Fiction Tip Friday – Descriptions

Way back when I was still in college, I took a creative writing class, and our first assignment was to write a description of a room using as many adjectives as possible.

The teacher–who was a lovely woman, I should add–clearly wanted us to embrace these descriptors. She wanted us to write something that would “really put a reader IN the room!” To her, this meant adjectives.

I balked at this. Did you really need to describe everything about a room, I wondered, to get a sense of it? A room is a room–they tend to be square-ish, possibly rectangular, couple of walls, a ceiling, some sort of floor. Kitchens have ovens, bedrooms have beds. My inner minimalist wept with every word I typed–who CARED if the couch was green? Did it matter if the arms were leather or fabric?

Now, I was indeed a contrary little twit (I’m still contrary, but hopefully no longer a twit). But I was on to something, and to this day, whenever I see a page packed full of adjectives, I wince–because the point is NOT to describe the room in detail.

The point is to give you an impression.

Out of context writing exercises, to my mind, don’t accomplish much. What would have made that exercise SO MUCH BETTER–in my opinion–would be if we’d all had to describe the same room, but for a different scene.

Consider: the room, when you’re writing, is your setting. And the only things about that room that matter are things that reinforce the tone, contrast with the tone, or objects that drive the scene forward in some way. Examples:

-If you’re writing a story about a lonely drug addict, you might mention things like the week-old laundry taking up two-thirds of the couch–the implication being, of course, that nobody ever visits, hence nobody is using that couch. You don’t need to spell that out; readers just pick up on it.

-If you’re writing about a woman who’s waiting up for a husband she’s pretty sure is cheating on her, you might focus on the domestic aspects of the room: family pictures. Dog-bed in the corner. Kid’s toys on the floor–all the constant reminders of the lie her life has become.

-If you’re writing a comedy, focus on the incongruity. Why is the book-end shaped like a dog wearing sunglasses? Why is there a badly-hidden porno magazine peeking out from underneath the Eames chair?

…the point is, the details of the room should serve to reinforce whatever your story is. You don’t need to describe the room for its own sake, and if it’s a normal scene in a normal room, I honestly don’t need more than a line of description with a few keywords: bare, cramped, homey, worn, messy. Esablish where we are, what it’s like, and move on.

This applies to people, too. Look: most people have two arms, couple of legs, and I think there’s usually a head involved. Do I ALWAYS need to know what color their eyes are, their hair, what they’re wearing? God no. Don’t give me description, give me impression: old guy in a filthy ball-cap with a face like beef-jerky (gross). Tall blonde in Manolo Blahnik shoes (rich). Slouchy guy in Birkenstocks (hippy). This is especially important for minor characters: it’s more important that I get a thumbnail sketch of their personality than knowing the shape of their lips.

So, the TL;DR version–don’t overwhelm me with adjectives. Pick a few that set a tone or make an impression, then move along. If it’s important that the couch be green, mention it. If it’s not important, who cares?


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