Writing in 3-D, Part II: Description
3-D writing is the art of surrounding readers with your story, pulling them in and making them a part of it rather than just a reader. Dialogue, Description and Despair are three key facets: the three Ds of 3-D writing. Next up:
Much like dialogue, there is a perfect amount of description your story should have. Unfortunately, there is no formula to calculate it. Too little, and the reader can’t visualize the scene, picture herself in it, or know what the characters look like. Too much, and the reader’s senses overload with minutiae. Too much actually makes it more difficult for a reader to grasp the images.
Are some characters ciphers? A generic human male-shape with no face and no distinguishing features? Even for a secondary or minor character, there needs to be something that helps the reader picture the person in the scene.
Have you read (or written) a story where every time a new character walks in, the writer stops the story cold to describe the person in a pointless level of detail?
Consider these three examples:
Laurie sat at the bar, depressed. She glanced occasionally toward the door. Then he walked in. He was tall, handsome and well-dressed, and caught her eye immediately.
Okay, he’s tall. How tall? Six-foot one-inch, or seven-five? Handsome? What does handsome look like? Might not every woman have a slightly different definition of the term (within some range, at least)? Well-dressed? In a suit and tie, or casual? Expensive or just neat? On weekends, I consider myself well-dressed if I have on a pair of jeans with only one knee worn through.
Let’s try again.
Laurie sat at the bar, depressed. She stared blankly toward the door. Then he walked in, all six-foot-four, 210 lbs. of him. He had an athletic physique even though he had to be at least 47 years old. He wore an Italian-cut, navy-blue pinstripe suit with a red power tie, white Oxford shirt with button-down collar and black Ferragamo loafers. His blond hair, cut neatly around the ears but with a slight flip of curl that grazed his collar, contrasted with his deep bronze tan. His cheeks were smooth except for the crow’s feet that crinkled at the corner of his eyes. His eyes were light green, the color of polished jade. He caught her eye immediately.
I don’t know about you, but I nearly fell asleep writing that. The reader spends so much time absorbing all the details and piecing them all together into a visual that the story is lost. Most readers can’t retain all those details. Later in the story, when his blond hair is mentioned again, some readers will think, “Oh, I thought his hair was black.”
Laurie hunched over her martini and played with the olive. She didn’t know why she bothered; no one interesting ever came in this pub. Yet each time the door opened, her eyes flicked toward the entrance. When he walked in, ducking slightly to clear the door, she sat up a little straighter. She’d never seen him around before. His perfectly tailored suit accentuated the broad shoulders and trim waist underneath. Laurie turned slightly, keeping her eyes in his general direction but trying not to be obvious. His sun-bleached hair contrasted with his surfer’s tan. A yacht. Maybe he owns a yacht. “That’s the life for me,” Laurie thought as she met his gaze full on.
Okay, maybe not award-winning stuff yet, but there’s something going on here that’s missing from the first two versions. There’s action, reaction, a little bit of tension and suspense, an emotional change, a hint at her motivation, at least something mildly interesting.
We know enough about what he looks like. More than just saying tall and handsome, less than a witness description on a police report. We’re getting a physical image of him, not just through description, but through actions. We know he’s tall because he had to duck when he walked in. We know Laurie considers him handsome because she can’t take her eyes off of him, his athletic build, blond hair, and nice tan. We know he’s well-dressed in a suit. We don’t know the color of his tie or brand of his shoes. Does it matter? Not in this case. Her thought that he might own a yacht provides the image of money and status better than the brand-name description of his wardrobe.
We don’t know how old he is or the color of his eyes. Yet.
Don’t dump all the description in at once. Let the initial image settle in the reader’s mind. Later, when he sits down at the bar next to her, she may notice the crow’s feet around his eyes when he smiles at her. Maybe those little wrinkles are her clue that he’s a little older than her, but not so old that it’s creepy. Later still, his eyes might remind her of the polished jade she bought in Bangkok, right before he closes them and leans in for their first kiss.
Writer-friend Phillipa Fioretti (The Book of Love) goes into considerable detail on her lead character’s vintage clothes. As a guy, I’m less enamored of these details. But as a guy, I’m not Phillipa’s target audience. The vintage clothes are a key element of her character’s personality and style, and it’s a tremendous draw to her readers. It’s done brilliantly, so that even I, a guy, could visualize exactly what the character is wearing. It conveys a vivid image of the character – not just what she wore or what she looked like, but her personality. The reader very quickly comes to know the character as a real person, in large part due to this quirky wardrobe.
Other writers, other genres, different stories, can use more or less description and still have the right amount. I used to alternate reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Their styles were so completely opposite, especially in description, from spare to intricate, yet each conveyed exactly the right amount of description. It was a great exercise to see the wide latitude available to writers, yet how there is also a fine point of ‘just enough at exactly the right time.’
While I’ve focused on character description, the same techniques apply to describing anything from the kitchen to the landscape to the weather.