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This is part 3 in the series: Mastering Description

Human brains aren’t cameras; trying to relate every detail of a scene as though you’re taking a photograph will only confuse readers. Instead, they should be able to sit back and enjoy your description without thinking about it too hard. That means reducing complexity and allowing readers to fill in some gaps themselves. Let’s go over where writers often include excessive details and what you should leave out.

Communicating Layout & Position

Writers often describe the layout and positioning of elements in an area, especially when many characters are present. This could include detailing the troops on a battlefield, the arrangement of furniture in a room, the features of a city, or the living areas in a spaceship.

What You Do and Don’t Need

Unless you’re about to describe a conflict where the outcome depends on the layout of the area, it’s unlikely readers need precise knowledge of where everything is in the space. You can place a few things if they affect the viewpoint character’s experience or otherwise have story relevance.

For example, let’s say ten characters sit down at a table. You might describe who’s at the head, because that indicates a character who has more authority. You might also mention who is seated near the main character, because that’s who they will be talking to during dinner. Specifying where all ten people are seated would only flood the reader with irrelevant details.

If you are describing troops on a battlefield, more comprehensive positioning might be important. But even so, only position elements as much as necessary. If the archers will push the cavalry toward rough terrain that gives the horses trouble, you only need to communicate that the cavalry is between the archers and the rough terrain. If your protagonist has come up with a plan to execute a complicated pincer move where multiple units of archers work in coordination to trap the cavalry, you might need to specify more clearly where everything is.

When describing an area where position doesn’t impact the story, all you need to do is build the general atmosphere and mention some specific things that are there. This evokes a sense of place but lets the reader fill in where everything is.

What Level of Layout Readers Can Handle

Readers can easily understand the rough position of two things relative to one another. That includes:

  • Two chairs next to each other
  • Two churches on opposite sides of a city
  • A pair of people facing each other
  • A cliff face beneath an overhang

To describe the relative position of more than two things at once, you need a shorthand that communicates the overall shape. You can say there are:

  • Five chairs in a row
  • Three churches forming a triangle
  • Six people facing each other in a circle
  • A grid of lines carved into a cliff face.

If that’s not feasible, your best option is to put items in pairs or shape sets. Then relatively position two things at a time. For instance:

Example

The two boys stood side by side, their wide eyes reflecting the glow of the fire flower blooming before them. Six tiny fairies circled the flower.

We know roughly where the boys are in relation to each other. Then, we know roughly where the flower is relative to the boys. Last, we learn roughly where the fairies are relative to the flower. If we kept going like this, we could still overwhelm readers, but a little bit of it works okay.

What Readers Can’t Handle

I haven’t mentioned a direction like east, west, right, or left. If I specified one boy is in the northeast corner, another is in the northwest corner, the flower is in the southeast corner, and the fairies are in the center, I would give readers a headache. That requires them to remember coordinates for everything and mentally place it all on a map.

If you do need to name different sides of an area, use descriptors like the dark side and light side. That’s much easier to remember than versatile directions like “north.”

Similarly, don’t expect readers to remember any complex layouts. They can probably remember the relative placement of two items or a shape of more items if they can tell this information is important. However, they’re unlikely to memorize which items are on one side of a room and which items are on the other. If you have a whole battle sequence where position is important, you’ll want to give them several reminders of who is in which place doing what.

Layout and Position: Before and After

Below is an example of mapping from The Tommyknockers.

The property […] had only a hundred and eighty feet on Route 9, but the rock walls marking the north and south boundaries marched off at diverging angles. Another rock wall – this one so old it had degenerated into isolated rock middens furred with moss – marked the property’s rear boundary about three miles into an unruly forest of first- and second-growth trees. The total acreage of this pie-shaped wedge was huge. Beyond the wall at the western edge of Bobbi Anderson’s land were miles of wilderness owned by the New England Paper Company. Burning Woods, on the map.

It’s difficult to make sense of all this. However, toward the end you can see that the author, who I’ll call Stevosaurus Rex,* finally offers a shorthand for the shape of this property map. It’s a “pie-shaped wedge.” Rex also gives us a few atmospheric details, such as these mossy rock middens.

I don’t know if this map matters at all to the story. I’ll say that it’s important to communicate the overall features, but those details such as the compass directions and exact mileage can be dropped.

Example

The huge property was shaped like an arrowhead, shooting out of an unruly forest of first- and second-growth trees to barely nick Route 9 at its point. Around the border, rock walls degenerated into mossy middens.

I changed the pie wedge to an arrowhead, conveying nearly the same shape while using imagery that’s more fitting for a horror novel. Using the arrowhead as a shorthand, it’s much easier to communicate the woods to the west and the road… to the east?

Describing Count & Size

Sooner or later, you’ll need to give readers a sense of how big, how many, how much, how fast, how heavy, or other details that can often be described in terms of a number.

When to Use Numbers

Numbers often feel clinical and overly precise. Does the viewpoint character actually have a speedometer in their head that tells them someone is running exactly 25 miles per hour? Even if you’re using an omniscient narrator that can offer such precise information, people aren’t great at imagining most numbers. This is why so many infographics display numbers of people in terms of how many airplanes or buses they would fill up.

That means if you’re describing anything that would require getting out a measurement tool or device to reach a precise number, you should avoid using numbers to represent it. The exception is if your character is actually taking exact measurements in the story, for instance, if they’re a scientist or a robot. Even then, you’ll need to translate those numbers into something more meaningful. Your scientist might calculate the growth rate of the space anomaly and realize it will swallow the space station in three days.

Numbers work better for things that people can easily count, such as physical objects or periods of time. Even then, numbers in description should generally fall into two categories:

  1. Fewer than 10 in number
  2. Rough numbers like “a dozen” or “hundreds”

While you might mention 17 lords sit on a council, that’s exposition, not description. A viewpoint character wouldn’t normally look at a crowd and see exactly 17 people unless they have a reason to pause and count them.

Using Relative Description Instead

Many numbers in description can be replaced with a word or two that gives a rough idea of measurement, such as gigantic, tiny, towering, roomy, cramped, several, crowd, heavy, light, streaked past, or crawled. If your viewpoint character enters an enormous chamber where every footstep echoes off the vaulted ceiling, it’s probably unnecessary for readers to get a precise idea of exactly how big it is.

However, in some cases you’ll need to be more precise. If your protagonist encounters a giant, that giant could come in a whole range of sizes. Furthermore, it’s likely their size will matter sooner or later, since it determines how much they can carry and how strong they are. You don’t want readers to belatedly realize this giant is much larger or smaller than they’d been imagining.

In cases like these, make a comparison with something familiar.

  • Is the giant about as tall as an oak tree?
  • Are the giant’s fists the size of barrels?
  • Could a full-grown woman sit on each shoulder?
  • Do they run faster than a horse?

The items you describe could be just out of reach, tiny enough to fit in a palm, or lighter than a feather.

Count and Size: Before and After

Have a look at this passage from I Am Number Four.

He sees a break in the jungle up ahead. When he reaches it, he sees a huge ravine, three hundred feet across and three hundred feet down, with a river at the bottom. The river’s bank is covered with huge boulders.

The goal of stating “three hundred feet” is probably to emphasize how big this ravine is. But since people aren’t good at conceptualizing numbers, it doesn’t have as much impact as comparing it with things people are familiar with. Author Pittacus Lore is also losing an opportunity to emphasize the height by merely describing the boulders as huge. To the protagonist in this omniscient passage, the boulders would look small.

I’ve modified the passage to change these details.

Example

He sees a break in the jungle up ahead. When he reaches it, he sees a ravine as wide and deep as a football stadium. The raging river at the bottom looks like a thin thread, and the huge boulders on its banks tiny pebbles.

Leaving Readers to Fill in Details

The purpose of description is to build atmosphere, make important story elements such as the central characters stand out, and create the foundation for unfolding events. Anything that isn’t entertaining, is of trivial importance, and can be easily inferred by readers should be left to their imaginations.

Follow the Interchangeability Rule

Don’t bother distinguishing between anything in the story that is interchangeable. That means if a princess has five handmaidens who aren’t important characters, don’t describe each one separately. Say what they look like or what they are doing as a group instead. You’ll still want to bring the description to life by mentioning specifics associated with them, but those specifics shouldn’t ask readers to memorize them as individuals.

Example

Good: All the handmaidens were dressed in clean white linens and blue slippers. One held up a bowl of cherries for the princess to eat while another combed Her Highness’s hair.

Not So Good: The first handmaiden wore a white dress and held up a bowl of cherries for the princess to eat. The second wore blue slippers and stood behind her, combing her hair.

The interchangeability rule applies not only to objects but also to actions and position. If anything is to the side of a character, it is rarely necessary to specify which side. If a captain has their first officer on one side and security chief on the other, don’t tell readers who is on the right and who is on the left.

You’ll know something is interchangeable if the reader can imagine it however they’d like and nothing that happens in the story would contradict the details they fill in.

Don’t Micromanage Actions

In many cases, exactly what movements are involved in taking an action is trivial information that shouldn’t be described.

  • Following the interchangeability rule, it is rarely necessary to specify whether a character uses their right or left arm/hand/leg to do something.
  • We all know how mundane actions such as opening a door are physically performed. You’ll rarely need to specify that a character reached out their hand and turned the knob. The same goes for actions in a fight scene such as lunging or stabbing.
  • If a character needs to open a present, you don’t need to say they took off the ribbon, unwrapped the paper, and opened the box. You can simply say they ripped it open or carefully unwrapped it, and then go right to describing the gift.

Of course, there will be the odd circumstance when otherwise mundane details become relevant. Maybe their left hand is injured, so they have to use the right instead, even though that’s their off hand. Maybe a character is afraid of what’s behind the door, so they start turning the knob and then pause, listening. Maybe the wrapping paper looks eerily familiar. Just make sure that whatever you cover is significant to the scene.

Letting Readers Fill in Details: Before and After

Below is a short excerpt from The Sword of Shannara.

With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long thin dagger at his waist.

The hardest part about revising this excerpt is resisting the temptation to fix other things. For the purposes of this article, all we need to do is switch out “his left hand” for “he.”

Example

With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal. He whipped out the long thin dagger at his waist.

Yes, I created a new sentence. I just had to.

Since that one is short, let’s look at another from my action makeover.

Her vision cleared just in time to see the great beast bearing down on her; she thrashed her feet, pressing her heels into the ground pushing her further backward. A moment later, the troll was two feet from her and leaning forward, drawing back a hand, his stubby fingers curling into a wide fist. Sera instinctively lifted her right arm in front of her face, palm out.

The “two feet” is unnecessary because readers will already know the troll is in punching range or almost there. Sera’s movements are also overly specific. On the other hand, the minutiae of the troll’s movement is fine; the troll never completes the punch, and it’s high tension.

Below is the new version in my makeover.

Example

Her vision cleared just in time to see the great beast bearing down on her. She thrashed backward, but the troll was already drawing back a hand and curling his stubby fingers into a wide fist. Sera shielded her face with an arm.


Stories work better when they are reduced to only the elements that are necessary to carry the plot, develop the characters, or maintain the atmosphere. That’s as true at the sentence level as it is when you’re outlining the big picture.

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