Construction Zone: Realistic Description

I’ll admit it – I skim a lot of descriptive passages in books. I might slow down and read a bit of it if the language is particularly “flowery” (I’ve admitted before my love of flowery writing, otherwise known as “purple prose”), but overall when reading, I just want to get back to the “meat” of the story. I want to know what the characters are saying/doing/feeling, and honestly, I don’t really care much where it’s taking place, as long as I have just a quick overview of the surroundings. The fact that the scene takes place in a kitchen or a living room (or a bedroom, of course) is really all the detail I need as a reader – I don’t particularly care what color the chairs are or if the cupboards are cherry or oak. It’s extraneous to me. My imagination fills in the details to my own satisfaction – I don’t need the writer to extrapolate unless the fact that the cupboards are oak is going to be important later in the story.

I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m not a very descriptive writer. I forget that readers don’t have my “all-encompassing view” of the situation, so I tend to include only the barest of detail to set a scene…just what the POV character might notice. Part of that is my trying to stay more in deep 3rd person POV rather than omniscient, though I do slip out occasionally. Because my characters are more often than not focused on either other characters or their own problems, they get a bit self-absorbed. I have trouble getting them to slow down and notice their surroundings, because I’m not entirely convinced they would. They normally have weightier matters to worry about.

Which begs the question – how do I get them focused on their surroundings? And just exactly how much description is enough to set the scene and get the imagination kicking in to fill out the details?

I don’t know the answer yet. I’m still working on it. As I write, I ask myself – what would the character see/smell/feel/hear/taste right now? Would they notice? Would they be too focused on the action to realize what their subconscious is taking in? If they aren’t, why not? I try to include whatever they would notice in the moment, but not so much that it sounds like a travelogue – while staying true to what I think the characters would realistically *consciously* notice.

For readers, how much description do you like when you’re reading (more or less)? Does it depend on the genre? Do you read through descriptive passages, or skim them?  For writers, how do you decide how much description to add when you’re setting a scene, or when your characters are moving through different areas?

8 comments on “Construction Zone: Realistic Description

  1. Dolly

    No doubt you have heard this answer before: It depends.

    That is my answer as a both writer and a reader.

    If I am reading a thriller, I don’t expect descriptions beyond what is required to give full sense of the scene. However, in almost everything else, some form of description definitely adds to the story – DEPENDING ON THE SKILL. But there is a large gap in there too. Jacqueline Carey for example has a lot of description, but she is brilliant at it, and it meets the tone of her story. But there are other fantasy writers, whose books are more fast-paced with less description and I like them too.

    I am personally less description, and more dialogue orientated writer. Initially I thought it was a problem. Now I believe it is my style, and I like it. I still work on my description, and I nearly always have to go back to scenes to add the description, but that’s okay. I do that. In my stories, because I write Fantasy, descriptions are quite important, as the readers don’t know this world.

    I do find that in almost all well-written stories some for of description is important for me to feel the story as a whole, and not just the characters. The kind of room they are in defines who they are. My living room I am sure is quite different from yours, or someone else’s. There is a reason for that. It applies to the characters too in my opinion.

  2. Jamie DeBree

    Good points all, Dolly. And I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but when I do, I definitely need the description to put me into whatever world the story is in.

    Interesting note you have about the rooms as an extension of the character…that makes a lot of sense. I’m definitely going to explore that idea more – so thanks. 🙂

  3. India Drummond

    Description in books, IMO, should be like setting a stage for a play. It’s all about ambiance and enough detail to get the audience immersed.. but you aren’t trying to actually make it ‘realistic’.

    I’m like you… I couldn’t care less how many pearl buttons some chick has on her corset.

  4. Erica

    I’m like you, I don’t need a lot of description when I read, which trickles into my writing in which I don’t add much either. I need to get better at that though. I think I sorely lack good description. When I do it, it’s okay, I just need to do it more often! I’d say, stick with what is relavent and you should be good ;o)

    Great post!

  5. J. Koyanagi

    I love descriptive passages if they’re beautifully written and, more importantly, relevant to the characters. How does that character feel about their surroundings? What memories are tied to that chair, and why does it matter in the broader context of the story? Etc.

  6. Sherrinda

    I am not big on long descriptive passages. I am more into dialogue and action. When you find a good balance, then let me know!!!!!

  7. Carol

    Great post and good questions!

    I have to agree with Dolly, it depends on what I’m reading/writing. I do read a fair amount of fantasy and I agree sometimes it needs a fair bit of description to set the scene. I like some description, but if it’s not necessary to the story, then I’ll skim over it when reading.

    When writing, I tend to write sparingly but I’ll up go back and add description where I think it’s needed.

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