One of my favorite books is Stephen King’s On Writing, and one of my favorite parts of that book is when he describes the rabbit. Remember that part? After a few sentences, readers pictured a white rabbit with a blue number eight on it. King used the illustration to describe the telepathic nature of reading and writing.
Smell a box of crayons.
Run your fingers over that sandpaper.
Pick up that bowling ball. Careful, it’s a sixteen pounder.
Admire the glowing sunrise.
Someone’s cooking bacon. The smell is wafting through the house.
If I’m good, I can make you feel things, too. Not with your fingers, but with your emotions.
This is where I think the art of description comes into play. If I over-describe something, it will require you the reader to pull out of the story and imagine all the details I’ve described. This gets in the way of emotional connection.
To illustrate, let’s pick apart the 100-word short story I posted a few days ago. Feedback from that is what really got me thinking about this. Read it real quick and I’ll see you at the bottom.
I approach the place Kendra is resting. I creep, as if it will make my task easier.
“Baby, I have something to tell you.”
Silence answers me.
“This will be hard for you to hear.” I twist the plastic surrounding the bouquet. “I’ve been seeing someone else. For the past four months.”
I swallow, imagining tears, screaming. Instead, there is silence.
A lump forms in my throat. This is harder than I thought it would be.
“I don’t expect you to understand. Just remember that I love you.”
I place the daisies – Kendra’s favorite – on her headstone.
It’s time for me to leave.
The trick with short stories is telling the whole thing with a limited number of words. In this case, 100. Writers tend to be an overly verbose bunch, so these shorter ones are especially challenging.
Without looking back at this story, let me ask you a few questions.
What color were the daisies?
What was the weather like?
What gender was the lover?
You can look back now if you want.
I intentionally didn’t include these details, partly because they could have ruined the twist at the end (particularly the weather one), but mostly because I knew readers would fill in those blanks. I only had 100 words and describing any of that would have put me over the limit. Describing the scene exactly how I imagined it wouldn’t have added anything. Granted, if I had more words, I might have added some description about Kendra’s hair falling over her shoulder and the memory of her laugh. Those would have added to the emotional punch.
So what’s the take away? In most cases, I’d say err on the side of less description, especially if the story involves lots of familiar details. Readers can fill those in from their own experiences. We don’t need to know if the fridge is stainless steel or black (unless it matters to the story for some reason). Obviously, if you write fantasy and everything is unfamiliar, you’ll need more.
And that’s the art of it, right? There is a right amount of description, and that amount totally depends on your story and what you’re trying to convey. Too little, and readers may struggle to visualize the story. Too much, and they’re skimming. That’s why feedback from betas and critique partners is so important.
Where do you land on the continuum of description? Are you lean like me, or do you go with more details?