Questionable: Description, Yes, No, Lots, Little?

Kate asked:
What types of description do you think are needed in novels, and what do readers just skip over? Do readers like to know she has brown eyes and a dimple?

My take on needed description is “not much,” mostly because readers like to imagine their own characters and will overrule your descriptions if they get in the way. 

Another reason is that I’m a bear about PoV and the only way a PoV character can describe herself is by looking in a mirror (NEVER DO THAT) which is completely unnatural. (Think about the last time you looked in a mirror; did you describe yourself?  No. The last time I looked in a mirror, I thought, Who is that old woman and why is she wearing my pajamas?).

Another reason is that if we’re interacting with somebody in real life, we get impressions, we don’t stop to do inventories because that takes time, and the long pause and the staring will cause comment. So if a first person or third limited PoV character goes on for a paragraph about what somebody looks like, unless she has a good reason–she’s a detective analyzing a suspect, for example–she’s going to notice only a few telling details (telling to her and the story) and move on.

So what description can you use?

The big determiner is that “telling detail” bit, as in “What descriptive details are absolutely crucial to telling this story?”  Readers need time and place to anchor the story, but they don’t need granular details of the setting, just enough that the characters aren’t walking through white space like Coraline. They also need to know enough about what the characters look like to personalize them, which is usually not hair and eye color unless the hair is blue. And you have to remember that whatever the PoV character notices is because of who they are, not who the other person is; we notice the details that are important to us, we don’t take general inventories.

For example, when I was writing Maybe This Time, I didn’t spend much time on Andie or North because what they looked like didn’t matter.  What mattered were the details they noticed seeing each other for the first time after ten years, how they’d changed and how they hadn’t, how that hit them. I don’t remember what Andie looked like except that she had her hair pulled back and North didn’t like it; I remember that North looked tired and that made Andie catch a little. I couldn’t tell you Andie’s hair or eye color now to save me. But the little girl Alice had to be ghostly pale because I wanted the subtext that she was slowly turning into a ghost herself, that the supernatural was taking her, and that Andie’s fight would be taking her back.  So Alice had pale skin, and pale blue eyes, and white-blonde hair to underscore that.

Nita’s description is pure plot: it needs to be there so Nick can look at her and see that she’s familiar, and then later see her father and realize why she’s familiar; that realization is a huge turning point, so I needed to mention several descriptive aspects that she shared with her dad.  Nick’s description when Nita looks at him is only important because it’s fake; that is, he looks the way he thinks he used to look, but it’s been a long time and he’s forgotten, so he remembers himself as taller with ears that don’t stick out, and he’s left out his widow’s peak.  As he’s poisoned and becomes alive again, he gets shorter, his ears stick out, and the widow’s peak comes back.  It doesn’t matter that Nick has a widow’s peak; it matters that when it comes back, it’s a clue that he’s alive again. In the same way, it doesn’t matter that Mort has blue eyes and Nita has black until they tell Button they’re twins; now it’s a plot point that sets up a question for the future, the answer to which is crucial for the plot.

In those cases, the description is integral to the plot so the reader will use it in her understanding of the story; she’ll know subconsciously that it’s important.  Anything else, the reader will probably forget (it’s not important) or discard (it’s annoying).  In Manhunting, I gave Jake a mustache (god knows why) and I got several letters saying, “In my book, Jake has no mustache.”  That works for me, and it was easy for readers, too, because after I gave him the mustache in the beginning, I never mentioned it again.  It wasn’t important to the story. That’s dumb description.

It’s the same in setting, too: if you’ve decided to describe a rainy street at night, you can figure that the reader will know that the street is slick and neon reflects off the puddles; everybody knows that. But they won’t know that the street is cobblestone unless you tell them. And there’s no need to tell them unless the cobblestones come into play in some way, like they slow people down or somebody trips because cobblestone is hard to walk on. A few vivid, telling details that the PoV character notices for a reason are much more effective than long paragraphs of description going into every facet of the scene or person. That’s the part people skim.

Put another way, the fact that I have brown eyes has never meant a damn bit of difference to my life.  The fact that Paul Newman had blue eyes made a big difference to his life.  If you’re writing my story, you can skip the eyes. If you’re writing Newman’s, you’re gonna have to mention those telling blues.

Jane commented:
I get annoyed when two-thirds of the way through, the heroine’s blonde hair or green eyes are mentioned, contradicting whatever I’d sketched in. I’d far rather such things were made clear at the start.

This is important for exactly the reason Jane gives; it throws the reader out of the story. If you’ve got a specific description that’s going to come up later in the story, foreshadow it, preferably in the first ten pages or so (readers start building their character ideas right off the bat as they build the movie in their heads).  For Nita, I got the black helmet hair and pointy eyebrows in with Button, enough to give the reader a general idea although Button’s comment still seems awkward, but I had to wait until the third scene to get Nita’s description of Nick, and that’s too far in, about thirty pages.  The best I could do was give Mort a line in the car about the Devil in the bar being talk, dark, and scary. 

Addendum: I was thinking about this post and remembered a story a friend of mine, a romance writer, told me about how she met her husband. You’d think it’d be romantic, and I’m sure the actual date was, but the story she tells is that he’d ask a friend to fix him up, and the friend said he had two possibilities, a blonde and a brunette. The future significant other said, “The blonde” (of course) and went on the date, which did not work out. Then he said, “Okay, the brunette,” and they’ve been together for decades. What does that tell you about my friend, aside from the fact that she has dark hair and a great sense of humor? Nothing. What does it tell you about her future husband back then? He was a guy. (What is it with blondes, anyway?). What does it tell you about hair color? Aside from cultural biases, it doesn’t matter.

And now that I think of it, another good friend of mine who’s a romance writer was dating a great guy, went home to meet his family and met his identical twin, and married the twin. They also have been together for decades (I think she can tell them apart now), so whatever detail it was that made her say, “Him, not him,” it wasn’t description.

29 thoughts on “Questionable: Description, Yes, No, Lots, Little?

  1. This is interesting, especially as there’s an understanding that we need to have more diverse characters for diverse readers.

    When the Hunger Games film came out some were upset that the cast included poc. Except Susanne Collins had described them as poc! I thought of this because I’m still reading The Geek Feminist Revolution and Hurley referenced an essay she wrote about “colorblind” writing. She said ‘the default reading experience for many of us in the United States is white and male, and trying to write “colorblind” was going to result in readers whitewashing the book. So upon and as a result of, discussion, many authors changed the way they wrote.’

    Sometimes body image matters as it informs a reader of the character’s through comparison and self-talk. In Bet Me, Min looks at Cal and thinks that he’s so beautiful, his face should be on coins but she doubts he’d date the “terminally chubby”. These evocative descriptions inform the reader about the characters more than adjectives and nouns strung together such as “He had a straight nose and full lips.”

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    1. On a related note, I don’t think John Scalzi describes people that I can think of. You might guess at ethnicity from the names, but that’s about it.

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      1. That was one of his keys to Lock In and Head On. The main character has a name of Chris. There was no description of gender. And the audio versions were done by two different narrators – one in male voice, the other female.

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          1. The idea was to allow the readers to create Chris in their own minds. There was no “she / he said” or “give it to him/her”. It is written in first person POV, so the narrator options work for both genders.

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    2. This is kind of a spoiler, but Aaronovitch’s _Rivers of London_ books, written in the first person of a black man, have `white’ as the marked race. That is, when describing a new character, their race is only specified if they’re white. (Or maybe if not of African descent? I ought to go check.)

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  2. I think one of the reasons why I love your books is that they are so carefully crafted that the reader doesn’t need the extra words to build a mental picture. Those descriptors which are there are there for a reason — they help the plot or define the character in ways that are important.

    I find as time goes on that it annoys the crap out of me when a book is filled with loads of (superfluous) descriptive adjectives and adverbs — they feel like fillers to reach a pre-specified word count. There’s not enough story without the extra verbiage and it shows. It’s kind of like how schoolkids write when they have really first discovered adjectives and also when they first are assigned “write a two page essay” and they need a page’s worth of adjectives to make it to the second page.

    As you have so often shown us, judicious cutting and pruning adds strength and focus to a story. I think I instinctively understood that, but it was nice hearing that this was the right instinct.

    Love reading these questionables, BTW. Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom and experience with us all. I, for one, am very, very grateful!

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  3. I don’t think this woman’s blog is online any more–I think it was Squirrel Bait–but she said something like, she could never picture anything she read in books (me either) so all she’d get from lavish descriptions was “She’s inside, and she’s a redhead.” I was all, hear hear.

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  4. Thanks, Jenny. I needed to hear the part about the bits that are important to the story. In Glimmer Girls the fact that the protag has scales is the important bit. That her eyes are green and her hair is red matters not one wit. It’s good to remember that.

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  5. This is funny to me because I’m light on description and sprinkle things in as needed. But I had an early beta reader say to me basically: “I kept hoping the MC would pass a mirror and describe herself,” lol. So guess some readers do like the mirror thing;)

    Overall, yup, I think reading is interactive so I’m with you on the just enough detail to suggest (but not necessarily entirely paint) a picture approach. And love your Paul Newman blue eyes example. Good way to put it:)

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    1. Here’s the protagonist from Edmund Crispin’s Glimpses of the Moon passing a mirror:

      “He paused by the mirror, from which, not unexpectedly, his own face looked out at him. In the fifteen years since his last appearance, he seemed to have changed very little. Peering at his image now, he saw the same tall lean body, the same ruddy, scrubbed-looking, clean-shaven face, the same blue eyes, the same brown hair ineffectually plastered down with water, so that it stood up in a spike at the crown of his head. Somewhere or other he still had his extraordinary hat. Good. At this rate, he felt, he might even live to see the day when novelists described their characters by some other device that that of manoeuvering them into examining themselves in mirrors.”

      If your reader asked for a mirror, she’s seen too damn many of them.

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  6. This makes so much sense. Thank you.

    On a (slightly) related note, if I want to ask a question for the Questionables posts, should I go back to that post or ask it here?

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    1. I answer on the dashboard where comments show up in the order they’re posted, not by post, so I’ll catch it either way (or miss it either way). You can go ahead and ask it here; that’s probably more convenient for you.

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      1. Is it convenient for you is more to the point, but here goes.

        Question for Questionables:

        You mentioned you needed to focus more on the Nita and Nick romance plot and less on the Cthulhu plot. Could you expand a little on how you do that? What makes the romance the main plot? My Cthulhu plots tend to take over.

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  7. In a Kristen Higgins novel, the younger, perky, cute sister had admiring thoughts about her elegant, poised older step-sister. Later on, older sister had passing thoughts about younger sister’s cute clothes and outgoing personality and how engaging she was. It showed me things about both sisters’ personalities, (which it wouldn’t if they thought about themselves and who would?), but also neither ever said such things to each other. It engaged me as a reader, I felt I knew both characters better than they knew each other in some ways, which was true, and very telling about their relationship.

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    1. That kind of description almost always characterizes the observer more than the observed, which as you pointed out is an excellent way to show not tell relationships. They have to have a reason for thinking about the other person in that moment, so it also ties into plot: what just happened that made her think that and how does her thinking that move her toward the next scene?

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  8. Hurley says that her essay in 2007 was in response to Scalzi’s post on why he wrote “colourblind”. I haven’t read his works written after so I don’t know. I’ll tweet the link to Hurley’s original post.

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  9. What I remember about Minerva Dobbs is not hair or eye color. It’s Brats and Krispy Kremes and Chicken Marsala. And she wasn’t chubby, she was Rubenesque.

    All my favorite stories are like that.

    They made a movie with the name of one of my teenage favorites, Starship Troopers. Talk about getting the description wrong – Juan Rico was not a tall, ruggedly handsome Caucasian. He was a short Filipino who spoke Tagalog at home. That movie sucked, from the opening credits on.

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    1. So, I’m tempted to read the book as a sci-fi classic. I don’t love the movie, but enjoy it more now as an adult now that I’m over my bug phobia. But someone told me it’s terribly sexist, and it kind of killed the urge.

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  10. I’ve read with interest your description of the importance of “beats” in moving the plot of a book forward, but it always feels to me like an editing tool rather than a writing tool.

    How do you keep that critical, analytical part of your brain at bay while you write the parts of a story that you really really want to discover for yourself?

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    1. You don’t mess with beats while you’re writing discovery draft. Beats are indeed an analytical tool. If the scene works, you don’t need to worry about them. If you’re having problems with a scene, do a beat analysis in the rewrite.

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  11. For me as a reader, the amount of description fits the kind of story, both what the story is about and the way it’s being told. I happen to enjoy dense description in tales by authors such as Connie Willis, Terry Pratchett, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Being fully immersed in the world of the story provides a deep pleasure for me.

    But those tales are doing very different things (not just comedy or drama) in comparison to Jenny Crusie books. Conversations seem to drive Crusies, as well as tight plotting and accelerating actions.

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  12. I skip description unless it’s quick.
    I hate eye color descriptions. They’re so over the top.
    For awhile a friend and I would text each other eye colors in the books we were reading – ‘as aquamarine as the sea on a bright July afternoon’, and things like that. Sarcastically, of course.
    I think Dick Francis had a villain with ‘mean yellow eyes’ spotted by the MC from across the street. Other than that, his eye colors were not bad. (i LOVE Dick Francis.)
    I like Agatha Christie’s descriptions – there’s so much personality and action in them I don’t notice it’s description.
    Ever noticed how brown eyes are always described as having ‘flecks of green’ or ‘flecks of gold’? I hate this. I have brown eyes. Most of the brown-eyed people I know don’t have flecks. No flecks.
    I HATE descriptions of dimples. I have two big ones so this is not sour grapes. I HAAAAAAAATE a dimple being noticed every page. Really? It seems to me like once you know a person, you forget what they look like and just talk to the person. You don’t stare at ‘her dimple peeping out playfully as she spoke.’ UGH.
    And another thing. How many people do you actually know who have one dimple VS how many heroines have you read who have only one dimple? Ditto the green eyes. I dearly love my family members who have green eyes, but I don’t want anymore green-eyed heroines. I’ve had enough already.
    In fact, while I was in my texting mood, I made a grid on the cover of the every book with a permanent marker for Eye Color and Hair Color, and Hero and Heroine. They’re nearly always filled out with Emerald Green or Sapphire Blue, and Black as Midnight and Glowing Autumnal Red.
    This is why I skip description. (Except for the one extended spell of sarcasm when I texted my finds.)
    OK. Rant over.
    Jennie – I love your books! I study them and try and break down what you did to try and improve my drafts.

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