How Much Description is Enough?

Since I am self-taught as a writer, I usually feel like a fraud when I post anything that sounds as if I’m being instructional. Who am I to tell anyone how to write, when I have rarely let anyone tell me? So, it is with some trepidation that I post this. But then I remember tutoring graduate students subjects I had never taken (none of my students ever got under a “B”) and recall I have always been better at teaching than doing.

I am a visual person. That’s not surprising given I’ve been fascinated by photography since childhood. Comparatively speaking, writing came to me late in life. As a result, or perhaps due to my innate fascination with visuals, I approach narratives as if I am describing the environment to a non-sighted friend.

Now the key word in the previous sentence is friend. All too often, I have seen descriptions that read as though one were filling out a police report. While this may be effective in some genres – police procedurals, for instance – readers want a more intimate view of the scenario. As writers, we are to present not only what is seen, smelled, heard, but also what the narrator is feeling. We want to understand his experience at that moment, so that the visual cortex in our brain can interact with the language center, and present us an image. In so doing, the writer has placed us in the scene.

So, let’s try a writing exercise, just for fun. (Understand this is not purporting to be the correct way to write descriptions – it is simply how I do it. Perhaps there is a kernel that you can use in your own writing.

In the photo diptych  above, we have two views of an old church in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Often, when starting a narrative, I will use one of my photos, or find an image close to what I have in mind, to give me a starting point.

If this were a school assignment, wherein we are asked to tell us what is in the photo, we might write something like this:

John walked up to the old church, the sharp angles of its high roof blotting out all but a sliver of the sun. Copper-hued brick buttressed the large stained-glass windows, mirroring the colored rooftops of the surrounding buildings.  The church was an enormous structure, with stone walls, stolid interiors, and a dank draft that carried a mildewed smell even in the summer heat. John tried to imagine the struggle of the ancient artisans, carrying the hand-hewn gray stone up the steep hill. It was a testament to their God, to be certain.

Now, this is okay, and I pretty much follows the rules. It describes the basic building, without being an architectural guide, gives some of his 5 senses, and even a bit of the emotional impact of the structure. Still, it doesn’t tell me how it feels. I want to know if the building moves him. What was it like to reach it? I want a hint as to whether it is important to the rest of the scene.

So, let me try again. This time, how about I do just a little more research first? The church is on a steep hill; so let me start with that. (Here’s a photo I shot of the same hill, in Harper’s Ferry.) Like the first, this is written extemporaneously, just trying to pull out what the visual gives me.

John made his way up the narrow stone steps to the old church, weaving through the throng of tourists who were descending, and cutting lip-curled, disdainful glances as he stopped, panting from the steep ascent.

I’m way too out of shape for this. The climb was one hundred steps, but may as well have been a thousand. Years behind a desk had left him unprepared for the adventure that awaited him. Reaching the summit, he stopped, hands to knees, and saw the church for the first time.

It was all sharp angles and aggressive lines, with the setting sun bowing in reverence behind the crosses that top each vaulted ceiling. The building’s architects had clearly designed the old Catholic church to be both functional and imposing, with the retreating sun bathing the entire structure in halos the original citizens surely imagined were the hands of God himself.

John walked to the side entrance of the church, opposite the sun, and bathed in evening shadows. The birds were still here, despite the billowing trees. The air was still, save a dimly putrid smell of fungus that seeped the pores of the faded gray stone that comprised the church’s façade. There was an entrance here, a small wooden door that listed hours of availability to tourists. This was not his goal. Instead, he crept around to the building’s rear entrance, barely lit by the dying rays of sun, and found it. A single, unobtrusive entrance, with a sign that read, “No admittance. Authorized personnel only.”

For not the first time, he wished he were not so authorized. As he reached for the leaden doorknob, his eyes caught movement in the stained-glass window above. There, amidst the muted catholic colors and a reflected skeleton of a long-dead tree, stood Father Mullen.

John shivered, despite the oppressive heat.

Now, using all of this may be too much, and it’s not great literature yet. That’s okay; that’s what editing is for. (I don’t edit my blog posts before posting, as I want this stuff to be real and raw.) But by focusing on the “why” John is here, instead of the “where,” the scene of the church is pulled into the story. The details that I found, which weren’t in the first version, came out as a direct result of focusing on who John is, and how he is feeling. Now, the lovely church is a thing of dread, because John doesn’t want to be there. Hopefully, if we have crafted the details right, the reader wants to turn the page, and find out whom this Father Mullen is.

More importantly, I, as the writer, want to find out too. And that is my last bit of advice for the day: in our writing, we must keep ourselves engaged. If we are not, our readers will certainly not be.

Now, I would LOVE it if you would try this exercise yourself, and share the results. Do a first description, just focusing on the “what” and the 5 senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste) that surround it. Then try again, adding in a focus on the “why” – why’s it’s important, why the narrator is there. If you can’t figure out why it’s important, you shouldn’t be describing it. If you want to participate, but lack photos, let me know, and I’ll post a few good ones. 🙂

8 Comments

  1. ceciliag says:

    The polished elevator doors closed slowly to a silent snap. She watched as his face was replaced with her own, reflected in the shine of the metal doors. The evening light that stalked silently in behind her allowed her to see the gold in her blue eyes as she stood waiting for the doors to open again. For him to come back out. For her not to be alone again. He never really left her alone. He walked like a cat and laid traps for her. But he was gone, the inner sounds of swift carriage told her that the elevater was working itself up the central tower of the hotel. He would soon be released into an inner circular foyer, their room was 96. Room 6 on the Ninth floor. He had a phone call to make.

    She turned her back to the doors of the silent elevator and looked across the vast shimmering foyer floor towards the tall windows. The floor shone in the golden late afternoon light, the surface looked like it was made from crushed blood red beetles, it rippled and glistened. On her left was a circular bar, it revolved silently with crippling slowness, its movement almost imperceptable which she privately thought pretentious and slightly nauseating. Her black stool stood out from the bar, she had lost her place on the slow carousel. Her handbag perched on a tiny table. Forgotton again. One day someone would steal it she could never keep track of things like that. There was only a lipstick and a notepad in there anyway. She had not paid for a drink in years. Only ever needed cab money if a date went bad. The barman, now only a nose, slowly curved out of sight, the polished glass in his hand that last she saw of him.

    The hotel foyer was a three story circular atrium. The windows feats of magnificence that rose up so high they dwarfed the dark chunky modern furniture arranged in exact pools around the bar. It was empty, but for herself and the barman. The exterior plate glass walls of the tower hotel were divided by exposed steel girders that created a grid of light on the floor. The straight lines were a relief from all the considered pedantic circular references. A golden setting sun cast tiny shafts of light from its terrible height that she stepped in and out of as she walked back past the bar. She had become a flickering old black and white silent movie. Someone was showing her, cranking the film along slowly. The tower itself her screen.

    1. Celi, I love this. It is such a sweeping description, and I could vividly imagine the descent, going slowly enough that she is taking all of this in. Such wonderful imagery. Thanks for sharing.

  2. ceciliag says:

    You have no idea how hard my heart was beating as I pushed Post Comment. I am in FULL adrenaline rush. Terror. But it must be at least ten years since anyone read any of my ‘real’ writing. This is unedited. There is probably not enough description we will discover more as the character does i think. The moment I start to reread it, now that it is in your comments and unable to be retrieved, I can see many errors! Ah well. Gotta laugh. I am not delicate. You can be honest. celi

    1. I thought there was enough description. The amount of detail made me wonder more about the relationship between her and the man. It also evoked a sense of loneliness, despite the comment that she “hadn’t had to buy a drink in years.” Perhaps I’m bringing in my own remembrances of hotels, but amidst all the glass, and circles and details, she feels a bit lost to me.

      1. ceciliag says:

        Thank you and she is. I am thrilled that you saw that aloneness. Her aloneness is a catalyst for what comes next. Thanks for giving me a wee push.. c

  3. I missed your blog while I was gone!
    I am a description whore, I’m always over doing the description in my first draft- always. If you don’t mind first draft crapiness I’ll go for it.
    The wind whipped around her carrying the scent of the ocean and the faint sound of laughter as the fisherman cleaned the days catch and repaired their nets. Ali looked over the edge to the vicious gray rocks and foaming waves far below. She inched closer sending small pebbles crashing down the sheer cliff.
    “Ali,” yelled her mother.
    Clenching her fists Ali trembled unsure of what to do. A wave a nausea made sweat break out on her. Was it fear or the unborn baby making her feel so ill? Ali looked down at the waves then back over the vibrant green meadow.
    In which direction did her future lay?

    1. My blog missed you too. 🙂 Very nice description: you have the visuals, the sounds, and the smells. We can feel her indecision, and totter over the cliff with her, wanting her to climb back up to her mother.

      I only think it’s too much description if it doesn’t help to move the story along. It’s always okay to remove. In my 1st drafts, the descriptions are usually pretty bare, because it’s hard for me to just get the story right.

  4. For me I have to answer the question – what point am I trying to make. I have to give enough information that they can go int he direction I need them to go in, but leave enough empty that they can fill the hole with themselves.

    It is hard to determine some days.

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