Descriptions can be tricky to get right. They shouldn’t be overdone, they also shouldn’t be absent, but how do you create a perfect description?
Descriptions themselves have to do a lot with style. The style you’re writing in does influence the way your descriptions are built up and defines how descriptive the story is going to be on a whole. For me, I always try to use descriptions to create an atmosphere. I focus on what I want to make the reader feel and look at what I have to describe to achieve that feeling, thus creating an atmosphere. Atmosphere is what fuels your reader’s imagination. If the atmosphere is right, your reader will imagine many things you didn’t even describe.
Let’s say we’re looking at an apartment. We could describe it as modern, open, with only a few flecks of colour in a rather black and white scenery. Or we could say that the kitchen and living room aren’t separated, that the furniture is mostly white while the flooring is made from dark wood, that there are petrol coloured cushions on the white Ikea couch and that there are massive windows allowing us to look at giant skyscrapers - or rather at a very drab and grey background. Both descriptions draw more or less the same picture, one because of direct descriptions, the other because it creates an atmosphere out of vague descriptions, emotions and colours.
This shows us that we don’t always have to describe everything. Certain things, such as the dark blue china vase with kitschy kittens on it, might add detail - which, at times, is something a reader is actually looking for - but we don’t want to overdo it. If your character is looking at a desk, it’s enough to say that it’s messy and has paint spilled all over the old wooden surface. We don’t need to know that there is a bit of orange next to a blob of green, and we also don’t need to get a detailed description of faces, and especially not of hair.
Hair, oh hair. A friend of mine would always describe every single strand of hair whenever a new character was introduced. The girl with the short black hair wouldn’t just have messy hair - oh no. There would be two strands of hair poking out of the back, her bangs would cover up her left eyebrow, a strand of hair would poke through her helix piercing, another strand would curl up right above her right ear, and so on and so forth. I don’t even remember how many pages of descriptions of hair I had to get through.
I understand that authors do have a very detailed idea of what their character looks like, but most of the time many of their features don’t have any impact on the story as well. Your reader needs to have a vague idea of what the character looks like, the rest can be left for them to imagine. I’m sure you have a picture in mind when I tell you about a skinny blonde girl with long hair, wearing baggy black clothing. You don’t need to know that her nose is straight, that the arch of her left eyebrow is higher than the arch of her left eyebrow, that her eyes are green with brown flecks in them or that her top lip is thinner than her bottom lip. I agree that such detail creates a more detailed image of a character, but I am convinced that such a detailed image isn’t necessary by any means. Especially not all at once.
Sometimes descriptions of characters or places add to the scene, but sometimes it’s just too much. Let’s spend a morning with the girl I just described to you.
Peggy was late. It wasn’t the first time this week, and it didn’t bother her too much. What was she missing, 15 minutes of history class?
She yawned and went into the bathroom. Green eyes were staring at her as she took a look into the mirror. The stare she gave herself was almost depreciating - it reminded her of how her mother used to look at her years before.
“Fine”, Peggy muttered before she rushed through her morning routine. Without even looking at what she had grabbed out of the drawer, she put on a large black shirt, fished for her bag underneath her desk, jumped down the stairs and left the house, not bothering to lock the door. Her long blonde hair got caught in the straps of her bag multiple times as she was running down the street. She still had two minutes to be there in time.
Compared to the description I gave to you earlier, this does the thing as well. I could’ve elaborated vastly on her looks as she was staring into the mirror, but the scene doesn’t need that. If that was the scene to introduce the character for the first time, it would give away enough information about the character for a reader to imagine her. We can always add to her description in later scenes, thus splitting up long and detailed descriptions.
Now let us look at how descriptions can influence the atmosphere of a scene. For this, let us take a short dialogue as an example.
Mark: You’re late.
Emma: I’m sorry, the traffic was nuts today.
Mark was waiting for his girlfriend to pick him up. He had been waiting at the car park for about half an hour - the meeting had ended early. Grey clouds hung above his head, and a few drops of rain found their way to the grey concrete he was standing on. In the distance he could hear an ambulance.
A black mini stopped only a few metres away from him. He looked at the car and recognised the licence plate. He sighed before he walked over to it and sat down on the passenger seat.
“You’re late”, he said calmly as he looked at his girlfriend. She blushed, the red of her cheeks complimented her blonde hair. Mark smiled.
“I’m sorry, the traffic was nuts today”, Emma replied, sheepishly smiling.
It was raining heavily as Mark was impatiently wandering around at the car park behind the grey skyscraper he was working in. Emma had promised to pick him up after work, but she hadn’t shown up yet. He continuously kept looking at his watch. In the distance he saw lightning strike. The thunderstorm was on the other side of the river, but it still made him feel uncomfortable.
He looked up as he heard a car stop besides him. He recognised the black mini instantly and got in.
“You’re late”, he complained as he forcefully closed the passenger seat door. The young woman next to him looked down.
“I’m sorry”, she said quietly as she started driving again, “the traffic was nuts today”. He rolled his eyes. It was typical for her to always look for flimsy excuses.
The blue sky stretched over the city, warm beams of sunshine hit the huge buildings. Mark was waiting for his girlfriend at a car park. He had gotten some ice cream from the truck that had stopped a few minutes ago. A coworker was accompanying him, they were discussing their plans for the weekend. Mark told him about the trip he and his girlfriend had planned. They wanted to spend the weekend in the woods, in a cabin, celebrating their two year anniversary.
A black mini stopped close to them and Mark got in, saying goodbye to his coworker. He looked at the girl who drove the car, smiling happily. She was beautiful. Her blonde hair was up in a bun, just the way she always wore it to work.
“You’re late”, he noticed after a moment of just appreciating her extraordinary beauty. She blushed and bit her lip. He loved when she did that.
“I’m sorry, the traffic was nuts today”, she replied. He chuckled. It was so lovely how she always apologised for everything, even though she knew he could never get mad at her.
The different descriptions of people, buildings and nature does create very different atmospheres which can heavily influence the direction in which a scene is going. As you can see, we created three very different scenarios, but all are created around Mark waiting for Emma to pick him up, followed by a very short dialogue.
Those descriptions are the only ones that really are important for a scene, because they add to it. I only use descriptions that have a purpose, and that is why my stories don’t appear utterly boring even though I’m someone who likes to describe quite a lot. The descriptions I give always add to the atmosphere because they represent or cause feelings characters have.
As a rule of thumb you should cut down on all descriptions that don’t serve a purpose. Don’t describe that plant if it doesn’t play any role in the story at all. As for descriptions you want to give, it mostly is enough to describe around five things vaguely by naming colours or shapes or emotions those things cause, and no more than three things in detail. And when you are describing something in detail, try focusing on the most important bits. Our minds are powerful, and we can create images out of many things.
If you are feeling like you didn’t describe something in enough detail, have someone other than you read it. If they say they can imagine the situation nicely, you don’t necessarily have to add detail. However, it’s never good to have too few descriptions.
As a last point, I want to address times. When writing a story, there is two different time spans you have to think about - the time the scene takes to be finished, and the time the reader takes to finish reading the scene. By adding or cutting down on descriptions you can vary the relations of those two time spans.
Differences in that relation throughout different scenes have a massive impact on the rhythm of the story. Playing around with that relation, switching between short actions that take long to read about and long actions that can be read about in a short amount of time, creates a pulsating and interesting rhythm, which can affect the atmosphere and the impact the story has on the reader. Changing up that relation can be used as a stylistic device which is only based on the amount on descriptions you decide to include, and it is also something not very many (hobby-) authors utilise in their stories.
What do you like and dislike about certain ways to create and utilise descriptions? How do you use them, and what is your advice for people struggling with them? Share your experiences down below, or leave a question! I’d love to help, and to learn new things!