Does Your Story Tell or Show its Descriptions?

Red Dress

How do you include descriptive passages in your story without boring your readers not just to tears or hair pulling, but to abandon your work altogether?

In the past, writers such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Leon Tolstoy, or earlier the Bronte sisters, even JRR Tolkein more lately, used copious description, sometimes almost as inventories of characters’ appearances, settings, weather, animals, inanimate objects.

But readers way back when had more time and different expectations; they travelled less, there was no such thing as television or internet to compete. These early readers wanted entertainment to be sure, but also a travelogue, an education, wisdom and a broader experience with different personalities, relationships, adventures as part of their reading experience. And, they were willing to read slowly and extensively to gather that experience.

We modern readers are different

‘Show, don’t tell’, is better stated as ‘observe and report’, as Ollin Morales describes in this blog.

In the first chapter of his book, The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, Oakley Hall suggests ‘reporting’ rather than ‘rendering’ or ‘typing’.

Involve the POV character in the description, try action verbs to make the details work for their place in the story, or use metaphor.

Examples of description:

  • Ella confided to me years ago red was her best colour, and proved it now with her dress.
  • Ella’s red dress was a rainbow of colours as she neared, orange where the sun dappled, lilac to purple where folds gathered and flowed, yet black where they disappeared into shadow.
  • Ella’s dress was a candy apple.

Description is necessary in any story, but use it sparingly or not at all. Now doesn’t that sound like a contradiction? Not really. Short stories have less room for details, long stories, novels, series have the luxury of much greater detail.

Description can be coaxed out to show a character detail — the colour red has many connotations; it’s sexy, bold, confident, exhibitionist, for example, hinting at Ella’s character. The first description also shows us something of the POV character and his/her relationship with Ella. The reader will anticipate reading more about their relationship. Description can bring forth a tiny flashback — the POV character has known Ella for years. Is this good? Bad? Have they been competitors, lovers, divorced…. you get the idea, and the reader is intrigued.

Action verbs, dappled, disappeared, and vibrant nouns, orange, purple, shadow, rainbow, for example, add breath and spark to a boring description. In other words, red is more than red in the POV character’s impression.

A metaphor relates directly to the reader’s experience, asking him/her to taste the candy apple, to remember the aroma of caramel heating on the stove, to re-live a happy early hallowe’en, for example.

As to the contradictory part of my statement above, eliminate description altogether if it doesn’t work the story forward in some way, expanding character or setting, as a theme element or perhaps foreshadowing a later scene. As Anton Chekhov suggests, the idle gun in the first act should be smoking by the third.

More importantly, the greater the attention you draw to that gun, or the red dress above, through description, the more dramatic its role must be as the story unfolds.

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