Description and Getting to the Point

By Alistair Cross

When someone complains about a book they just finished and you ask them why they didn’t like it, chances are good they’ll say one of two things: Either the author bored them with too many details, beating them over the head with page after page of unnecessary descriptions … or just the opposite: It lacked substance and the story wasn’t vivid enough to get into. So how much description is the right amount?

Back in the old days, it wasn’t unusual for authors to spend what is often now considered an absurd amount of time describing persons, places, and things. I remember reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and I absolutely loved it – but even I (who enjoyed every last word of long books like Gone With the Wind and Stephen King’s It) became a little weary after so many paragraphs describing the jewels, perfumes, and ancient tapestries so adored by Dorian. While The Picture of Dorian Gray remains one of my all-time favorite novels, I can understand how this degree of description might turn some readers right off.

Since the days of Dickens, Wilde, and Tolstoy, however, we seem to have gone the opposite direction. We’re told that the modern-day reader has no patience; that in these days of internet, microwaves, and text messages, readers simply don’t have time for anything but quick, hard-hitting stories that blow our minds in five minutes or less. As a result, many writers are scratching their heads, wondering why their novels aren’t bringing readers back for more, and readers are left feeling like they’ve paid for the all-you-can-eat buffet only to find the restaurant’s out of everything but the salad.

And this is why I don’t subscribe to the “readers-just-don’t-have-the-patience” philosophy. As an avid reader myself, I’ve put down many a book because it failed to pull me into its world. I, for one, am not interested in a seventy-five-page “novel” that casts no aesthetic spell over me. I want to be drawn in and made a part of the story, which leads me to believe that other readers want the same. And for that to happen, description does matter. While the right amount of it is largely a matter of the reader’s taste, there is a general rule when it comes to detail: A little goes a long way. But make no mistake, that little bit is very important.

When I’m writing, I try to use semi-broad strokes for my characters, generally describing only the most prominent or important qualities and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. In my latest novel, Sleep, Savannah, Sleep, I described Savannah Sturgess (a young socialite who goes missing) as blond, blue-eyed, and beautiful. Beyond that, I left it alone. Beautiful to me may not be beautiful to you, and therefore, I don’t need to wax poetic about the slope of her upturned nose which has just the slightest sprinkling of gingerbread-colored freckles – three, to be exact – or the precise dimensions of her Greta Garbo cheekbones and Cindy Crawford jaw. Readers know what beauty means to them – let them have that.

When it comes to setting, though – which, in my opinion, is a character in itself – I try to be a little more specific because I want the reader to be a part of it. Still, a good rule of thumb is to describe only what your character would notice, with the goal of sprinkling it in naturally, avoiding large chunks of information that slow down the plot and turn things static. Most of the time, when a character walks into a room, the reader doesn’t need to know the kind of drapes that cover the windows or the patterns on the upholstery of the furniture. That said, depending on what the author is trying to achieve, the reader might be glad for such information. Part of what makes fiction so much fun is that there’s a time and place for everything. Well, everything except self-indulgence, that is.

Sometimes, an author sees a character or a part of the setting so clearly in their minds that it’s hard not to dig in a little deeper, but one thing you should try never to do is self-indulge. This means you avoid forcing readers to see things as you see them – and one of the ways I see authors doing this is by comparing their characters to well-known celebrities. It’s one thing to attribute a Don-Knotts-like face to an expendable gas station attendant for the sake of expedience, but it’s quite another to force your readers to view your main characters as men and women that you assume they’ll find attractive or honorable or otherwise charming.

There are two reasons I don’t like this. The first is that it’s lazy – and the second is that not everyone finds Brad Pitt (or whoever) to be attractive. If I want my character to be handsome, well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if I say he looks like Brad Pitt circa 1999, then I’ve just eliminated the fantasy for anyone who happens to think Mr. Pitt looked better in 2006. Or that he was never sexy in the first place. The point is that if you get too forceful, you risk alienating the reader just as much as if you under-describe.

The best advice I ever got was this: The key to good description is to use it sparingly but efficiently. This means allowing the reader to use his or her imagination. It means trusting the reader’s intelligence enough to catch your drift without beating them over the head with it. It means using strong, concrete words to make your point – why say “car” when you can say “Honda Civic?”

I’d add to go easy on the adverbs, avoid weak qualifiers such as “kind of” and “somewhat,” and remember that there’s more to description than sight and sound. Incorporate all of the senses, do it succinctly, and then get to the point – which is the story.