Beware the Power of Description — it can make or halt your story

Beware the power of description. It can make or halt your story. I often marvel, and even envy a little, those who can paint a scene with words. I also cringe at those who try and make my eyes haze over, forcing me to skip ahead as the only way to get through and on with the story. More than that, I dread doing that to my readers, so I don’t.

Descriptions serve a powerful purpose. They draw the scene with precise wording to engage the reader in the world the character inhabits. Unfortunately, when the “precise wording” part doesn’t happen, descriptions pack an equally destructive power, namely that of bringing the story to an untimely halt.
Sample description by Eduardo Suastegui

Some red flags to look for

Inventory lists: If a person or scene’s description comes at you like a long string of data items, your alarm should go off. When I do this, I do it selectively and for no more than two sentences, and often revise it away after the first draft.

Third person omniscient: In this description, we hear the author telling us how something or someone looks. Few can do this well, and even then, after a couple of paragraphs, I find myself skimming or skipping ahead, or laying the book aside altogether. I dare say, many readers out there share this “flaw.”

It goes too darn long: Sorry. I know this probably stems from my inability to hang on for very long. But even the best of writers (I love Tolstoy, OK?) can’t get away with descriptions that go on and on. Especially in my action-laden stories, I have to show you what’s happening. The key is to show the scene, what it looks like, along with what is happening. And that leads us to…

Nothing’s happening(!): This perhaps can be the most frustrating thing about overdrawn or badly done descriptions. They have little connection to the action, halt the action, and even if they prepare us for the action to come (i.e., describing some cool helicopter our heroine is about to fly), they strike us beside the point. When I write something like this, I put my reader hat on and ask myself whether I’ve thrown a huge speed bump or erected a barricade in the story’s flow. If so, it’s time to revise or slash.

Make descriptions character-centric

We have heard it said: write character-centric fiction. We make great effort to devise a plot that can only happen in light of the character’s inner traits and motivations. Yet, we forget this advice the second we drop into a description. Why not describe from the character’s point of view? Why not let his or her voice drench the text? Why not include all of the character’s senses — beyond the visual — to immerse us in how she is experiencing and interacting with the scene?

Here’s an example from Rover, episode 2 of the Tracking Jane series:

It feels strange to walk through an empty terminal where only hints of travel remain. The stray boarding pass on the floor, strewn briefcases and carry-ons left behind, and phone chargers still hanging from wall sockets tell the story of a chaotic evacuation. Then there’s the smell. It still fills the space and it stops me. Shadow whines and growls. Cassandra stops next to me, and I sense that smell hits her too, full on like a wave of memories and anguish, the aftermath that never stays all the way behind you.

This is how I wrote it from the get-go, so I don’t have the bad/before version to show you. I will, however, re-write it the way I often find it, even in best-seller, published stories:

Inside the terminal, only hints of travel remain. Stray boarding passes lie on the floor, as do strewn briefcases and carry-on bags. Phone chargers still hang from wall sockets bearing further testimony of a chaotic evacuation. Then there’s also the acrid smell of chemicals burned in the explosion. Beside me Shadow whines and growls. Cassandra stops next to me, and I can tell all this is affecting her as it does me.

OK, I’ll admit it, both of these are full-on tells. Some might argue the first paragraph incorporates more elements of a show, but they’re both tells. The first one, however, immediately places us inside the character’s skin (something that’s been happening all along leading to this juncture). “It feels strange,” the paragraph starts, and from that point, we’re experiencing the scene from her perspective. Note also the choppy sentence fragments. This is how a real persons sees and experiences something traumatic — my character’s voice comes out. The nice, polished sentences (even though active, for the most part) in the alternative sample smack of authorial interference. Then we see how the character ends, on an emotional note. Here the reader is invited to join in that emotional reaction.

Keep it short and to the point

This is an optional, stylistic recommendation on my part. If you have lengthy, yet powerful and engaging descriptions in you, great. I find that my descriptions need to pack punch, get in, and get out so that the story can proceed. In the example I gave above, the punch comes in how the scene affects the main character and her sidekicks. The momentary break in the action gets justification in what’s happening inside her, and hopefully, in the reader.

On the other side of the ledger, I have read lengthy descriptions inside a major confrontation, you know, like a fight scene. Really, the bad guy is throwing punches, knives, grenades and whatever else he can get his hands on, and we have time to get a full description of his overwhelming physique and brooding eyes, along with a layout of the location where the fight is taking place? We’re speeding down at ninety miles per hour during a car chase, and we can spare a few paragraphs to learn what the buildings look like and how the sunset is coloring everything with sinister red lighting?

Admittedly, those are extreme examples. But even in quieter places, I ask myself, what exactly is happening here? Or more to the point, what isn’t happening here because my description keeps going on and on?

No doubt, in the end descriptions that work and appeal boil down to style and personal preference. Some authors can write compelling descriptions that go on for a bit longer than I can manage, both as a writer and as a reader. For my stories, however, I will describe that which is essential, and then get on with the action. Or better yet, I will strive to make the description an integral, experiential aspect of the action.

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