3 Reasons Description is Important, 3 Reasons It’s Not

This topic came from @__Deb, and it’s such a good idea I’m going to extrapolate from it for two more weeks, covering all three aspects of scene: description, action, dialog.

“Show, Don’t Tell.” Write scenes, not exposition.

Description is important because:

  1. Details create the life on the page

    If there is one key to the difference between amateur and professional writing, this is it.

    Do you know why agents toss certain manuscripts aside without even pausing to roll their eyes? Not because they’re imps of Satan. But because they can often tell from a single page whether or not the writer has any experience at all with what they’re describing. And that authenticity is essential.

    Do you know why Grisham sells? Not because he’s Dickens. But because he fills his novels with the telling details of his characters’ worlds. Those details make his shenanigans ring true—as though he’s chronicling the real adventures of real people.

    Readers want that. Even when they’re freaking terrifying adventures.

  2. Readers read for new experiences and new angles on old experiences

    We all know how to live our own lives. I don’t need some faceless writer out there to tell me what it’s like to be me (although if they could tell me where my toothbrush has gone, that would be fab).

    A great deal of incredibly poor storytelling gets bought and gobbled up every single day solely for the sake of the experiences described. Best sellers routinely set their stories in celebrity fat farms, tourist destinations (the Louvre!), cruise ships (the Titanic!), pretty much anywhere in New York City. Readers want to believe they are also celebrities, tourists, on a world cruise. (And some of the powers of the publishing world, apparently, want to believe that everyone wants to live with them.)

    Give your reader an experience they couldn’t get without you.

  3. Writing is about using your senses to recreate the world

    Flannery O’Connor taught me this in her canonical work on writing, Mystery and Manners, decades ago, and it was an epiphany I’ve never gotten over. Five senses. All the words in your language. Put them together: a believable fictional world.

However, description is not important because:

  1. Setting is static, and character is dynamic

    The reason stories aren’t entirely description is that readers don’t read only for the visual (or audio or olfactory or tactile). They can get that from a painting—and in less than a thousand words, too.

    Readers read for character. They want to know how that charismatic rascal is going to pull yet another Houdini to extricate themself from whatever dreadful predicament they’ve gotten themself into. They want it to feel real, sure. But they really want it to move.

  2. Readers want room to project themselves into your scenes

    You’ll hear teachers, editors, and other mentors pussyfooting around this one—“Use enough detail, but not too much.”

    How much is too much?

    “You’ll just know.”

    No, you won’t.

    Too much is more than the absolutely bare-bones essential bits it takes to sketch this one scene with only those details the characters need in order to get through their story to the epiphany at the end. O’Connor used the general rule three telling strokes to sketch a character or scene.

    If your scene has towering philodendrons and leafy maidenhair and fat succulents and towering ficas and leafy swordfern and fat nasturtiums and towering bamboo and leafy begonias and fat little lemon trees, and the characters need a sturdy flower, a lacey screen, and a long stick. . .pick what you need and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.

  3. Writing is about going beyond the senses into the very meaning of life

    Which means even Emil Zola had a heck of a time creating great fiction out of purely Naturalistic description. He (and Dashiell Hammett, too) needed both action and dialog to flesh it out.

Fortunately, you actually can get beyond the five senses through just the nuts & bolts of detail. That’s part of the magic of fiction. In fact, if you’ve crafted your story properly they can be pretty simple nuts & bolts.

One of my favorite endings ever is Raymond Chandler’s beautiful, “It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way—but not as far as Velma had gone.”

Even if he’d left off the exposition about Velma he’d have said what he needed to say, putting the reader into that simple final experience after the long, rich, complex experience of his novel—letting them understand for themself the Whole Point.

6 thoughts on “3 Reasons Description is Important, 3 Reasons It’s Not

  1. ‘Give your reader an experience they couldn’t get without you’ – a brilliant manifesto for the whole of novel-writing. Your story, your vision, your way.
    Description, just like anything else in a novel, has got to be a team player. No more than is needed, and no less. For every detail, ask if the reader has to know about it, because if they don’t they’d rather not be bothered by it.

    1. Victoria says:


      It’s true, Roz. Every single thing that goes into a novel must be necessary. Otherwise—what’s it doing there?

  2. Jeffrey Russell says:

    Somewhere recently I read about a story where a man was in his lover’s room. She was gone. I don’t remember if she was dead, or kidnapped, but she was gone, and he missed her. To get the point across the writer had him notice an open jar of cold cream or some such thing, and there, in the cold cream, was the indentation where she’d scooped some of it out. The marks from his missing lover’s fingers. What a great ‘telling detail!’

    1. Victoria says:

      Oooh, that is a lovely one, Jeffrey. Paul Simon wrote, “She comes back to tell me she’s gone, as if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed, as if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead.”

  3. Jarvis says:

    Thank goodness for journalism school, or I wouldn’t have developed the skills to hone in on details in my writing. You speak the truth.

    1. Victoria says:

      Hey, journalism school is fabulous for writing skills. Absolutely. Say it clean, clear, active, and true, and never forget your reader has other things to do, which they will get up and go do if you fail to keep them absolutely glued to the page.

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