How much description is enough? This is one of those things I spent years struggling with when I first began writing. How could I be sure what I meant for the reader to picture when reading my work would be the image he actually saw?
The short answer? I couldn’t. No matter how many words I invested in describing the details I wanted the reader to imagine, no two readers were ever going to see exactly the same image.
Good description hinges on something my friend and fellow writer/editor/word nut Lori Basiewicz calls “The Illusion of Specificity.” Simply put, it means when you give readers a few specific vibrant details you spark their imaginations and they fill in the rest of the blanks themselves.
One of my favorite movie quotes can be applied to writing description:
“Let me explain. No. It is too much. Let me sum up.” Inigo Montoya–from The Princess Bride by William Goldman.
Open any of your favorite books and look for a description of a main character. do this for several different books by different authors. Do you notice anything? When I did this, I discovered a trend. Most of the characters, when they are described at all, are fleshed out in three or fewer sentences. Instead of giving too much information, the author “sums up” the important details and allows you to fill in the blanks.
For example: The main character in Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, describes another character, Miss Kindle, the first time he sees her:
“Finch had said nineteenth century, and I’d expected hoop skirts, but she had on a long, greenish gown that clung to her slim body as if it were wet. Her auburn hair trailed about her shoulders and down her back like water weeds, and the whole effect was like that of a Waterhouse nymph, rising like a wraith out of the dark water.”
Willis uses two sentences to provide a few specific details about the woman. We learn she has a slim build, auburn hair, and is nymph-like. From those few specific details, we imagine the rest of the details like her height, her complexion, how she carries herself, etc.
In my own work in progress I introduce one middle-aged character like this:
She’s drying her hands on the apron tied around the waist of her housedress, with a look of determination on her face. Trixie Smith is a big woman who moves like a freight train when riled, and right now I can almost see clouds of steam rolling out the smokestack of her gray beehive hairdo.
Do you see her the same way I do? Probably not, but hopefully, the details I’ve given call up an image for you.
When you write descriptions, write with Inigo Montoya’s words in mind. Choose the most important details and sum up.