In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. […] Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.
I’m going to confess something about my writing: after many, many years of practice, I’m still not great at description.
There’s a lot I do well. I can whip up compelling storylines and relatable main characters. I’m pretty good at pacing and dialogue. And I adore chapter cliffhangers.
But the one area I’ve always struggled a bit is in description.
It’s a facet of writing I’ve tried to get better at over the years but that I still don’t take enough time to master.
Because, as King says, it’s not just about how to write the description. You can’t just go through your manuscript and add description here and there to the settings, to your character’s physical traits, and then be done with it.
It’s a matter of how much to.
Some places in your novel will need more description than others. Some characters will need to be described in detail, and for other characters, you might only need a few words.
A setting that’s integral to your story-line might need a few sentences of specific description that gives the reader a crystal-clear image, and other settings might not need any description at all.
The point that King makes is that, ultimately, the description needs to flow in a way that it never actually reads like description.
If you stop your story from chugging along by adding a paragraph of description of something, you might lose the reader. Might destroy the magic of the story for that reader!
Even if that description is extremely well-written. Even if that description oozes fantastic imagery.
If the description slows your story down, you need to either trim it or toss it.
You’re not going to make your work better by adding additional description, or keeping it the same length.
Some of your readers will want more story and less description.
Others might love to read description and want lots more of it.
The trick is to find the best middle ground possible.
Enough description to appease readers, but not so much that you drag down your readers.
So what happens when you have thin description?
When your book has little to no description of any settings or characters?
The reader becomes confused. It can be hard to place who everybody is, where the characters are located in one scene to the next. It’s not enough to just say that one of your supporting characters has blond hair, and that a scene takes place at the back of a large neighborhood park.
You need to give the reader more than that.
But, again, don’t stop the narrative cold to deliver a paragraph of description of the girl or of the park.
King says good description is a learned skill because over many years and manuscripts you learn how to sprinkle description throughout your manuscript in tiny doses, never in large doses or all at once.
Instead of describing the blond girl when the protagonist first meets her, have a sentence or two of description up front, then give us some description later in her first scene, maybe after a line of dialogue, and then add a bit of description five chapters later, when the girl is in another scene.
Don’t give us everything we need to know description-wise right away.
Save some things for later. Give the reader enough description so that the person or setting makes sense, and that an image can be rendered in his or her mind, but not so much to stop the story.
Because what happens when you have overdescription?
The reader gets bored. Aggravated. Annoyed.
I know I do.
It’s why I’ve had difficulty reading classic novels over the years, because when the author stops to describe a hat for a page-long paragraph, I check out.
I really, really struggle when it comes to big paragraphs of description. At the end of the day, I don’t care.
Tell me enough to give me an image, then go on with your story. I’m always more interested in the conflict, the rising of the stakes, than I am in your five gorgeous sentences describing what the lake looks like under a full moon.
Practice is key when it comes to writing, and it’s especially key when you’re writing description.
I’ve written nineteen novels, and I still struggle with it sometimes. I’ve definitely gotten better at it. I’ve learned how to sprinkle description here and there that give the reader an image but that doesn’t go on and on for an entire paragraph.
This is why, as always, it’s important to read a lot and write a lot. Keep writing, and keep learning, and you’ll get there.