Description is Not a Sin

I have a problem, the reverse of what many of my fellow writers struggle with. I am terse. I don’t dump words on the page like water pouring over a cliff. Years as a professional editor and doctoral student show up in first drafts full of compact prose. Word count is not my friend, but unlike most of my fellow authors who fight to keep their stories under the word count requirement, I struggle to inflate mine.

Going to writing panels at Cons hurt me in a way. It took a while to realize that much of the advice was directed toward those authors so in love with their own words that they ignore word count requirements or gush on about details irrelevant to their stories. Listening to pleas for authors to hone their stories, edit the extraneous, tighten descriptions, and by all that’s holy don’t send in submissions with word counts higher than the requested number, I’d nod somewhat smugly. I had that part of the process completely under control.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusions my writing can never be tightened. I make mistakes, have things to learn, and get sloppy. In my professional editing days, my co-workers joked that we could find mistakes in any writing of significant length, no matter who wrote it. I firmly believe perfect writing is an unattainable illusion. Something to strive for, but in the end we just have to release our creations and move on.

Others have offered advice. “Don’t edit while you write.” That makes sense, but I struggle with it. Seeing misspelled words or run-on sentences drives me nuts. I’m also beginning to think that’s not my real problem.

I had one aspect of writing under control, but I was missing something else. A writer who uses too few words is as bad, maybe worse, as one who uses too many. Words are our tools to create our worlds and if we don’t build a strong foundation, the structure crumbles.  My stories aren’t coming alive, because I focus on plot and not enough on detail.

Stories need to create mood and evoke emotion causing readers to lose themselves in and accept the existence of an imaginary world. That’s arguably more difficult in speculative fiction than in real-world fiction. When describing the “real world,” authors may label a vehicle as a compact car or a panel truck, and readers get the general drift without long exposition about steering wheels, engines, or tires. That’s not the case with a new planet or a world after an apocalypse. Readers need detail of sights, smells, and sounds to make imaginary worlds believable.

New writers often hear they should avoid info dumps, those large amounts of description thrown on the page like splatters of sphagetti sauce from a pan boiling over. They may be advised not to bog down the first page or first chapter with too much detail. Good advice but it can be overdone resulting in a flat and uninteresting story. Description is the spice of our storytelling. The trick is, just like in cooking, to use the spice sparingly.

Take the first two sentence from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.” There is a hook here – who is Prim? Where has she gone? Katniss is actively doing something – she’s looking for Prim, but a haze of poverty underlies these two sentences. Katniss is cold. She was using Prim to stay warm. The mattress has a rough canvas cover. Obviously, Katniss doesn’t have a thick blanket. Collins paints the poverty in Katniss’s world before we even know who Katniss is or what the conflict is (in another lesson on writing a first chapter, it doesn’t take Collins long to reach the conflict – the reaping is mentioned at the end of that first paragraph).

I might be talking to only a few people. Maybe I’m the only writer who struggles to pull out words from her reluctant brain. If you are like me though and words are hard to extract, examine your use of description and perhaps sprinkle more salt and pepper on the page. Bland stories are just as ineffective as those that are overpower us with spice.





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