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Descriptive Detail in Novel-Writing Part 3

by Carly Cantor, Editor

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this article.

“Work the details in organically.”

These are five words I often write in my critiques to authors. What many amateur writers tend to do is describe surroundings and physical traits of characters in a rather heavy-handed way, as though they are providing instructions for set designers and casting directors working on a film version of their novel. The result is a book that feels more like a script than a novel. Given the influence of film nowadays, it’s inevitable that novels have become more filmic. As an editor of “a certain age,” I have learned to accept this fact—yes, the novel, like everything else, has evolved. But sometimes this filmic style is taken so far that I have to ask the writer if he or she might not be more comfortable simply writing a script rather than a novel.

To avoid this script-like feel, don’t give a full physical description of a character the instant the character appears in the story. Instead, integrate those details into the story in a natural way. The description should relate to the thoughts the narrator is having—it should not feel like a break in the action.

For example, consider these two different treatments of a passage in a novel in which a new character is introduced.

1. Elizabeth turned around and found herself face to face with her former best friend. Karina was about five-foot-ten and had long auburn hair and green eyes. She was wearing a denim miniskirt, pink slouch sweater, and knee-high black boots. They smiled at each other and awkwardly began to make small talk.

2. Elizabeth turned around and found herself face to face with her former best friend. They smiled at each other and awkwardly began to make small talk. Elizabeth was intimidated, as always, by the confident way in which Karina tossed long strands of her auburn hair out of her lovely green eyes as she talked. [A little later on in the scene.] Because Karina was a good six inches taller than Elizabeth, she often felt her friend was talking down to her. [A little later still] Struggling to think of another topic of conversation, Elizabeth turned her attention to Karina’s outfit: a denim miniskirt, pink slouch sweater, and knee-high black boots. They had shopped for those boots together in better times.

In the first example, the entire physical description is announced the minute the character shows up, as though Elizabeth is breaking out of character to shout, “Okay, people, here’s what you should picture when you picture Karina.” In the second, Elizabeth mentions the different details only when they are relevant to what she is thinking about in the moment. The flow is better and the narration doesn’t feel heavy-handed—it feels as though we are truly in Elizabeth’s head.

The same goes for descriptions of settings. When a character first drives up to a building, then certainly it makes sense to describe the building in a general sense. Is it a multi-story? Is it made of brick? Is it rundown? But bring in other details of the setting only as they become relevant to the character in the progression of the story.

Generally speaking, in a plot- or character-based story, keep descriptive detail to a minimum. Choose a few details that help readers picture the scene without overwhelming them with décor, color schemes, etc. (On the other hand, if you have a setting that is historical, such as Jazz Age Chicago; or exotic, such as Thailand; or has a lot of ambience, such as New Orleans during Mardi Gras, then descriptive details are more essential and more interesting, because the setting is part of the story.) The reader doesn’t need to know the body type, eye and hair color, and attire of every character who appears—mention only a few key details to describe minor characters.

Overall, offer details that convey vivid images with relatively few words and that do double-duty in helping with characterization.

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