I’m still on the subject of description, mostly because my WIP needs more of it to really come alive. Description is particularly important for my WIP because the main character has been sent to a new world. Everything is new and so she is really taking in her surroundings, trying to get a grasp on this new world and how she fits into it. But how do you determine when you need more description vs. when less is more?
To describe or not to describe…
I read a great post on kidlit.com the other day about mimetic writing. In her post, Mary looks at situations where lots of description are necessary and situations when excessive descriptions are less appropriate. Basically, if there is a situation where the characters would be likely to notice things, then by all means, throw in some description. But if they are in a high action scene, description would not only get in the way of the flow of the prose, but it would be out of character. Who stops in the middle of running for their life to notice the different types of trees or the chipped paint on a fence? Not many people.
The line that really caught my attention in her post was “If your character is paying really careful attention to someone or something, vague description just isn’t going to cut it.” This could not have described my MCs situation more. And that is when it hit me that I really needed to pump up the description to make the story more real, especially since it’s told in 1st person.
Now, there will be times when high action scenes could call for more description, just as their could be times when detail may be less relevant in a scene where a character is paying close attention to things. For example, if a character is running for their life, they may be paying attention to their surroundings to try to find a place to hide. Or if they are in a fight, they may be watching the movements of their advesary very carefully. Likewise, a character who is paying close attention to someone they are interested in may not be interested in describing everything the person is wearing. If it is the hair or eyes or hands that have attracted the person, they would not necessarily care about the type of shoes the person was wearing, or the smells in the cafetaria. Description for the sake of description is never a good call.
Description can add a lot to a story, but writers have to use common sense when adding it and ask: is this description necessary? Will it add to the story? Will it take away from the flow of the prose? Does it make sense? If your character is from the slums, would they recognize a designer handbag? Would the stuck up socialite care about the color of the bums hair? Not only can description help create your world, but if used smartly, it can also provide insight into your characters. Description can be a powerful tool when used correctly.