Description can bring your novel out or it can kill it. It’s the season salt of a novel. In some dishes it works well and brings out the flavor. Some dishes are salty enough on their own so adding tons of season salt is not necessary.
It’s all about the particular dish. When I say dish, I mean scene. As a novelist you should look at books in terms of their scenes because it’s best to tackle things one scene at a time. You learn to do that and it helps you retain knowledge to become a more effective writer.
The biggest thing I notice with a lot of newbies is that they tend to over-season their novels. They pour on the description whether they need it or not. Every scene does not need a bunch of description. What you want to do is give enough for the audience to form the image in their minds. You don’t have to describe every single thing in a scene. Some do it because they think they have to but using description excessively produces novels full of boring filler. This only bogs down the reader scene after scene.
It’s 2012 and readers these days just don’t have the patience to sit through a slow, filler-stuffed book. Remember not only are there other entertainment options to compete with but also tons of other novels that might be more fast-paced and compelling than yours.
So don’t give a reader more of an excuse to put yours down.
Once you learn how to use description it will help you to write satisfying books of substance minus the filler.
Use description when it’s important to the particular scene.
If readers knowing Jason’s outfit is important to the scene or what he is doing, describe it. If not then leave it out. Don’t describe an entire outfit just to do it. If it’s not an important fixture then stick with conveying action and bringing out character development through Jason’s dialogue and his actions. This will give readers a much better understanding of Jason and you won’t waste time with unnecessary description.
Note: Sometimes describing a character’s style of dress can be vital if it shows the type of person they are. If Louis always wears a flannel shirt and jeans with holes in the knees then say it. This type of description helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind about Louis because we identify the way someone dresses with the type of person they might be. How? Well in the case of Louis, he might be a blue-collar man. Maybe he works in a warehouse or construction. Add vivid descriptions throughout scenes to show this. His fingernails are always dirty. His Timberland boots are so scuffed up you can’t tell how long he’s had them. This is a great way to describe a character!
In my latest mystery The Season of Sin, one of my main characters fixes cars at a junkyard. Every time I showed him I made sure to relay some type of detail about his appearance. Not only does it help people form an image of Bruce in their heads, but it also sets the tone for his scenes. I brought attention to Bruce’s dirty fingernails, his oil-stained overalls and the fact that he smelled like gasoline even when he wasn’t working on a car. Some have even said they actually could smell gasoline off the pages during Bruce’s scenes.
These tiny details that I used for Bruce allows the reader to embrace the type of person he is. Description of clothing can be useful as a device to show someone’s profession or even their personality. And don’t forget smells! Does the person wear a certain type of perfume? Are they always smelly and musty?
Describe only particular things of importance.
If your setting takes place in Miss Lonny’s old country home by all means describe it but don’t go overboard. I like to describe only a few items in a room at a time. If this is a place the audience will see many times then don’t sit there and describe her home from top to bottom in the first scene. Why? You not only bog down the reader but the reader will not remember every single thing in Lonny’s home by the next time another scene takes place there.
Don’t add too much seasoning at one time.
So what kind of things should you describe? Don’t describe walls or floors unless they matter. I mean don’t just do it to say what color they are unless the color is important to the scene or informs us about the character. Stick with things that would stick out. If in your head you see a regular living room with a crooked TV stand, describe the crooked TV stand, not the entire room. The TV stand is what will also stick in readers’ heads. It conveys more than enough because the readers’ minds will wonder on their own just with the mention of that one stand.
Stick with things that stick out.
If Lonny has black walls then mention it because it’s not normal for someone to have black walls. The first thing the audience will say is, “Black walls? Why in the world does this woman have black walls?”
What else makes Miss Lonny’s home standout? Does she have an Oriental rug by the front door even though she’s living in this little country home? That would be something that sticks into the readers’ heads because they wouldn’t expect someone living in a country home to have an Oriental rug. It would make Miss Lonny more interesting. Black walls, Oriental rug in a country home? Who would have a home like this? It’s amazing what simple details can do.
Details, people. Details!
Practice: Look at your own home. Look at your living room or den. What sticks out among other things? What’s something you think visitors might notice the first time they come to your house?
Use vivid description in sex scenes and love scenes if you intend on writing out the scene.
If you decide not to do a close-the-door thing and wanna show the characters making love, show us. Look this is not the time to fudge on details.
And I mean show. If he is licking her navel, tell us how it feels so we know how it makes her feel. How does it feel when he sucks her toe or she plants kisses down his chest? Speaking of his chest, is it hairy? Is it smooth? When she kisses him do his chest muscles ripple under her lips when he arches his back?
How do the characters smell to each other? People smell when they make love. And no I don’t mean their privates necessarily. I mean people naturally have a scent especially to the opposite sex. It’s amazing how skin smells when you’re close enough to someone. Mention this stuff!
How are the characters feeling? Are they comfortable, horny or anxious? Do they have butterflies? Is one so nervous about making love that they might be a little nauseated?
Incorporate sounds. People don’t just make love silently unless it’s not good. (Little joke there). Sounds are an important part of love scenes. They further capture the emotions for the reader. Some people talk while making love, people instruct, people moan and groan.
Now admit that those little details got something churning inside of you from curiosity didn’t they? They immediately thrust you into the scene and you feel like you’re there.
That’s what you are supposed to do. It doesn’t come down to how many words you use or how long the scene is. You can have an effective scene with description that’s only a few paragraphs long. The shorter you can get your point across, the better.
And I don’t care how long the people are making love; a love scene should never be boring. If it seems boring to you then most likely it will be to readers.
The When Not’s:
Don’t stop action just to describe something
If Max’s plane is falling to the sea and he’s fighting with the controls, this isn’t the time to remind readers what Max is wearing or the color of the knobs on the plane. You might think this goes without saying but some writers do this. Never interrupt the tension for lame description.
Don’t waste time describing secondary characters
We don’t need to know what the prostitute who witnessed the murder looks like. Who cares? Just let her say what she saw and move on. There is no point to wasting time describing a character no one will see anymore.
Don’t describe for the sake of impressing readers
Some writers think that showing how well they can describe a canister (over four pages) will impress readers or it makes them look more “writerly” and intelligent. Wrong. Less is more. Look you aren’t writing Gone with the Wind. You need to make sure someone gets through your book without being bored to tears. Focus on your plots and pacing and not on trying to show how fancy you can describe something.
Stay away from clichés
Look anything you’ve heard a million times before in terms of describing someone or something is probably something you should overlook. Be creative and come up with your own way to describe. On the flipside don’t try to be too clever. It’ll come off as pompous and arrogant if you use a million big words that seem out of place.
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