Adding Texture With Description

Some writers use a lot of description, others use very little. There’s no right way. But when there’s so much description the story’s momentum bogs down, that’s too much. If there’s so little that the characters or settings are bland and unmemorable, that’s too little.

Most writers, myself included, have many descriptive passages that they love, but that they wisely cut from a story because they call too much attention to themselves and detract from the story. Anytime you see a passage of description that is so poetic and involving that the reader might be tempted to stop to admire the author (you)—cut it. You’ve just intruded into the story to take a bow, thereby smothering your own creation. Save all those wonderful passages you cut in a folder; you may be able to use them in another story.

On the other hand, telling the reader too little can be equally annoying. While some writers insist on telling us every detail of a character’s description and background, right down to the number of freckles on her ear and where she bought her blouse (Bloomingdale’s during a Memorial Day sale, reduced from $98.00 to $38.00 because of a slight stain on the sleeve), others are stingy with any details. The reader emerges from a scene not having any idea of the characters’ ages or physical description or a feel for the settings.

The writer who underdescribes may tell us the scene takes place in an alley, but the reader never experiences the alley and, therefore, is never fully involved in the scene. The danger when fixing this problem is to overdescribe—as discussed above—by assaulting the reader’s senses with every sight, smell, sound, taste, and feel of the alley. Instead, concentrate on one telling aspect of the alley:

The alley bordered several low-cost restaurants competing for the lunch money of the secretaries on a budget in nearby office buildings. The cloying smell of things being fried—French fries, tempura, extra-crispy chicken—lay trapped between the buildings like a heavy fog. Randy was grateful for that aggressive odor, otherwise he’d have to deal with whatever was spilling out of all those Dumpsters, especially the one with the chicken feet sticking out like branches from under the lid.

In this case, focusing on the smell provides enough texture, while also implying visuals: the types of food being fried tell us what kind of restaurants they are. Ending with a visual snapshot of the chicken legs provides the emotional reaction the writer wants, something that couldn’t be achieved if the reader were flooded with too many visual details.

Directly related to this is the dreaded “info dump.” This is where the writer decides to stop the story cold in order to give a lot of detail about the history of the house the characters live in or how to pilot a plane. Yes, sometimes those details are not only important to your story, they add a level of credibility. But novice writers either include too much info or they include too many such passages. Scenes that involve technical information should remain short.

For example, one of my students was writing a novel that involved sailing a yacht. This author has great expertise about sailing, so he included page after page of description about the technical aspects of sailing. Workshop reaction to these scenes was always the same: there was so much technical information that the readers got lost and no longer cared about what was happening to the characters. However, there was another student in the same class who was also an expert sailor and also writing a novel involving a lot of sailing. Reaction to his sailing scenes was always very enthusiastic because we got just enough info to accept the realism of the scene, but not so much as to numb us. The purpose of the description is to make the scene realistic, which only requires a few lines here and there to make the reader a believer. Remember, your story isn’t about sailing (or horseback riding or skydiving), it’s about the people involved.

Aside from adjusting description length, writers can vastly improve texture by concentrating on word choices. Read through your manuscript once circling all the words that could be stronger. Then go back and take your time replacing them. Do not rely on a thesaurus; many times you’ll just be replacing one dull word for a more complex and even duller word. The word you’re looking for often isn’t a synonym, it’s just something richer, more evocative.

A common reason a passage can bog down or lose its snap is that the writer has burdened it with too many adjectives. The beginner’s logic is that if one adjective is good, three must be great. Not so. Clustering adjectives together actually causes them to do battle with each other, one devouring the other until none has any impact. Most of the time when there are several adjectives together, at least two of them have the same meaning anyway. For example: “She was a quiet, introspective, shy girl.” Do we need all those adjectives, especially since they are all quite similar in meaning? Think of every adjective as a hundred-dollar bill and spend wisely.

This article was taken from the course Fundamentals of Fiction Writing. Click here to register for the course now!

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