Description serves to paint the picture for your readers as they progress through your novel/novella/short story. Many writers seem to struggle with balancing their use of description but here’s a few tips to help you get the hang of when to use it and how:
1. Understand its purpose.
Description describes detail in a scene. It is like adding the colours to a painting. It is the extra stuff to help you to see, feel, hear, imagine the story. It aides the imagination. It isn’t the point of a story though it can be very beautiful. The point is what is happening in the scene and what your protagonist/characters are experiencing. That is the point. The description is a vehicle to help you show what is happening and to convey more information about the scene.
I.e. You write a scene about a character called Layla who is who alone and hears a knock at the door. The scene is describing her opening the door. The point of the scene is Layla opening the door but you want to convey her emotions and set the scene also.
a. Laya opened the door to find John standing there.
This is minimalist. It can work but this is the core event only. This has very little to go on.
b. Layla’s heart beat faster as she opened the door. Who was it? She rarely answered the door late at night but something compelled her to answer this time.
More information but this is mostly Layla’s feelings.
c. Layla’s heart beat faster. It pounded inside her chest like a drum. Her thin, silk nightgown clung to her as she shivered. Her hand reached for the cheap, silver handle. The smooth white door opened and a chill of air entered the room. He stood in front of her with short, dark hair and wearing an expensive, white shirt with a cream and navy tie dangling down to his naval.
This is a lot of description for the reader to handle. Some writers naturally like to write a lot description which can work well for them. A lot of writers are great at description as it suits their style but the point of the scene is getting a little lost here. We have far more description than we need and the pace slows as a result. Sometimes this is intentional and can be used a lot in romance to make the scenes between lovers linger but each piece of description added is extra information that tends to slow down the scene because you are delaying your reader from getting to the point. Description can be used to alter pacing so you will have to decide as a writer if you feel that the pacing is right with the description that you have used. More tends to make a scene last longer because the reader has to take in more information. No description can make the scene feel too quick or a bit empty.
d. Layla’s heart pounded inside her chest like a drum as she moved towards the door. Her thin, silk nightgown clung to her as she shivered, a chill of air entering the room as the door opened. He stood in front of her with short, dark hair wearing an expensive shirt with a cream and navy tie dangling down to his naval.
This is almost exactly the same but some of the description that isn’t relevant has been taken out. The door in this scene isn’t really as important as who is on the other side of the door and as what the protagonist is experiencing so I remove the descriptions of it.
e. Layla’s heart pounded inside her chest like a drum as she opened the door. John was standing in front of her in an expensive shirt with a cream and navy tie dangling down to his naval.
“Can we talk?”
This scene is more balanced towards moving the action forward and the event taking place. There are some descriptions to add details but the scene moves quicker as we skip past the action of reaching for the door and move straight to the door. With some scenes you may feel as if you need more description than with others but not all scenes need to be described in every detail. The point is not to describe everything but to describe just enough to create the atmosphere without losing the movement and the point of the scene.
2. Don’t describe everything.
As iterated above not everything needs to be described in every scene. Choose what you want to focus on. If it’s a scene where someone gets shot, do you want to focus on the action of the gun being fired and the type of weapon, the person pulling the trigger or on the impact of the bullet on the person being shot? What about if the scene involves a character watching someone else getting shot? How you write the description depends on your story and what the context is. If you are writing a crime story it might be important what type of weapon is involved. The details of the angle and bullet penetration might be also important if you want your reader to know that information yet. Crime stories often rely on very specific details so they may be more important in a crime novel.
If the point of the story is the main character getting shot and the shock of, this then the details of the gun may be not that important at all. It may happen so fast that you only describe it like this:
a. Blood oozed from his shoulder. Pain seared through him as the world fell away. The last thing he saw was the gun.
The crime writer may write.
b. A tall intruder entered the study on the second floor at 3am. They raised the handgun, their callous blue eyes barely visible behind the old, woollen balaclava. They didn’t hesistate pulling the trigger as they stood over their victim like a predator over their prey.
The point of the scene and the details that help to convey that are different. Here we are focussed on the perpetrator and their lack of remorse. Descriptions are used to convey the details that you feel are important to setting the scene and giving the reader the key information.
3. Let your reader fill in the blanks.
Every piece of description that you add to your scene helps the reader to imagine the scene but they do not need you to describe every detail for them. Many readers like to fill in the blanks for themselves. It gives them room to see the story how they want to. For example if we use the door scene again:
a. She opened the door. It was John nervously fiddling with his tie, his short, dark hair tousled.
This scene tells you about John’s hair, that he wears a tie and that he is nervous but the reader can picture all of the other details any way that they like. They have more freedom to interpret the scene. If you describe every detail of John it will leave the reader less room for that personal interpretation.
In conclusion, description can be difficult because there are no clear rules when to use description and how much to use. The best way to judge your description is to ask yourself if it helps portray your scene or just seems unnecessary. Describe the details that you want to focus on and that helps to convey the point of your scene but don’t feel that you have to describe everything.
Comedians will often act out scenarios on stage as skits and they will mime some of the actions of the scene and sometimes put on voices or use props but they don’t give you every detail. They do just enough to let you imagine the skit. Use the same principle in writing. Let your reader fill in the blanks. Just give them enough. Some scenes you may want to be more descriptive because you feel it necessary. That’s fine but let your reader have room to imagine also. Guide but also trust your reader through your story.