Some writers naturally excel at description, others avoid it or struggle to find the right balance. Too much can be a drag on the book and modern readers are a lot less patient with description; too little can leave the characters floating without anchor in time and space, or lead the reader to imagine a setting that is later shown to be wrong – a subtly upsetting experience that can lead them to put the book aside.
My natural tendency is to include only a minimum. A regency novel typically takes place in a well-known setting, as far as the fan of the genre is concerned; no need to give yet another detailed description of Almack’s, of a society ball, of a young lady’s gown, unless it bears on the story and characters. But a little is still necessary. In the Urban Fantasy series I co-write with my writing partner, we need a bit more, so that readers can imagine our alternate world – luckily my partner is a deft hand at description and tends to include just enough to satisfy the readers, without impacting the pace.
Lately I have paid more attention to how much and what kind of description the books I read contain. It varies from lots of atmospheric, almost excessive setting description (typical for the historical mystery romance, and mysteries in general) to barely any (e.g. in a self-pubbed hugely successful SF series).
Here are some of the lessons I have learned:
- The place where you really need a bit to anchor the reader is at the beginning of a scene, so we know where and when it takes place. But not more than a couple of sentences, if possible.
- Less is more. In genre fiction, the readers want to get on with the story, so you need to use the telling detail, rather than long lists of things the characters notices.
- In close third or first POV description does double duty by showing what kind of detail your character focuses on – e.g. an alpha male would not notice or care about the details of a girl’s sleeves and hems, though another lady would notice they are not according to the very latest fashion.
- People notice things that are unusual for them – that gives you a chance to slip in a bit of backstory, or show a new side of your character. Cinderella at the ball contrasts this splendor with her own circumstances, the nouveau-riche character finds the style of old wealth too understated for his tastes, etc.
- Even if your character would not normally notice anything much about his usual environment, at the start of the chapter you have a little leeway to slip in necessary information for the reader’s benefit. Just don’t use expressions too far from the POV character’s style and nobody will notice your sleight-of-hand and brief deviation from the strictest POV.
- Short weather (or better, “changing light”) descriptions can be useful to demonstrate the passage of time.
- Visual cues are important, but don’t forget to include odors, noises, and textures – try to involve all the senses, and not only in intimate scenes. To the falling darkness on a London street you can add the creeping fog, the cawing of a rook, the slithery wetness of the dirty cobblestones, the pungent smell of horse urine, the flicker of the gas light, etc. But only pile it on if you need to set a certain mood, e.g. to show your character’s fear or uneasiness. Otherwise, one or two telling details must do duty for all the rest of the scene.
- Don’t use details that contradict the desired mood. If you want a foreboding effect, with a nervous character, don’t use cheerful details like daisies, sunshine, lilting melodies, etc. (Some writers can combine these with frightening details to heighten the effect, but that is tricky to pull off.)
- Don’t include current cultural references to real people, companies, etc. if you can help it. It dates your story. To compare somee to a current pop star or singer, an actor etc. risks making the story incomprehensible if someone reads it in twenty years. Even now, someone from another generation, and large swathes of the world’s potential readers are not going to get it – remember that fame is ephemeral, today’s household word is tomorrow’s has-been.
- Go for the concrete over general – instead of having the character arrange flowers on the mantelpiece, have her select and cut specific flowers that are appropriate for the country, season and social class of your character. No tulips or violets in autumn before we had airplanes, for instance, while roses (what size and color?) will do year-round in most places and periods (if it is plausible they had greenhouses nearby).
- When people talk over a meal, include a bit of the typical fare, and what they drink. Who cooked and served it? Is the steak rare or well done? Are the flowers in the vase real or artificial? What is the tablecloth like? While you should not include all these details, you ought to be clear on them in your own mind.
- Don’t forget that the right verb is also a part of description, often a crucial part. A young lady in a formal garden might amble, stride, rush, meander, kick the pebbles, etc. – each verb paints a very different picture. Choose carefully.
- One-of-a-kind witty descriptions and quips can work wonderfully for people with a special talent, and in genres like humor. They can be essential for the unique voice all writers strive for, but can also look pretentious and stupid if you cannot properly pull it off. Such descriptions may also break the reader’s immersion. If you tend to do this, be sure to get honest beta readers to check that your originality truly achieves what you aim for.
In romance as in other genres, description is an important part of your story – like the furniture in your house. Too much creates a cluttered effect, but too little is cold and sterile. Readers should not particularly notice or stop to admire description as they follow your story, but must always feel they know where the characters are, what they look like (at least in general terms) and receive just enough clues to mentally picture the scenes you are writing. They will do the heavy lifting, as long as you give them something useful to work with.
Few writers get description exactly right as they set out on their learning curve, although some display a natural talent for it. Luckily, this is an area and technique that can be learned, and we have countless masters to learn from.
May Burnett is a writer and editor living in Vienna, Austria. Currently she is at work on the next sequel to her Amberley Chronicles, as well as the first volume of a co-written Fantasy Romance Trilogy.