This problem may be even more widespread than the problem of Awkward Dialogue. The main difficulty here comes when you have a great idea for a person, place or object, but you have such an idea of it in your brain that you fail to describe it fully and adequately so the average joe could visualize what you were thinking.
Sometimes, the description is totally absent. It just decided not to show up. Typically, this is because you were either lazy or you didn’t deem said object, person or place interesting enough for a description at all. The reader might think, differently, however. Having your reader think that you should have put more work into it when you didn’t suggests that they know something you don’t.
Before I address the common solutions to these widespread problems, I need to clear up some misconceptions concerning descriptions:
Myth #1: You need to describe every place, person, and object you put in the story. Not only is this totally unnecessary and extremely tiresome and difficult, it also bores the average reader. If you asked me why not many people these days read Moby Dick, I’d probably tell you that there is too much description. (It literally takes pages to describe the waves. In a whaling story.)
Myth #2: Even if you don’t describe everything in the story, you should make all your descriptions as detailed as possible. This is going to be as annoying as the last one, because you’re spending a lot of time agonizing over what details you have not mentioned about this relatively distant and uninteresting character who doesn’t need it. If you deem a character, place, or object worthy of a description, give it one befitting to its interestingness (that’s a word, look it up). If you give a minimal description to a character who doesn’t have much investment in the story, the reader will conclude that they are not genuinely important.
Myth #3: Never give minimal descriptions. It’s all or nothing. Like I said, some characters, places and objects are of just enough importance in the story to get into it, but not enough to denote that they are of particular importance or even interest. Remember: the less description you give a thing, the more the readers will conclude that it’s not important unless you make it so.
Now, here’s the golden rule for descriptions (although you could have inferred it from my previous words): More important people, places, and things deserve descriptions, and probably the most detailed ones. Less important people, places and things don’t usually need descriptions, but if they do, the description should be minimal.
I am of the opinion that all characters who appear more than twice in a story deserve a description, as well as those one-time appearances who have more than a page of collected dialogue. This is a good rule of thumb, but you can break it based on what you feel to be appropriate.
When I say “minimal description” I’m talking a one or two-sentence description (A tall fellow he was, bald-headed and with a large red mustache. He seemed obsessed with it, and twirled it every few moments. He had a loud voice and was very witty.) Nothing too complex; just notice a few things about him that are characteristic.
For more minor characters, I would suggest establishing one “handle” detail. I’ll explain: you want the reader to have a sense of “oh, that’s the guy with the red mustache” when you mention “Charles” so that they have a pretty well-established concept of who “Charles” is. The bushy red mustache is their way or recognizing them in a crowd. So when a slightly suspicious red-mustached man is following the main villain, the reader can easy see who we are referring to. All of that took 2-3 sentences of description.
For more important characters, I would suggest using a description at least a paragraph long. If you include the backstory, you probably need two more. The backstory is necessary for more important characters, and if you think an object or place needs a backstory as well, then add it.
Good luck, and happy writing!
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One thought on “Common Pitfalls: Poor or Absent Descriptions”
Lol, I’ve been told I have white room syndrome, and I didn’t realise that until an external editor took a look at my work. So yeah, this post has reminded me to keep that in mind, as I tend to default to white-room-ness, mostly out of fear of being verbose. Anyway, thanks for this post!
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