Writing good description means knowing not only how to describe something, but also what you should be describing. If description is given in the wrong order, something important is left out, or something trivial is emphasized, it can break immersion and jar readers. Let’s go over what to think about when deciding where to place description and how much you need.
Staying in Viewpoint
The first consideration when writing description is the character viewpoint you’re expressing, assuming you’re writing in limited perspective. For a smooth and immersive experience, you should stay in that person’s shoes.
Description should be presented in the same order the viewpoint character experiences it. Sometimes that’s up to you to decide. If your viewpoint character opens a door, they might feel the hot air rush out before they get a look at what’s on the other side. Or if the heat isn’t so intense, they might instead look through the door, step inside, and only then notice it’s warmer. However, if they fall in the water and notice the stones on the bottom before they react to the cold, that won’t come off well.
What the viewpoint character pays attention to should also affect your description. By default, people notice what’s big or striking. If they step through a portal or royalty shows up, readers will expect some description. If you don’t mention important features when the viewpoint character would first notice them, it will feel jarring when you add them later. For instance, take this excerpt from Eragon:
While the Urgals crashed through the trees, the Shade climbed a piece of granite that jutted above them. From his perch he could see all of the surrounding forest.
That’s the first time this piece of granite has been mentioned, and the scene has been unfolding at this location for quite some time. Waiting until now to mention it makes it feel like it just popped into existence.
Similarly, if the viewpoint character has a reason to focus on something, it should be described in more detail. That’s because description indicates where they are looking. In the opening of Blood of Elves from the Witcher series, there’s a strange sequence where the viewpoint character, Ciri, wakes up from a nightmare and then examines everything except the man who is both talking to her and putting a hand on her cheek.
“Ciri. Calm down.”
The night was dark and windy, the crowns of the surrounding pine trees rustling steadily and melodiously, their limbs and trunks creaking in the wind. There was no malevolent fire, no screams, only this gentle lullaby. Beside her the campfire flickered with light and warmth, its reflected flames glowing from harness buckles, gleaming red in the leather-wrapped and iron-banded hilt of a sword leaning against a saddle on the ground. There was no other fire and no other iron. The hand against her cheek smelled of leather and ashes. Not of blood.
While she has a reason to look around, she would naturally focus on him first. And she would probably pay more attention to him than a sword leaning against a saddle on the ground. It’s especially strange that this paragraph describes his hand but not the rest of him. It feels like someone took scissors and snipped him out of the scene.
Let’s look at another example from the opening of Eldest. In it, Eragon spots his love interest.
Among them were Orik – the dwarf shifting impatiently on his stout legs – and Arya. The white bandage around her upper arm gleamed in the darkness, reflecting a faint highlight onto the bottom of her hair. Eragon felt a strange thrill, as he always did when he saw the elf.
Focusing so much on the bandage would be fine if the viewpoint character was learning about the injury for the first time and was concerned, but that’s not the case. Instead, he gets a “strange thrill” afterward. It really makes you wonder about him.
Viewpoint characters can’t see everywhere at once. If you want to describe something when they’re looking in the other direction, a good method is to describe how they hear a sound behind them and then turn to look for the source. If you describe the grass, followed by a cloud in the sky, and then a rock on the ground, it suggests either they’re tilting their head a lot or you’ve popped out of viewpoint.
Don’t try to be mysterious about what the viewpoint character is perceiving. They can fail to get a glimpse of something or have trouble understanding what they are perceiving, but what they experienced should be clear. For instance, take this example from Ciri’s nightmare in the same chapter of Blood of Elves:
Fear embodied in the figure of a black knight wearing a helmet decorated with feathers frozen against the wall of raging, red flames.
The rider spurs his horse, the wings on his helmet fluttering as the bird of prey takes to flight.
Did Ciri see the feathers transform into this bird of prey? We don’t know. We’re told there are features on the helmet, and then in the next paragraph it’s just referred to as a bird. This is more jarring than mystical.
Using Omniscient Instead
If you’re writing in omniscient rather than limited, the rules change a bit. You don’t have a viewpoint character, but that doesn’t mean you can describe things willy-nilly. The narrator should paint a picture that’s easy to understand rather than delivering jumbled details. They should also avoid going on for too long about anything that’s irrelevant to the story. Without using a viewpoint character for guidance, you have to be more intentional about what you’re describing and the effect you want to create.
However, you can leave out what the featured character sees or include things they don’t. Let’s take an example from Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!
But now there was another sound, the alien sound of a door creaking open. Footsteps padded across the floor and disappeared among the clustering shelves. The books rustled indignantly, and some of the larger grimoires rattled their chains.
The Librarian slept on, lulled by the whispering of the rain.
This is a mysterious description that only includes “footsteps” to indicate an antagonist, and the Librarian doesn’t even hear it because they’re sleeping.
Similarly, Patrick Rothfuss has an interesting segment in the beginning of The Name of the Wind where a monster is described through dialogue.
“It’s not a spider,” Jake said. “It’s got no eyes.”
“It’s got no mouth either,” Carter pointed out. “How does it eat?”
“What does it eat?” Shep said darkly.
The innkeeper continued to eye the thing curiously. He leaned closer, stretching out a hand. Everyone edged even farther away from the table.
“Careful,” Carter said. “Its feet are sharp like knives.”
“More like razors,” Kote said. His longer fingers brushed the scrael’s black, featureless body. “It’s smooth and hard, like pottery.”
The innkeeper, Kote, is the main character, but to create more mystery around this creature, Rothfuss doesn’t tell readers what Kote sees. That in turn makes it feel more threatening.
You can also frame omniscient description in terms of what a character is experiencing, but this requires clearly attributing it to the character by adding labels like “they saw,” “she heard,” or “he noticed.” This is generally something you shouldn’t do when you have a viewpoint character, because it adds distance. This means that while omniscient can create a similar effect to having a viewpoint character, it’s less immersive. If you find yourself doing it a lot, you might be using the wrong perspective.
For an example of what happens when omniscient description is misattributed, we can look at Name of the Wind again.
Graham noted the difference. The innkeeper’s gestures weren’t as extravagant. His voice wasn’t as deep. Even his eyes weren’t as bright as they had been a month ago. Their color seemed duller. They were less sea-foam, less green-grass then they had been. Now they were like riverweed, like the bottom of a green glass bottle. And his hair had been bright before, the color of flame. Now it seemed—red. Just red-hair color, really.
By putting “Graham noted the difference” as the subject sentence, Rothfuss suggests that this description is from Graham’s perspective. But Graham’s preoccupation with whether the color of Kote’s eyes is sea-foam, green-grass, riverweed, or green glass bottle strongly suggests that Graham has the hots for Kote. Since Graham is a throwaway character, I don’t think that was the intent here.
Establishing Plot Devices
You might have heard of the theatrical principle called Chekhov’s gun: if you are going to show a gun hanging on the wall in Act I, it had better go off by the end of Act III, because that’s what the audience will expect. While that can be true in narration, the reverse is most important. If your characters are going to pull a gun off the wall, it had better be there before they do.
One reason for this is simply that a gun is striking and would be noticed. But even without that, it needs to be described earlier because a character will use it in a plot-relevant conflict. If your protagonist grabs a gun off the wall that wasn’t there previously and uses it to defeat the antagonist, then you have a deus ex machina on your hands. Even if the protagonist only dumps a jar of marbles on the floor to make chasing them more difficult, that jar of marbles should be mentioned earlier.
This rule is more flexible with antagonists. A villain might pull out something that the protagonist didn’t know was there, and so readers wouldn’t know either. They could grab a dagger from under their cloak or reveal a trapdoor that allows them to escape. As long as it’s plausible for them to keep it out of sight, you’re fine.
If the villain grabs something pretty insignificant that was sitting in sight, like the jar of marbles, you might want to describe it ahead. However, it’s not as important as it would be if a protagonist used it.
You don’t have to describe items that are expected in the environment of the scene. For instance, readers expect kitchens to contain kitchen knives. It’s reasonable for a protagonist or an antagonist to grab a cutting knife from the kitchen without specifically establishing there are knives in there.
The amount of description you use sets reader expectations for what will be important in your story. If you describe a character in detail, they’ll believe that character is important. Generally this is good, because they’ll pay more attention to the character and remember them better. If they think a throwaway character is important, they could miss them later.
When you have reason to, you can play with these expectations. Maybe you want to make readers overlook your surprise villain or fluff up a clichéd chosen one before revealing they aren’t your hero. For instance, in the beginning of City of Bones from The Mortal Instruments, author Cassandra Clare starts in the viewpoint of her main character, Clary. She doesn’t describe her main character, but she establishes that Clary’s into a mysterious boy at the club she’s attending. Then Clare jumps to his viewpoint, revealing he’s a demon that preys on humans. A girl approaches him, and since this girl is described in detail, it’s easier to assume that she’s Clary.
While playing with expectation on purpose can be fun, it’s easy to accidentally dwell on small details to the point where they feel oddly important. In the opening of Dawn of Wonder, a squirrel takes center stage.
Directly over a country lane, a young squirrel was clamped to the limb of an ancient walnut tree. Tawny hair all over its body now rose and quivered as moss began to prickle underfoot.
The deep, shuddering stillness flowed through the woods. In and amongst the trees, fur and feather trembled in a vice-grip. The squirrel may have lacked the words for what stole into its mind, but in the same way that it knew the terror of jackal teeth and the lure of high branches, a vague yet frightening awareness was taking shape. Somewhere, many miles distant, something was stirring, changing … awakening.
Then the feeling passed as swiftly as it had arrived and the squirrel released its breath and looked around. It lifted a paw and examined the mossy bark, sniffed, and turned quick eyes to the ground, to the leaves, to the sky – all in vain. As before, there were no answers to be found. It was the second time since winter that this alarming thrill had surged through the air, departing without a trace.
That’s a really long sequence about a squirrel. I wondered if it was a wizard in disguise, but it’s just a normal squirrel that isn’t shown again.
In Eragon, a helm is emphasized more than any other part of an elf’s armor, making it seem either like it’s plot important or that’s all the armor he’s wearing.
The last rider had the same fair face and angled features as the other. He carried a long spear in his right hand and a white dagger at his belt. A helm of extraordinary craftsmanship, wrought with amber and gold, rested on his head.
Setting the right expectations doesn’t mean you can’t highlight small details in a big scene. On the contrary, doing so makes description feel more vivid. However, you have to be careful not to inflate their importance.
- Choose several details to highlight. Three is a good number.
- Make them varied, so together, they represent the scene well.
- Give them roughly equal emphasis.
- Don’t spend more than a couple lines on them.
- Don’t mention them again unless it’s clear why you are doing so. Maybe you described a weapon that is now being used in a fight, or the item is part of a running joke.
In my description makeover that includes these Eragon elf riders, I revised the section so the amber and gold is still mentioned, but as part of their overall armor. Since one of these elf riders is Arya, the love interest, I put the emphasis on her instead.
Three elves rode toward the ambush on steeds of rippling silver. Moonlight reflected off the plate armor on the first and last riders, revealing engravings of gold and amber. The figure between them rode without the swan-fletched arrows or polished spears of her fellows, and she wore only plain-spun wool. Yet she outshone them, for her raven locks framed a porcelain face with wellspring eyes, through which the lore of fallen cities and hidden glens gazed out upon the world.
Avoiding Too Much and Too Little
How much description a story has is somewhat a matter of taste, but naturally there are limits. So if you love writing description or hate it, how do you know where those limits are?
How much is too much
The opening of Sword of Shannara includes a lot of description.
The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the comers of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The bail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland. Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior. He was a young man, though his stocky build and the grizzled brown hair and shaggy eyebrows made him look much older. He wore the loose-fitting work clothes of the Vale people and in the pack he carded were several metal implements that rolled and clanked loosely against one another.
There was a slight chill in the evening air, and Flick clutched the collar of his open wool shirt closer to his neck. His journey ahead lay through forests and rolling flatlands, the latter not yet visible to him as he passed into the forests, and the darkness of the tall oaks and somber hickories reached upward to overlap and blot out the cloudless night sky. The sun had set, leaving only the deep blue of the heavens pinpointed by thousands of friendly stars. The huge trees shut out even these, and Flick was left alone in the silent darkness as he moved slowly along the beaten path.
This is too much. While it might be too long in any context, the context here makes it worse. This is the very opening of the book, where words are at a premium. The forest and hills that Terry Brooks is describing aren’t particularly remarkable, so it doesn’t have much novelty to keep readers entertained. In this passage, Flick’s characterization is the most relevant to the story, but Flick is not actually the main character. The whole excerpt takes numerous words to accomplish very little.
Passages this long run into the first problem of long-winded description: audience boredom. For this reason, I wouldn’t write pure description that’s longer than a sizable paragraph. By choosing impactful words, you can get a lot done in a paragraph. If you still have more to cover, move the story along, and let the protagonist observe more things as they encounter them. Putting in key bits of description as important action unfolds helps a lot.
That leads me to the second problem: it can sabotage pacing. This mostly matters in sequences that need to be tightly paced, such as tense action and dialogue. Because every word in narration suggests the passing of time, description can quickly create the impression that a character took a whole minute to respond to a simple question or merely unsheathe their sword. In that case, you should either kill your darling description or create a reason why there’s a pause in the sequence.
How little is too little
In the opening of The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie throws in this reference to Shanka/Flatheads in the second paragraph.
He should’ve been trying to get back, but the Shanka were all around. He could feel them moving between the trees, his nose was full of the smell of them.
Readers have no idea what they are, what they look like, or what they smell like – even though their smell is mentioned here. Immediately after this, the viewpoint character gets in a fight with one, but Abercrombie still does not describe them.
Besides denying readers information they want to know, this breaks immersion and is just plain confusing. This is why if you have a tendency to leave description out, you’ll need to rigorously follow my earlier rules about representing the viewpoint character’s experience.
Readers will expect important characters to be described in a novel; however, I think you can use a light touch. Clarify the character’s demographics and mention something that makes them look unique in their demographic. That is, unless you’re deliberately making the viewpoint character’s demographics ambiguous, such as a first-person narrator of unspecified gender.
When you’re not introducing something new or focusing on something important, you don’t want it to feel like your characters are floating in a void. Periodically mention pieces of their environment that they’re interacting with, such as walking across a tiled floor or sitting at a dining room table. If you have lots of dialogue, add some body language to help readers picture the characters as they talk.
Description should strengthen the story. It’s a great way to build atmosphere and bring your setting to life, but don’t use it to expand your worldbuilding exposition dumps. It can bring out your viewpoint character and the person they’re perceiving, but don’t get so sucked in by their sea-foam or grass-green eyes that you disregard what the moment calls for.
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