|Photo credit: Armando Maynez on Flickr|
I've often found that you can tell a new writer from an experienced one by the way they handle description.
New writers often feel as though they have to describe everything. They go on paragraph after paragraph (or even several pages) going through every last minuscule detail of every setting (and/or every character), oftentimes stopping the action altogether to paint a perfect picture of the character’s surroundings.
To be fair, it’s an easy mistake to make, and one that I readily admit I made with my first novel. You see, writers understand how important it is to paint a picture for the reader and make the setting come alive. What many new writers often mistakingly believe, however, is that they must describe the hell out of everything in order to make the readers see.
But the truth is, that’s not the case at all. You don’t need to describe everything in order to create full images for the reader—you just need to describe a couple important telling details.
What I mean by important telling details are specific aspects of your setting that embody the spirit of the surroundings. Ideally, you’ll want details that appeal to all five senses (although you don’t need to use all five at once).
Because I’m about to re-read Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo before reading the sequel Siege and Storm, I thought I’d show you a great example of an effective description of one of the many places the main character Alina encounters in the richly decorated world that Ms. Bardugo created. And I’ve bolded examples of telling details:
“For a moment, all my fear disappeared, eclipsed by the beauty that surrounded me. The tent’s inner walls were draped with cascades of bronze silk that caught the glimmering candlelight from chandeliers sparkling high above. The floors were covered in rich rugs and furs. Along the walls, shimmering silken partitions separated compartments where Grisha clustered in their vibrant kefta. Some stood talking, others lounged on cushions drinking tea. Two were bent over a game of chess. From somewhere, I heard the strings of a balalaika being plucked. The Duke’s estate had been beautiful, but it was a melancholy beauty of dusty rooms and peeling paint, the echo of something that had once been grand. The Grisha tent was like nothing I had ever seen before, a place alive with power and wealth.”
—Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, page 40.
One paragraph. That’s all Ms. Bardugo uses to describe the bulk of the Grisha tent, and yet I think we can agree that by the end of the paragraph, you have a great sense of not only Alina’s current surroundings, but how it differs from the surroundings she’s accustomed to (ergo: the Duke’s estate).
The fact of the matter is, you don’t need very much to build a rich setting. You just need to describe a handful of the right details and let the reader fill in the rest.
What are some of your favorite settings from books? Do you remember any of the telling details that made it stand out to you?
Is describing everything necessary to paint a rich setting for the reader? One writer says no. (Click to tweet).
What are telling details and why are they important? Writer @Ava_Jae explains. (Click to tweet)