To avoid bogging down prose with overly detailed narrative, it’s important to make wise choices when we write descriptive passages in our stories. Three paragraphs describing a setting or character’s appearance is a big no-no in my book. As a reader, it will turn me off faster than grammatical errors. I know! Bad, right? So how do we create a mental picture with the minimal amount of words?
One method that works really well is to what I refer to as accessorizing your character or scene. It doesn’t take much to paint a mental picture if you use the right details. For example, if one of my characters walked into a room wearing baggy jeans, scuffed up Converse and a Ramones T-shirt, it would probably be pretty easy for you to picture the type of person they were. Similarly, if this character walked into a room full of shiny, ornate furniture and oak shelves lined with hard-back first editions, you’d start to get a clear mental image relatively quickly.
So in two short sentences I have created a scene where a character and their setting are in juxtaposition. The conflict is already present without me writing a scrap of action or dialogue. My main point here though is to show you that short-and-sweet can be accomplished so easily with the right details. Obviously this scene will be much stronger with more description, but this can be done through inner monologue, action and dialogue now.
Maybe our character eyes the room dubiously, tugging on his T-shirt collar to hide the tattoo at the base of his neck. Let’s say he turns to survey the room and bumps into a side table, making the Ming vase wobble. He catches it with his large hands and steadies it before sucking in a breath and realizing this was the biggest mistake of all time.
Again – I’ve shown you a little more by giving my character a tattoo, mentioning his large hands, which tells you gender and size, plus it’s now clear that he’s well out of his comfort zone. This can give the reader an insight into his personality and possibly even his backstory.
Little details can tell the reader so much. They are intelligent people. They want a picture, enough to set a mood and tone, but they don’t need it spelled out for them. Trust their inferencing skills. Krista Tibbs wrote about showing and telling here.
Accessorizing your characters and settings can be really challenging. Painting a picture without bogging down text is really hard to get right. I struggle with it all the time — have I said too much? Have I said enough? Will my readers be part of this scene or too busy trying to visualize it?
One tool I’ve found extremely helpful in trying to create efficient narrative descriptions is Pinterest. I use it all the time. At the moment I’m working on a book where my main female character is a very classy lady who’s grown up in a fashion-conscious world. I’m not like that at all, so it’s great to be able to go onto Pinterest and type: classy work clothes or elegant evening-wear into the search bar. I am always greeted with a multitude of images. I find it extremely helpful to flick back and forth between my text and the image. Having it right there in front of me makes it so much easier to describe. Similarly, Pinterest is packed full of awesome images for settings — nature, indoor, kitchens, bedrooms … you name it; Pinterest will mostly likely have it.
It doesn’t take much to place the reader in the middle of your scene, but it takes a little finesse. Be mindful of your word choices. If you can visualize the scene clearly then your chances of writing it well will be that much easier.
Are you good at descriptive writing? How much is too much … and how much is not enough? Some authors use character description or interview sheets to help them. Have you found any useful tools or techniques for getting your descriptive prose spot on?