Dealing with Details and Descriptions

I couldn’t come up with a clever title for this post, so here’s a funny Calvin and Hobbes moment to make up for it:

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If I had majored in Cultural Studies instead of English, I totally would have written a paper like this.

I have to confess: I’m not great at description. Which seems like a peculiar thing for an author to say, but it’s true.

I love describing characters. I like telling you that he has an eyebrow ring, and she constantly dyes her dark hair blue, that this guy likes Converse, but his sister prefers TOMS. If someone asked me to describe a particular character’s outfit in chapter seven, I would only need two minutes: one minute to remember what happened in chapter seven (in this case, the Christmas party), and the second minute to visualize the outfit. Easy peasy.

Oddly enough, I’m not that great at describing real people. For example, if person A asks me what person B looks like, my response is usually something along the lines of: “She has hair. A couple of eyes. A nose. You know, the usual. That one time, she wore a red shirt.” Because sometimes I observe parts of people that aren’t always obvious i.e. one of the first things I notice when meeting a new person is if they have any visible piercings/tattoos.

What I’m really bad at, though, is SETTING. As my book progressed, I got better at giving details about the setting, but it’s not my favourite part of creating a story.

Short of writing a sci-fi/fantasy/other genre novel where you’re creating a whole new world and you have to describe everything, it’s hard to find a balance between what is necessary and what can be overlooked. For example, telling me that there are exactly twelve houses on the street and then launching into a long-winded description of how different each house is (this one has a turret, this one has a porch, that one’s made of brick, the one beside it is made of wood, and the tiny one on the corner is made of straw)…that does nothing for me (unless you’re writing a mixed up fairy tale and the three little pigs are going to show up in those last three houses, in which case, please continue because I love mixed up fairy tales).

Personally, I like descriptions of setting if I know they’re going to affect the character, or, at the very least, offer some sort of anecdote that may or may not influence the plot. For example:

As they passed the only house on the street with a porch, she stopped and smiled. “Remember that house? That’s where you kissed me for the first time, after the party.”

“Really?” he said, his eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t remember that. You must be confusing me with someone else.”

It’s both an anecdote (first kiss!) and also immediately relates to the characters and the plot – you can bet that the unnamed female character is about to lose her mind on her boyfriend since he just a) forgot where they first kissed and b) implied that she’s been kissing someone else.

I came across this quotation when I was trying to come up with a title just now:

“It is no use describing a house; the reader will fix the scene in some spot he knows himself.” – J. Milton Hayes.

I must admit I’ve never heard of J. Milton Hayes, but apparently he was a poet. And if he was still alive, I would write him a letter saying, “THANK YOU, SIR. THAT’S WHAT I’VE BEEN SAYING ALL ALONG.”

I remember reading The Chrysalids in grade nine and while I don’t remember much of the plot (there was a girl with six fingers – or six toes? – and the protagonist had a thing for his cousin), I remember having to go through pages of description. I’m pretty sure the first chapter consisted of a least three pages giving minute details about the house. It was exhausting, especially when it was being read out loud (why is it that it’s always the terrible readers with no sense of rhythm who insist on reading out loud?).

When I started writing, I didn’t see the settings that clearly. In my head, my small town kinda looked like Stars Hollow (where the Gilmore Girls live!), complete with the giant gazebo in the town centre. Whenever someone was in a house, I pictured my own house. The more I wrote, the more the settings took shape in my mind’s eye until I see each place in somewhat fuzzy detail.

But even if I tell you what I’m seeing – the walls of the kitchen are blue, there’s a round table in the middle, surrounded by five swivel chairs, and the white shelves on either side of the table are stocked with recipe books, the toaster, and a couple of bottles of fancy olive oil – it doesn’t mean you’re going to see the exact same thing (for the record, I was describing my own kitchen. But unless you’ve been in my house, your mental image isn’t going to match mine).

I think it’s unfair to waste words showing you what the school cafeteria looks like – I’ll assume that any potential reader has been in a school at least once in their life and can work it out for themselves. Heck, they can imagine the Great Hall from Harry Potter if they really want to. Since the plot is character-driven, rather than influenced by setting, it shouldn’t matter where the readers are seeing the characters. If your story is good enough, it can be transferred to any time or place because ultimately it’s about the characters and the plot, not the setting.

If, however, your readers can’t see your actual plot or your characters…well, then you may have another problem.

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