The single most incredible thing about writing is the imagery it can produce from mere text. The power to translate the words of a story into a clearly envisioned scene within the minds of readers is, for me, a truly beautiful gift for a storyteller to have.
That being said, I’ve always hated descriptive writing.My comfort zone has always been deeply rooted in writing dialogue but when it comes to writing, – particularly in prose – descriptive text isn’t something that can be avoided. It’s an absolute essential to the creation of an engaging story yet there are so many ways it can be done wrong.
Shattering The Illusion
I wouldn’t presume that to be down to inferior writing though. Sure, some writers may simply need to refine their abilities so they can provide a clearer image of the world they’ve created with words alone but in my experience that’s rarely the real problem. The most common crime in descriptive text is actually the complete opposite.
I don’t know about you folks but for me, there is nothing more off-putting in a story than a large wall of descriptive text providing in-depth information on something that seems pretty much irrelevant to the bigger picture of the story. Entire cities and landscapes can be described with giant blocks of text when only a small portion of what’s described has any relevance to the story itself.
This is quite possibly the biggest problem for writers to watch out for, whether they be aspiring authors or professional scriptwriters. When somebody falls in love with a story, it’s because they aren’t just reading words, they’re partaking in a new journey. How many times have you been lost in the worlds created by others and imagined yourself there in that moment? Perhaps you’ve seen yourself as the protagonist who leads that journey, or maybe you believed yourself a simple spectator.
The second a story is disrupted by descriptive text that doesn’t engage you, that journey falls apart in your mind. The illusion dissolves and you find yourself once again sitting with a mere collection of words. I’m ashamed to say as a passionate reader that on more than one occasion I’ve found myself skimming through large portions of an otherwise wonderful story for that very reason but I know I’m not the only one.
So how do we stop moments like that from happening? Where is the line between fine writing and too much information?
In my opinion, the problem isn’t so much about the line as it’s about how you as a writer perceive your own story.
See The World As The Character, Not The Writer.
Writing a story you truly love is one of the most exciting things a writer can do and we feel the need to share as much of that world as possible, especially when they’re set in worlds of our own creation.We strive to be as clearly descriptive as possible so that the reader can vividly see the world in their mind and feel the same excitement and passion for it as we do.
There’s one slight hitch with that though: It’s easy to forget that the average reader isn’t interested in what YOU see in this world you’ve created.
Now I know that sounds a little strange but just hear me out! You are the author, true…but after you’ve completed your task of actually writing this unique piece of fiction, are you relevant to the story at all? Does your personal vision of this world have any importance to what takes place or to the reader?
Of course not! It doesn’t matter that you are this world’s creator! Just like your readers, you are an outsider. Even if you decided to fashion one of the characters after yourself, you are not that character! It doesn’t matter if you’re the one pulling the strings of fate in this story because in the reader’s mind, you’re not the one leading the journey. That task falls to the characters themselves.
They are the ones your readers wish to follow, to relate to and empathize with. After all, they are the ones dealing with the challenges you’ve put before them! And so, it’s up to you to look through the eyes of your characters, see the world exactly as they see it and describe their perception of things rather than your own. If you can only see the world as yourself, an outsider, then you make outsiders of your readers as well.
Relevance To The Character Is What Matters
How many characters are going to fixate on the designs of a town hall’s floor tiles, or the changing flight patterns of birds in the skies or what each individual stranger they pass is wearing? How many characters contemplate what the standard attire of winter is when the story is set in Summer? Who can give the fine details on the practices of a religious organization they have no desire to be associated with just by passing one of their churches?
That kind of descriptive text isn’t necessary unless it’s relevant to your character or your story! While I have no doubt that you’ve created a truly rich and vibrant world for this story to take place in, you can’t expect the typical reader to take interest in these walls of information! Sure, they may want to know more about your world but they don’t want it to be forced upon them when it only serves to delay the progression of the story itself!
If you entered a strange place, what would you take notice of? What would you inquire about and what would you already know of it? How do you describe your hometown to a stranger within a few minutes and what do they ask when you’re finished?
These are the questions you need to ask when writing descriptive text because the reader doesn’t want all the answers at once and the ones they do want need to be relevant! Each sentence should paint a new coat of detail on the image in the reader’s mind and every detail should be of some importance to the journey in question.
Always look through the character’s eyes, not the writer’s. Something should only be noted in descriptive text if a character notices it and a new process should only be explained if the character understands it themselves.
Be the character describing their vision of the world, not the writer who sees all. You’re writing a story, not an encyclopedia.
And if you find yourself writing those large blocks of descriptive text, just stop and ask yourself: How can your readers feel a sense of discovery if you do all the discovering for them?