Top Three Rules for Descriptions

Top Three Rules for Descriptions

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When it comes to descriptions, most newbie writers—and even some vets—go way overboard. To some degree, I understand why. When I started, I did the same thing. In part, it was due to all those exquisite books I read and loved. Their words flowed through my head, and getting an image, I tried to capture it in the same way some of my favorite classic writers had done. The only problem with this is: that’s not how things work now. Styles change. What worked for Pope, Dickens, or even Doestovesky, won’t work now. The grandiose verbiage and overly wrought paragraph of physical description are no longer chic. In fact, they’re out right shunned, and for good reason. They slow the story down. Why do you think it is that so many modern readers dread reading classics? Not everyone has an ear for them, no less the patience. So here I’ve outlined some guidelines to keep the story moving, with less speed bumps of description along the way.

  1. Scenery 

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Now, don’t get me wrong—scenery description is a must. I’m not telling you to shirk your authorial duties altogether and throw this aspect away. Yet, it does seem this area of description has quite a dichotomy. Some give none; others, too much.

To address the former, we need it to now where our characters are and to ground them in our heads. Don’t deny us this.

To the latter, please remember the rule of three. Far too often writers delve into every little detail, categorizing it in long lists and in hyper spatial depictions. This is not necessary. Instead, give us the three key elements to the scene. And when describing something specific, limit yourself to three as well. Three adjectives are much better than a page. Trust me!

The staircase wound upwards like a snake in the dusty library. In fact, the dust was so prevalent hardly anyone entered without sneezing. But that didn’t mean people didn’t enter, as it clearly was the best room in the house with all the windows letting in glorious amounts of natural light. In essence it was a reader’s sanctuary, filled with old tomes and warmth. Even the bumpy floors brought a delicate ‘lived-in’ feel that couldn’t help but invite even the most hesitant guest from taking a seat for a breather, if it weren’t for the dust. And after sitting for a while, that said guest would soon notice the woodwork surrounding the shelves—handcrafted with ornate gargoyles along the top. Dropping their eyes to the ground, one would also see the gold trim that lined the floor, framing the room as if it were a masterpiece, which truly it was with its stark maroon ceiling and turquoise walls, each with their own lamp glowing gently. If anyone ever actually cleaned the place, the room’s true beauty would be much easier to spot, but as it was the dust suffocated everything.

A bad paragraph? Maybe not. Is it a useful paragraph? Decidedly no. Though it characterizes a room, it would be much better to show characters sneezing as they enter the room, and leave the extra wordage on the floor. The problem with these paragraphs particularly is that if you start describing one thing this way, all your paragraphs end up this way, and then where are you?

2) People

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Again, when it comes to the characters in their work, certain writers go crazy, defining all the astounding aspects and qualities their beloved protagonist or antagonist may have. However, most of us find this boring. Instead, the best thing I’ve noticed to do is to pick one or two defining traits so we get an idea of what the characters looks like. Along with this, make sure to identify these characteristics in relation to an action they are performing or in contrast to something in their environment. The last thing you want to do is to show the person standing up in the morning and then going into a long, windy production about how they look. Always tie it into the world around them.

3) Actions

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Here you may be confused, but what I want to point out is how a few people falter at appropriately describing the actions of their characters. Unlike scenery—where three is the magic number—here, leave it at one. If your character is doing something, don’t add extra words to depict the same thing again and again. In your head, you may think this sounds awesome or very ‘writerly.’ But it doesn’t come off that way. It just slows things down, and above all, could confuse your reader. Make sure their actions are different and not a repeat of the action before. Look below.

Hearing Tessa’s compliment, Tommy turned red, grew shy, and couldn’t speak. “Thanks,” he said.

Here we see the author showing us that Tommy is embarrassed by the compliment Tessa gave him, but it’s written in their twice—turning red, growing shy—and further more, made confusing by saying he couldn’t speak, despite him then issuing a “thanks.” Connecting the emotions to actual movements can sometimes help, like here:

Hearing Tessa’s compliment, Tommy turned his head shyly and swallowed hard out of embarrassment. “Thanks,” he said.

All in all, keeping things simple will win over the reader and keep the plot moving. Good luck!

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One thought on “Top Three Rules for Descriptions

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  1. Fun post, Tim 🙂 I love classics, and I can appreciate long descriptions – but, yes, I get your point, and yes, you’re absolutely right. Most readers lack patience nowadays, more’s the pity… When it comes to characters, less is best, I found. The reader should have the mental “room” to make associations of his/her own, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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