Thursday, June 2, 2011


The saying is 'a picture is worth a thousand words'
 --But an author only has a paragraph to create it and it's not as easy as it sounds.  Too much description will overload a reader's imagination and turn their brains into vegetable soup.  Too little description will make props seem to appear out of thin air.

One paragraph.  When introducing a reader to a setting, that's pretty much all you get since every word written to describe something is an extra moment where the main character is standing around, doing nothing.

Now, I'm not a published author.  Let me make that clear right now.  All my opinions and advice comes from practice and study.  But there's one thing I know:  being generic isn't a bad thing.

  • Eli walks into a cafe.
Without any description, the generic word 'cafe' should automatically summon a window-front, a display case, a waitress, tables, chairs, and the potential for other costumers.  Specifics aside, every cafe must have things in common, else the word 'cafe' has no meaning.

  • Eli walks into a casino.
Can you hear the slot machines?  You know there's a blackjack table somewhere and guys patrolling in suits.  Don't forget the dark lighting, carpeted floors, and the little exchange windows.  It's the same no matter where you go. 

  • Eli walks down the street.
But here is where generic isn't as friendly.  This is because every street only has one thing in common--a strip for cars to drive down.  HOWEVER--with a little attention to word choice, you can begin painting a stronger picture with the addition of a few words... perhaps even a single word.

  • Eli walks down main street.
Historically "Main Street" is the first street created in a city.  Therefore, it's typically summons the image of being surrounded by old buildings, a narrow street, and more brick than glass or steel. 

  • Eli walks down the street from her house.
A house on a street *typically* means a residential area.  That means white houses, the neighbor's dog, and the cars parked on the curb.  All I've done is combine two very generic landmarks, yet the reader's peripheral vision has already painted an entire world.

What does all of this mean for a writer?  First, anything generic can't be underestimated.  Second, by knowing what is painted in the peripheral, you save yourself the effort of having to waste words with detail.  Third, by knowing what the reader expects to be there, you can also figure out what they don't expect to be there.

  • Eli walks into a cafe.  Light streams through the skylight, highlighting a man sitting alone with a newspaper.
  • Eli walks into a casino.  The sound of gunfire creates chaos around her.
  • Eli walks down main street.  At the corner, she waits for traffic to clear.

In each of these descriptions, notice how the follow-up sentence adds to the picture without stopping the flow of action.  Unlike:

  • Eli walks into a cafe.  It's gaudy wallpaper makes her wince, although the smell of fresh croissants gives her hope.
  • Eli walks into a casino.  Lights wink on every slot machine.
  • Eli walks down main street.  The sidewalk remains relatively empty of pedestrians.

This type of description is often the cause of 'writer's block' because it keeps the character at a standstill.  Once the description ends, a writer doesn't know what to do to make the character move again.  I've found the best way to overcome it is to remove unnecessary description completely by relying on a reader's expectations for the generic.

  • A department store.
  • A hardware store.
  • A jewelry store. 

As a writer, I don't really need to explain the layout and design of these locations.  It's good enough to know what a reader expects out of each generic location and save descriptions for the things my character interacts with.

/end ramblings on descriptions


Joyce Alton said...

Great examples! I know a few people I want to reference this post to. =)

Eli Ashpence said...

Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. :)