Nailing the descriptions

I am an impatient reader. When encountered with a paragraph (or more!) of blooming flowers and flowing fabrics, my eyes tend to skim through them and look for the juicy parts.

Descriptions are like an iceberg: when used right, they will drive the story, when overdone, they will drag it down with them. What needs describing is usually about 20% of what writers want to describe.

The description iceberg

The description iceberg

For a long time, I was quite reluctant to do much describing myself. This mistake led me to many hours of rewriting, so I started to look for descriptions that worked.

We were dreamers, both of us, unpractical, reserved, full of great theories, never put to test, and, like all dreamers, alseep to the waking world.
— Dapne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel

What makes this description work? Is it really just about length? Let's take some golden advice from the great master of writing.

How to use descriptions

Like any other word in your story, descriptions have a purpose (and it's not just helping the readers visualise). There are at least two things descriptions can help you with:

1. Bring your characters to life

When describing someone's home, we probably don't need to know the colour of their sofa. However, if you tell us it's covered in breadcrumbs and old wine stains, this tells us something about the character.

The house Carl had inherited was painted ochre with white window frames and white window boxes. It had small, very overgrown back garden with a wooden shack at the end full of broken tools and a defunct lawnmower.
— Ruth Rendell, Dark Corners

We don't find out how big Carl's house is or which colour the curtains are, but we do learn that Carl is not very keen on gardening or fixing stuff.

2. Create or deepen the atmosphere

The great master of writing, Stephen King, said that "description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's." See how Eugenides manages to achieve just that:

The café had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine. At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. “Tainted Love” played from the stereo on the top of the refrigerator.
— Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage plot

We are immediately placed in the scene and breathe in its atmosphere. Elvis Costello guy, pink hair, Tainted Love. You don't need to know what the bar actually looks like to get the picture.

The most important questions to ask is what the description will do for you. Will it help push the story forward? Show the nature of your characters? Is the place you want to describe important? Why? Make sure your description captures it.

Descriptions are not a padding, they are the juice of your story.

Have you found a good description formula? Please share it. Coming up soon: how to use comedy techniques to make descriptions more interesting. 

This post is based on a workshop I gave during the annual BWC Writer's Retreat.