03 May 2016

The Joys of Description

Me and my teapot :)
On Saturday night, I won
the Agatha Award for best
short story of 2015, and
I was just a little happy.
Kudos too to Art Taylor,
who won the Agatha for
Best First Novel.

by Barb Goffman

In search of blogging topics, I asked my friends for suggestions. This paraphrased question caught my eye right away:

How much detail should a writer use when describing the setting, what the characters look like, and what the characters are doing?

The amount of detail a writer should use is of course a personal matter. Some authors love expounding on setting and appearance, giving every detail so that a person could--if they had to--draw an exact replica of a room or a picture that would make a sketch artist proud. Other authors take a minimalist approach, preferring to leave setting to the readers' imagination. Readers' taste also varies, with some wanting to know every detail of each place and character's appearance, others not wanting their time wasted on that detail.
Given that readers' tastes do vary across the spectrum, an author obviously can't please everyone. I typically suggest something in the middle of the spectrum (though my personal taste is toward the minimalist side). You want to set the scene but you don't want to bore the reader or hold up the action.

When it comes to what characters look like, I suggest telling the reader one or two telling details, something to make the character stand out in the reader's mind. Does the character have a large mole on his cheek? Does she walk with a limp? Does she have extremely big hair? And I wouldn't limit myself to thinking a character's description only applies to what he or she looks like. Saying the woman who came to visit smelled like she worked in a kennel or her voice rumbled like she'd been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for decades will hopefully be more memorable than simply saying she had shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes.
This man's hair color and style are likely all you need to tell.

I suggest getting this type of detail in early, before the reader decides for herself what the character looks like. But don't force the detail in right when we meet the character if it doesn't work there.

If there's something important about the character's appearance, make sure you get it in early too. You wouldn't want your bank robber to be described as someone who sometimes slurs her words, and not show the reader until the end of the book that this character sometimes slurs.

Of course sometimes you need to give a little more detail in order to create a smoke screen. If something about a character's appearance is an important clue (or red herring), try to weave that detail into the narrative, hiding it among other details so it doesn't appear important. For instance, if it's important that Jane has dark green eyes, don't make that the only thing you say about Jane because then that detail will stand out. Instead tell the reader that Jane has ratty brown hair that looks like it hasn't been washed for a week. Her hair is so nasty you can hardly see her dark green eyes or the scar on her forehead she got from a bar fight. The reader will hopefully focus on the scar and Jane's nasty hair, with the eye color fading into the recess of her brain.

These same techniques can be used for setting. You want to create your world, but you don't need to spell out every detail to do it. Are you creating a charming town? Tell me Main Street has an old-fashioned ice cream shop and a Mom and Pop diner that's been there for decades. Let me know that a large green is adjacent to Main Street with some Revolutionary War statues and large shade trees people picnic under in the summertime. That's more than enough for me get the quaint picture you're trying to set. I don't need the name of every store, of every statue, of every street. But if it's an important clue that a certain statue was defaced, don't have that be the only damage done. Bury that clue in a report of the damage supposedly all done by the vandal.

As to detail of what characters are doing, I also advocate for minimalism. If you have two characters driving and discussing the case, I don't need to know each time the driver changes gear or flips on the turn signal. If you tell me that Bob is driving, I can picture what he's doing. I only need to know things that are unusual. If Bob is distracted and keeps looking at his phone or the radio or keeps checking out the rear-view mirror because he thinks they're being followed--things that are important to the plot--I want to know.

There are some actions you don't need to show at all. If your character is beginning a new day, I don't need to see her brushing her teeth unless her toothpaste is poisoned or someone is going to strangle her while she's working on her incisors. I don't even need to know she brushed her teeth. Just show her arriving at her office, finding it in disarray from the burglars who struck overnight. And if your
When brushing teeth, less is more.
character is going up a staircase, and you show the character heading to the staircase, she thinks a bit, and then she's at the top of the stairs, that's just fine. The reader can infer that she just walked up those steps. You don't need to show every step as it's taken unless you're trying to show that she's wobbly or that a stair is creaking or if someone is going to push her over the banister. (Such fun!)

Of course, again, everyone's mileage may vary about the amount of detail preferred. I'd love to know what you think. And please, let us know if you're a reader or a writer. Or both.


  1. Interesting article and I agree with the advice.

    I haven't read the Twilight series, but a reviewer mentioned that while Stephenie Meyer depicted the male characters in loving detail, she barely described her heroine, Bella, at all. The reviewer surmised this contributed to the story's immense popularity because it allowed female readers to more easily picture themselves in the lead rĂ´le.

  2. Congratulations on your Agatha award!

  3. Barb, congratulations on winning an Agatha for your short story. That is way cool. I won an Anthony for one of my short stories in 1998 and I will never ever forget that feeling, it's magical. And you can always recall it when you look at that photo and see your smiling face. I'm thrilled for you.

  4. Barb, congratulations on winning an Agatha for your short story. That is way cool. I won an Anthony for one of my short stories in 1998 and I will never ever forget that feeling, it's magical. And you can always recall it when you look at that photo and see your smiling face. I'm thrilled for you.

  5. Love the picture with the tea pot!

  6. Barb, congratulations on your Agatha award!
    Love the article; one thing I personally am sick of - on the screen at least - is people brushing their teeth, either alone (look, they're getting up!) or with someone else (look, they're intimate!). If they need to talk, alone, and intimately, What's wrong with them having a cup of coffee in their bathrobes, or even talking in bed? Pillow talk is still hugely popular amongst some of us...

  7. Great advice and well thought out.

  8. Thanks to Leigh, Jan, Janice, and Eve about my Agatha Award. I'm still stunned. But happy.

    Leigh, what you wrote about Twilight makes sense. I have an unpublished (for now) story in which I have a child character and I never make clear if the character is a girl or a boy. I'd like the reader to be able to identify with the character, and I think this might happen more easily if the character is of the same gender as the reader.

    Eve, I like your comment about pillow talk. What could be more intimate? (Keep it G-rated people! :) )

    And thanks, Jack, for chiming in. Nice to see you here.

  9. Nice tips here, Barb--a great post overall. And congratulations again on the Agatha!

  10. Congratulations on your well-deserved award, Barb!

    Funny you should mention characters going up a flight of stairs ... in the story I'm working on, which is in a real location, two characters are doing that & it takes a long time. One of the characters is riding in a stair lift & the other, who is a cardiologist, is walking alongside & thinking of a patient with the same stair lift in his home. I hope the readers, if any, don't think I dragged out this part of the story, but it seems like as good a place as any for a mini-info dump.

  11. I was just thinking about something that drives me nuts - the author who describes every single item of clothing a character is wearing. I admit I am less interested in fashion than the average person (which is to say, not at all interested), but I wonder how many readers actually enjoy that. I sure wish those writers would take your advice about one or two telling details of appearance.

  12. Good advice, Barb. I know I'm always quoting Stephen King, but he once said, "I can't remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like--I'd rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well."

    I've never understood why some authors feel they need to furnish police-report details when it comes to describing characters. Some of those authors are excellent writers--Ian Fleming was one--but I personally think less is always better.

  13. I just dropped by to congratulate you on your award. Well done!
    While I'm here I'll add my two cents to the conversation. I don't know about you, but when I read a description of a character I immediately forget it. The same goes for the clothes they wear, the cigar they smoke, or the pickled herring they eat. Series characters, such as Reacher, are exceptions due to repetition. Eventually even I get the picture.

    Moral: Keep it brief and get on with the business at hand.

  14. All good advice, Barb! I'm in the minimalist school. Comes from writing comedy, and the need for every word to have punch.

    Leigh made a good point about Twilight. That is a common romance-writer technique. Make your protagonist 'any girl' so the reader can slip herself into that role. She doesn't have to be blond and blue-eyed with a killer figure. The reader can then imagine herself in the role.

  15. Thanks, Art, Elizabeth, and Herschel about the Agatha. I'm thrilled.

    And it's nice to see that you all fall on the minimalism side of description with me, Art, Linda, John, Herschel, and Melodie. Some readers do like to have their setting described in detail though. Given such widely divergent desires among readers, it would be impossible to meet everyone's expectations so I advocate for giving a little description and hoping the reader's imagination can take it from there.


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