We’ve all heard that the best way to learn about writing is to read. We’re told to scrutinize how our favorite author strings together words, creates a world, and builds tension and conflict. This is fine and dandy for books that are crafted well. What does one do with those books that are . . . sub-par? Well, I’m a firm believer in learning lessons from the good, the bad, and the ugly. I recently read a book for my book club that taught me what I DON’T want to do. I will give you the title after our group meets next week. (I’m predicting a lively discussion full of groans and palms to forehead.) But I couldn’t wait to tell you what I learned.
Do NOT describe a scene that is irrelevant to the greater good of the story. Each setting should have a point. It should set a mood (i.e., happy, dark, sad) or prepare the reader for change (i.e., tension, conflict, revelation). It needs to serve a purpose. Why are you describing the trees? Why are you describing the process for slaughtering a pig for four pages, why are you . . .? Sorry, emotions took over. If slaughtering a pig is symbolic and that symbolism unfolds, great; BUT if you’re describing it just because you know the process, stop yourself. It slows the pace of the story, it distracts the reader, and most importantly, it’s annoying.
Do NOT describe a scene for nine pages. If you want the reader to know the city is dirty and smelly and crowded, spend time picking out words that capture that image. Use those words. Have your character attend to things in the scene that matter. A shop she may come to later. An alley that is known in the city to be scary. A person reminds them of someone or a feeling. In doing so, you build your world, you give the descriptions a purpose, and you can show the characters reaction instead of simply telling us about the smelly, dirty city.
Do NOT describe someone’s features or clothing for the sake of describing them. You should ask yourself: “Does this description show a contrast between good and evil?” “Does it show the contrast between power or social class?” “Does it show a conflict in values?” “Is it relevant to the greater good of this story or character development?” If your point is to show contrast, to set a mood, or add tension, do a slow build. Think about how you experience people. You notice salient things first; those characteristics that help you relax or elicit fear. For instance, someone’s height can be foreboding if you’re short; someone with a booming voice can be scary if you’re meek; someone with bouncy, blonde hair can incite envy if your hair is dark and flat. As you interact with a person you notice more characteristics. Let your reader have the same experience.
Do NOT keep describing something over and over and over and over. Why? The reader will think you have a fixation on that thing or it is relevant. If it does not serve a purpose, the reader will be creeped out by your fixation or mad that they held on to information that did not provide a payout at the end. If you describe it more than once, it better be relevant to the plot or characterization. And it better be quick.
I’m by no means a master of descriptions. However, I read at least one book per week, which makes me an expert reader.