Active Description

Two bad writing habits when it comes to describing things are: not doing it, and doing it by drowning readers in descriptions of the landscape at dusk until they have to go commit arson to relieve the tedium.

I’ve definitely done these things. They often come from treating description as though it’s something passive, separate from all the interesting stuff – as Emma Darwin said, ‘a lump of scene-setting which you have to put in, so that the dialogue and action will make sense once the reader’s allowed to get there’.

So for one thing, the reader probably doesn’t need five paragraphs on what a meadow at dusk looks like in the first place. When writers advise using details to describe things, that doesn’t mean ‘be exhaustively detailed’. It means, ‘mention a small number of specific, unique, evocative, memorable details to point the reader’s imagination in the right direction, allowing it some free motion’. Sunset behind a distant barn, buttercups – and there it is.

Give a reader too much to picture at once and they’ll get bored and confused. Give them a couple well-chosen things, and their imagination will fill in the rest automatically. Choosing a few good details instead of a mass of adjectives makes whatever you’re describing more memorable and alive, distinguishing that specific setting, object, or character. A poker chip on a church pew, an object out of place, bruises on a character’s knuckles: these can say a lot.

I tend not to give characters enough physical description in first drafts, but how much is enough? It should be enough to give a picture, but not too much for a reader to remember without constant reminders. If a character is introduced with an extensive treatise on their every feature, many of us will have forgotten what colour their eyes are by the time we’ve got to the bit about their shoes.

The setting and the objects in it aren’t a passive background on which everything else gets plastered. They need to be integrated. If your characters, action, and dialogue can be plucked from one setting and dropped in another with no changes, the setting is a passive background – even if it’s highly developed.

This doesn’t mean everyone in a New York setting has to be saying ‘fuhgettaboutit!’ all the time as they get in yellow taxis – obviously that’s cringy – but it shouldn’t be interchangeable for Shanghai either. A character going up a steep slope should react to that in some believable, natural way. If you’ve said the hill is steep, the character going up it shouldn’t be exactly the same as if they were walking on a level road.

Description can be snuck in through action, as per that good old ‘show don’t tell’. A character who steps on a chair to reach something must be short, one who ducks through the doorway must be tall. If someone’s breath is clouding and they put gloves on it clearly isn’t a hot summer’s day, so don’t worry about finding six synonyms for cold.

Characterisation, description, and point of view work together, and not just in first-person. If you describe something through the perspective of a particular character, that also suggests something about them – what they find interesting, what they feel about a subject, how they feel about another character. A kleptomaniac will pay more attention to stealable objects lying around, a bookworm will glance at the bookshelves, an envious neighbour will notice their rival’s new car. What a viewpoint character chooses to focus on doesn’t only give an insight into that subject – it gives insight into them.

Passive description is dropped in writing as though from a height, a stodgy thing breaking up the action and challenging readers to picture a mass of adjectives all at once. Active description interplays with the scene as a whole, implying things by engaging the imagination of readers as well as just giving them information.

9 thoughts on “Active Description

  1. This is a great post and very helpful. I love this insight: “mention a small number of specific, unique, evocative, memorable details to point the reader’s imagination in the right direction”

    It’s a great way to think about writing description.


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