What’s He Look Like, Again?

Today’s topic comes from the NaNoWriMo forums, namely, “How do you work in description in novels without making the story come to a stand still?”

When it comes to getting information across in a story, it can often be a struggle. You don’t want to give the reader nothing to go on–so they are confused/have no idea what anything looks like–but you also don’t want to hit pause in the middle of action to go “hey, by the way, this is what this room looks like.”

Excuse me while I take the next two pages to describe this generic hotel room. (Source: William Warby/Flickr)

WriMo Se.Ka.Ya. describes the struggle well, posting:

[My worst writing habit is] I don’t even do description, The reason I started leaving description out was that I started with too much of it. It’s like describing a picture in class – I had a character, room or whatever, and the story stopped while I explained what was there and how it looked and what material it was etc. – and then the story continued. So I started consciously leaving those parts out, which made me end up at the other side where I can’t even get the colors of [my characters’] uniforms right, because I [didn’t] think to mention something I have no plan for.

As with most things in writing, writing description is a balancing act, and it is very simple to swing too far to one extreme or another. The good news, though, is that there tends to be an easy fix when it comes to getting in some description without pausing action to give a laundry list of everything in a room/a character is wearing/etc. And that is:

Work in description while your character is interacting with the items being described.

There are very few people who walk into a new room and consciously begin to list off everything they are seeing. Therefore, it is both more interesting and more natural to start with one or two descriptors and then move on from there. For example:

Boring/Laundry List Description: John walked into the old, dusty room. It didn’t look like anyone had been in there for years. A red carpet sat on top of wood floors with a set of old chairs on top of the carpet toward the wall to John’s left. A canopy bed with matching red curtains was off to is right and looked just as dusty as everything else. On the far wall, a large window mostly covered with curtains let in a ray of light that let John see the deep green wall paper that was peeling off the wood walls. 

Description mixed with action: John walked into the old room, coughing as dust few up out of the thick red carpet under his feet. He batted it away as he tried to force his eyes to adjust to the dark room. It didn’t look as though anyone had been there for years. With any luck, he wouldn’t have to be in there much longer himself. Glancing around, John moved for the canopy bed to his right. If he had had to hide a treasure map, that was where he’d have put it. Pushing the equally dusty curtains out of the way, he scanned the frame for anything out of the ordinary…

As shown in the second “description” it is possible to get in much of the same information as the first laundry list all while keeping the action of the scene moving (John looking for a treasure map). As he continues his search around the room, he can move to the chairs, pull open the curtains, interact with the space as the reader gets a more and more complete picture of what is there with him. Just like with backstory, it works best to make chunks of information “bite size” and work them in as the reader goes along so things are never pulled away from the action too long to tell the reader chunks of information.

So, if you are struggling working in description, remember:

  1. Not everything needs to be described at once (start with the big things you would notice when you first enter a room first; the rest of the information can likely wait)
  2. It is possible to work description in while the action is still happening “on screen”

From there, with a little practice, you should be in pretty good shape.

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