character whose desk it is, but the actual plot is under the desk.

This doesn’t translate quite as well over to a book, because a book description needs to worry more about the environmental and character development angles than a GM, so the one important, two interesting scheme doesn’t quite carry over. But I find the exercise of choosing the three most important details of a scene can be good practice for deciding what is important description.

However, this approach is very simplistic. For example – if you’re describing that room with the desk, do you use those three details to describe the room in general, or three for the room and then three for the desk? Three details is an awfully arbitrary number – often you really do need to give more details than that, and sometimes you can do with one sentence. Your writing will start to sound stilted if you give three details in every single description. It also tends to sound very dot point-y, which is absolutely the opposite of what you want in good description.

So, the Three Detail Rule is a starting point, but it’s not a good way to write description, in the slightest.

I think the only real way to teach description is a combination of tools. There are a few important parts to writing description that works, and it’s hard to train description in itself, I think, unless you just keep writing, give things to beta readers for feedback, and gradually learn through trial and error.

Description is a matter of learning a few skills: First, the choice of what’s important for the readers to know, what’s interesting for the readers to know, and what is most relevant to the scene you’re writing. That’s the skill that the Three Detail Rule is supposed to teach. But you also need to match your description writing to your general tone – going overboard on a more flowery tone for description will be jarring, no matter how pretty the words are, unless it aligns with the rest of your writing. It’s also important to learn pacing, to tell how much space you have for description in a scene, and how much is going to be tedious for the readers, and to appropriately vary your description so that it flows right.

I can’t do it myself just yet, but I think the key to being able to teach description is being able to break it down into the different skills and teaching them, then doing exercises that put it all together. It’s something that has been bugging me for a while because I really don’t have a good answer to give when someone asks me for help improving description.

I guess all I can say is beta readers are important human beings.

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