How to Handle Description

Description--how much to use, where to put it, and how to write it--is one of the most troubling issues for writers. Not enough description and you've got mannequins talking in a white room. Too much, and you've got a boring list of facts that's sure to knock readers right out of your story.

The common wisdom is that good writers supply just enough description to kick-start the reader's imagination, and the reader fills in the rest. A further refinement of that maxim says that writers should only report the details that aren't obvious. The reader will fill in the obvious things.

But how do you know which is which? And how do you know when to stop, and when to keep going? This is when I use a little trick I like to call The Inverse Coco Chanel Principle.

Fashion icon Coco Chanel said that when you're accessorizing your outfit, you should "Put everything on, then take one thing off." This means once you have your outfit on, put on earrings, bracelets, necklace, watch, brooch, rings, scarf, headband, etc, etc, then, once it's all on, take one item off, and the outfit is complete.

When describing something in fiction--be it a character, setting, or prop--I take the inverse approach. I pull up a blank document, and write every detail I can think of. I describe it as exhaustively as I can, holding nothing back. Then I begin deleting things until I am left with only those details I cannot bear to part with.

If you can get it down to a single detail, great, but I find that's often not practical; and not generous enough to the reader. But I try to get it to three or less at any cost. Thus, The Inverse Coco Chanel Principle can be stated:

Put everything on, then take all but one (or two) thing(s) off.

And the thing is, this process can still result in a nice, long paragraph, because there are multiple orders of magnitude at play.

Say I'm describing a coffee shop, and the two details I choose to point out are the mural on the wall, and the guy working the register. Each of those things may be a single detail of the location, but they are in themselves detailed things. So for each of them, I can choose one or two details. Each detail can be described in any variety of ways; with a metaphor, or with information from any of the five senses (the more senses you involve, the better, but that's another post).

So if each second-order detail gets a sentence, you still get a generous paragraph of description, organized in such a way that you aren't just listing boring facts about a place, but giving concrete images that spark the reader's imagination.

It's tough to do this right, and it takes time, but the results are always worth it. The trick is to make sure you have the right amount for the situation.

You have to keep in mind that descriptions are observations, and observations belong to somebody. Assuming you're not writing from an omniscient point of view, then any description must belong to the POV character. If your POV character is experiencing an extreme emotional state (like, say Captain Picard in the Cardassian interrogation room), the setting does not deserve a full two-level description, because people under duress seldom pause to consider what the furniture is made of.

However, if the POV character is relatively calm, and the location is important, you should go into more detail. The first time you visit a location you plan on returning to at least once, give a full two-level description of the place. The concrete, sensory details you supply the first time can be used as anchor points every time you return to that setting. The next time your character goes back there, simply fire off one of the details from earlier, and the reader will quickly re-sketch the scene in their minds.

The same goes for a character. If you're introducing a character in the midst of a tense or emotional scene, don't pause and talk about their clothes for ten sentences. Just give us a quick one-level description (or none at all), and make sure the details are congruent with the emotion of the scene. If you introduce a battered mother in a scene where the eight-year old POV character walks in on his deadbeat dad slapping her around, don't talk about her freshly-laundered dress, or her shiny shoes. Show us the messy hair and mascara-streaked cheeks (sorry for the dark example, but it's the best I could think of).

If you're introducing a character in the midst of a relatively calm moment, and if they're going to be a regular in the book, go ahead and give them a two-level description; perhaps one to three details about their face, and one to three details about their clothes.

In each case, the easiest way to arrive at the right details is to brainstorm every detail you can think of, then only supply the ones you cannot part with. Those will be the strongest ones, and they will be the keys that unlock your reader's imagination.

Description is a tricky business, and it has close ties with settingcharacter development, and point of view. The Inverse Coco Chanel Principle is an effective way to make sure that your description is precisely proportioned to the needs of the scene, and easy to refer back to when you need to re-anchor your reader.