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Details, Description, and Imagination

July 6, 2017

Being able to describe things in a way that is interesting and engaging is one of the most important skills that a writer can have. Good descriptions can elevate otherwise mundane scenes and add depth and flavour to your writing. One of the best examples of this can be seen in how characters are described.

Consider the following description:

He was tall and skinny, and his clothing had clearly seen better days. If there was a field nearby, he would have done a fine job as a scarecrow.

There are a total of twenty-nine words in that description, yet the image and tone are vivid. The reader can easily form a picture about the man being described.

Now, consider this description:

He stood precisely six feet and four inches tall. He had narrow shoulders, and he was slim almost to the point of being emaciated. His clothing, consisting of an old suit jacket, a worn pair of trousers, a shabby dress shirt, and tattered shoes, was all of poor quality.

That description contains forty-nine words, nearly double the number of words as the previous one. It certainly contains more details about the man in question, but is it a better description? I would argue that it is not. The reader does not need to know every single thing about the man’s appearance. Indeed, I would argue that it is more enjoyable for the reader if a certain amount is left to their imagination.

The first description gives the reader latitude when it comes to building a mental picture of the man being described, yet it still provides the essential details (i.e., that the man is tall and skinny and that his clothing is of poor quality). In addition, asking the reader to do a little bit of imagination helps to engage them, drawing them into the story and involving them as they get a chance to create, in their own mind, a picture of the character.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t give any details. For example can you imagine if the only description that a novel gave of the main character was the following:

John was a man. He was middle-aged.

There isn’t enough there for the reader to latch onto. You want to engage their imagination, so you can’t give them too much, but you do need to give them enough to get going. What if we added to it?

John was a middle-aged man. He worked insurance, and even if he smiled a lot, it never reached his eyes.

I’ve added an extra sentence here, but I think it’s worth it. Notice that even though I haven’t given any really specific details about John’s appearance, what I have added has given a sense about what sort of person he is. The reader knows that he works in the insurance industry. The fact that he smiles a lot without those smiles ever reaching his eyes gives the reader the impression of him being tired, weary, and fed up with what he’s doing. I don’t have to describe his appearance in great detail, but the reader can already picture the expression on John’s face, even the way he carries himself. Everyone knows someone like John, which leaves readers free to create their own picture of him in their heads.

What’s important to note is that this description suggests that the most important thing about John isn’t how he looks. No, by mentioning his occupation and his attitude to it, it’s implied that those are what the reader should be focusing on.

Overly long and detailed descriptions can come across as bloated, and they can become tiresome and boring for readers. I believe that a lot can be gained from having descriptions that leave some things to the imagination of the reader while still focusing on the essential attributes of the characters being described.

For example:

He walked into the saloon just shy of dusk. There was dust from a long day’s hard riding on him, but he walked smoothly and steadily to the bar. His gaze was sharp, and he settled onto a stool that gave him a view of the whole saloon. His voice, when he spoke, was soft, but there as an undercurrent of menace laced into the words, a hidden hardness that flickered now and then in his eyes as well.

“I’m looking for Thompson.” His eyes might as well have been green ice, they were so cold. “I’ll ask politely the first time. The second time? You don’t want to know how I’ll be asking.”

Again, the description doesn’t focus on his looks because those aren’t what are important to the scene. Instead, it’s his bearing, his sense of purpose, that gets mentioned, and these are the things the reader forms an impression of.

The same principle can also be applied to locations insteadof characters. Think about describing a castle. Are you really going to describe every single thing about it? No, the odds are that you’ll focus on the parts of the castle that are most relevant. If the castle is going to be besieged at a later point in the story, then you might focus on the walls, the moat, or the gatehouse. If the castle is going to be the site of a great gathering, you might focus on its halls or its courtyard.

The walls towered over everything. They were a man-made mountain range that circled the castle. And around that mountain range was a river – a moat as wide as the walls were thick. The only place to cross was at the gatehouse, a bulwark of stone, wood, and steel that had stood for five hundred years and looked like it could stand for five hundred more.

Once again, the walls themselves are not described in excruciating detail. What is provided in the description allows the reader to understand the most important thing: the walls are huge and imposing and they are not the only obstacles attackers must face. The gatehouse is the only point of weakness, but even it conveys a sense of strength.

Descriptions are a vital part of storytelling. Without good descriptions, it can be almost impossible for your readers to engage with the story. Yet simply providing more and more details is not the answer. Instead, it’s about providing the right details, details that will engage the reader’s imagination while still conveying the most important points.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.


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