Amanda K. Thompson is a wordbender, an autodidact, and a lover of corny jokes. A librarian by day and a writer by night, her work has been published in Bards & Sages Quarterly and Yellow Bird Magazine. In addition to writing, she reads obsessively, reviews books on YouTube, and builds her nerdy sock and POP! collections. Currently, she is working on a retelling of Cinderella. When she finally figures out the perfect formula to plot and organize a story, she will let the world know.
She can be found online at her blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel
Confession: I don’t like description. I skim it when I read. For years, I thought this was just my pet peeve.
It all changed one day while reading The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker. I got bored.
I knew, as a reader and writer, I should not be bored. Our princess is suddenly a frog; she’s just escaped from a witch’s hovel and she’s on a grand adventure to turn herself back into a princess. There’s nothing boring about that! Yet I knew, as a reader and writer, I should not be bored. Our princess is suddenly a frog; she’s just escaped from a witch’s hovel and she’s on a grand adventure to turn herself back into a princess. There’s nothing boring about that! Yet I am bored. I’m bored because the author’s description of the forest is boring.
That’s when I had an epiphany. What if disliking description isn’t a pet peeve? Do readers make allowances for boring description because it’s common? Can writers engage readers with description, instead of boring them?
I analyzed the descriptions of this forest scene. What don’t I like about it? Why is it boring?
They’re not bad or poorly written. They vividly detail fallen trees and branches littering the ground -and the light bulb goes off. The moment the word ‘forest’ was mentioned, the fallen trees and broken branches are exactly what I picture; I already know what a forest looks like. Every other description of the forest is not necessary and therefore detract from the story.
When we use an excess of description in our writing, action stops. We call ‘time out’ and kick the characters to the sidelines to twiddle their thumbs while we guide the reader on a tour of our setting. THAT’S AUTHOR INTRUSION.
Writers need to keep the story moving through description. We have to use it to our advantage, to further the action or character development, instead of letting it slow down the story.
Remember ‘show, don’t tell’? Take it one step further. Don’t just ‘show’; show only the interesting bits.
Don’t waste the reader’s time describing something unimportant. Description should convey something more than scenery -the narrator’s mood, an omen, or the state of the world. Don’t show what’s normal or ordinary about a setting. Show what’s different.
Let’s head back to that forest scene and this time, instead of giving our reader a guided tour, let’s show what makes this forest different. With a character who is literally a fraction of her normal size, this is amazingly simple. Instead of stepping past exposed tree roots, she now has to scramble over them with four awkward legs. Trees once merely large have become gigantic. And remember, her new body is covered in mucus.
By adjusting the forest description to show what’s different, it not only makes this forest journey more interesting, it continues to drive the story forward.
Here is a more conservative example. Let’s describe our character’s neighborhood:
The quiet suburban street was home to a dozen, nearly identical houses with white picket fences, street lamps, and wide sidewalks.
This sentence paints a very precise picture. It’s also exactly what our reader envisioned the moment they read ‘suburban street’. Which means everything we described after that was unnecessary. Boring. If we put too much of this in our story, we are going to lose our reader.
How do we describe it by describing how it’s different?
Street lamps came on at precisely 5:00 every night to illuminate the quiet suburban street, sentries standing guard over the manicured lawns in the darkness.
When the reader reads this, they know what’s different about this street. It’s well-lit and the picturesque way of describing the streetlamps as ‘sentries standing guard’ hints at caution and perhaps paranoia. This conveys a sense of foreboding that haunts the neighborhood street, and it carries the story forward.
Engaging description is simple once we adjust our perspective. Ask yourself, “What do I want to convey in this scene?”, then use your description to do it.
Now that we’ve solved my peeve about unnecessary description, let’s look at the second problem I’ve identified. This journey through the forest is boring. The character literally hops from point A to point B. Nothing else is happening.
I excused this at first. As readers, I feel we have come to expect boring parts to crop up as a natural part of a book. But you know what? There’s no reason any part of a story should be boring. There is always a way to make it more interesting and, more importantly, relevant.
Looking through that forest scene again, I caught myself thinking: This would be a great opportunity to show how the princess’s transformation into a frog is affecting how she sees and interacts with the world.
This is a purpose to drive the scene. Instead, the author taking me on a tour of the forest, I could watch this princess gripe about how inconveniently huge everything is as she journeys through the forest. Or contemplate her role in the universe, now that she’s realized how small and insignificant she’s become. Or a dozen other things that will help either better acquaint me with the character or assist in character development!
This all comes down to point of view. Point of view is more than whether your character is referred to by ‘I’ or ‘she’. It is the perspective through which you tell the entire scope of your story. It’s like the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. It wasn’t actually made of emerald. The green-tinted glasses everyone wore made it look emerald. This is exactly what writing in perspective is; it’s an immersion into the mind of your character that never takes a break. If you find yourself writing a boring scene, figure out what your POV character is thinking and share it with the reader.
We actually have a fantastic example of how to do this from that same scene that set me off on this whole journey:
“The trees where we stood were ancient, their trunks so thick that I couldn’t have put my arms around them even when I was a human.”
This is a great way to describe the trees; it’s descriptive and it actively involves the character.
The rest of the paragraph reverts back to the ‘guided tour’ description and loses my attention again.
“Broken branches littered the ground, and here and there we could see where one of the mature trees had fallen, exposing a patch of the forest floor to the sun.”
Do you notice how the character’s personality took a back seat? This sentence lost the sense of perspective so vibrant in the first example. We don’t see the character’s opinion on what she’s observing, we don’t see her actively taking in the view. We only see the view. The emerald-colored glasses have slipped.
A more active voice in description brings our readers closer to the action and to our characters, which makes our book more interesting and harder to put down. Writers have the ability to completely immerse our reader with every sentence and every word, instead of with every few. We just need to exercise it.