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Monday, February 17, 2020

When Descriptions Turn Boring . . . (and How to Fix Them)

One time, years ago, I went to a writing conference, and while there, one group of people decided to organize a "first chapter" critique meet-up in the evening, where anyone could come and get feedback. It was great. But one of the people leading it brought up regularly that he hated description. Whenever someone read a description that was longer than two sentences, he commented that he hated description. Seemed a bit erroneous to me. I sort of worried that someone there would take his opinion to heart.

You see, I don't believe that most people hate description.

I believe that most people hate boring description.

A lot of people today blame technology for making readers unable to sit through a passage of description, and they argue that instant gratification has dulled their patience. This is only a half-truth.

Yes, technology plays a role in the way description should be written today, but not because we are all more lazy. Because of accessibility. You see, back in the day, the average person didn't have access to all the information we have now. A reader might not have actually known what a bayou in the South looked, smelled, and sounded like. They might never have been to the desert. They maybe had never tasted wasabi. Or seen a giraffe. Or heard an Irish accent.

Technology has made information and descriptions on these things all more accessible. And yes, more than technology has done this--I mean, I can go to any Japanese restaurant to experience wasabi--it's always there.

This is one of the reasons writers nowadays are sometimes discouraged from writing dialects like Mark Twain did; today, we all know what that accent sounds like. Instead, we just tell the reader they have an accent and then we sprinkle in some regional phrases here and there.

Technology didn't make us lazy (well, maybe it did in some sense); it made us more knowledgeable.

Which means . . .

     - a long passage of description of something we all know all about already can get boring.

     - Likewise, descriptions that are exactly what we would expect get boring.

     - Descriptions that have generic, "vanilla," and unimportant details get boring.

     - Descriptions that slow down the pacing of the story too much get boring.

     - Descriptions that are stagnant get boring.

     - And descriptions that are too abstract and vague, use too many adverbs and adjectives, or become purple prose can get boring . . . or at least, annoying.

To be honest, our taste for description has probably changed a lot over the last several decades.

But that doesn't mean that it's something everyone hates and should always be axed (like what was touched on at that meet-up). After all, appealing to the senses is still one of the most important writing rules to utilize. I mean, if the reader doesn't feel like they are experiencing the story, then the whole story might turn boring itself.

What it means, though, is that we probably need to approach descriptions somewhat differently today than in times past. We need to take our descriptions to the next level. Here are some tips to help with that.

Use the Amount of Description the Scene and Pacing Call for

Big, long chunks of description in a scene that focuses on a heated argument or that you plop into the middle of a fast-paced sword fight probably aren't going to be welcomed. They're going to be annoying. And they can derail the moment.

Consider the purpose of the scene. Is it a scene about a boy wizard entering a magical school for the first time? Or is it about an argument between the protagonist and her boss who just fired her? The first example calls for more descriptions. Raise your hand if you have actually ever been a boy wizard that entered a magical school for the first time. Anyone? Anyone? No one. If that is what that scene is about, then by all means, use more description in that scene, so that the audience can experience what that is like.

Have you ever been in a heated argument at work? How much of the setting and details did you notice? Now, let's stop for a moment. Because that's actually two things in one. Unless something unusual was going on in the workplace, you probably tuned out much (though not necessarily all) of the setting. But that doesn't mean you didn't notice anything. For example, you may have noticed the way a vein bulged on your boss's forehead. Or that his brown eyes are bloodshot. Or that you look stupid because of the lunch stain you just saw on your shirt. In any case, while there will be some description in here, it won't be as much as the prior example. And if you add as much, it will kill pacing--because that's not what the scene is about, that's not what the reader is here for.

Keep in mind that often pacing trumps description in priority. You can have the most riveting paragraph of description, but if it's bringing your sword fight to a grinding halt, it may need to go, or be whittled down to a single, brief sentence.

This is sort of a thing you have to develop an eye for, because in reality, I'm sure there is a sword fight out there somewhere that has a long paragraph of description that actually contributes instead of takes away from the appropriate pacing.

That's why these are guidelines. But in general, consider the purpose and the appropriate pacing of the scene.

Likewise, take into account how familiar or unfamiliar the audience is with the experience you are about to describe. The more familiar and mundane, the less description you probably need. The more unusual, the more you probably need. In general.

Use Description that Says More than What's on the Page

Like almost every aspect of great writing, great description often relays more to the audience than what is on the page. I've talked about this with subtext, I've talked about this with dialogue, and I've talked about this with developing side characters--a story is more satisfying when it's bigger than the text. A straightforward description that is all it appears to be is not as interesting as one that implies more.

For example, describing an ordinary pottery bowl doesn't tell me as much as one that has been repaired using gold (the Japanese art of kintsugi, if you are familiar with it).

Likewise, in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn books, one character's library is described as having loads of scholarly and philosophical books, but all the spines are stiff and straight and none of the pages are dog-eared and each volume is dusty. Those are details that mean something. They go deeper than just the surface. They tell us about the character. He likes to talk and pretend to be scholarly, but he actually hasn't put in the work or research to be a scholar.

Describing a regular cement driveway is one thing. Describing one that is covered in chalk with misspelled words and a hangman game implies much more.

Description can only be straightforward for so long before getting boring. Make it do double duty.

Use Description to Give us Insight into the Viewpoint Character's Worldview and Feelings

Putting in description is one thing. Putting in description that is colored by your viewpoint character's experience and voice can be totally different.

Imagine how a dog-hater would describe a dog park different than a dog-lover, and still different from someone who is allergic to dogs. When you color the prose with viewpoint, description becomes much more interesting.

This can be a great way to communicate the world and the character to the audience all at once. (Again, notice how this leads to the description doing double duty). For speculative fiction, this can also provide the audience with more context.

Select Unique/Unusual/Unexpected Details to Describe

Describing a character wearing a white t-shirt or a school desk as having four legs is so boring, it's forgettable and might as well be left out of the text. Describing a school desk as having a lightning bolt carved into it, so that the protagonist's pencil consistently gets caught when he's trying to do math, is more interesting because it's unique.

Watch out for describing things that the audience will already imagine a certain way by default. For example, describing the desk as having four legs is boring because by default, the audience already imagines that school desks have four legs. Or describing the sky as being blue with the sun being bright and yellow is boring, because we all imagine it that way anyway (unless you are on an alien planet where it's usually different). When we constantly deliver exactly what the audience expects, they get bored (and this is true of other features of writing), but when something is unexpected, they become more interested. This goes back to what I talked about in the opening. Readers don't need a long description of what it's like to take a hot shower--most of them already know what that's like to do every day (well, every day here in the U.S.). However, you can get away with some of that if--once again--the description is doing double duty. If it's really not about describing the hot shower, but using the hot shower as an extended metaphor for something else--say becoming morally clean (a cliche, but it serves my point).

One caveat to this tip. The more unusual, the more focus it consumes. Meaning, if the point of the scene is about the protagonist arguing with a boss who just fired her, then a really wild, unexpected detail, may pull the reader's attention away from where it should actually be (the conversation). Sometimes you need description there but don't want it to distract from something else. In cases like that, it's okay to have a brief, more general description (but please don't have it be about the school desk having four legs). Remember, focus and pacing trump description. Description should contribute to controlling focus and pacing, not take away from them.

Utilize Movement and Change

Something that is not moving or changing can get boring fast. Sometimes we can describe everything we need to in a scene with some good blocking. Other times we can bring stationary elements to life by suggesting change or motion.

Blocking is a writing term borrowed from plays. It relates to everything the characters do in relation to setting and each other: walking across the room, cooking eggs on a stove, putting a hand on the other's shoulder--all of those are blocking. Every time the reader is introduced to a new setting, you don't need to grind the story to a halt and describe it. Instead, you can use blocking to weave in description over the course of the passage: "I open my mom's fridge, which looks like cupboard," "She washed her hands in an old copper sink," "I smoothed the wrinkles on his button-up shirt and brushed off a crumb," "He put out square plates that had gold on the edges."

With that said, I do want to note that when the viewpoint character is introduced to a new setting, it's more acceptable to pause for a moment and describe the place, since it's new to them--as long as it doesn't (again) take away from pacing. However, if the viewpoint character is being introduced to a setting the reader has already visited several times in the book, you might not need to stop and describe much (unless, let's say, it's doing double duty--like giving us insight into the viewpoint character). Follow the needs of the story.

In some descriptions, there may not be any inherent motion. For example, imagine describing the view of the Grand Canyon from a specific lookout. Unless there are birds flying or critters near your feet or wind hitting tree limbs, there isn't going to be much motion. It's brilliant. But it's not moving or really changing as you look a it. This can turn into a boring description. So instead, what you do, is give the impression of change and movement. You mention how bands of color dart through the walls, how one rock stretches up toward the sky, how the river once carved out the canyon. You can learn more methods such as this one, here.

Giving us a sense of history about the place can also help. 

Elevate the Prose

Descriptions are more interesting when they are rendered in an elevated style. Keep in mind, this is NOT purple prose--writing that is trying (and failing) to be powerful and dramatic. I talk all about purple prose and how to write elevated prose in this article.

But real quick, I will mention a few points here. Elevated/poetic writing doesn't mean caking on the adjectives and adverbs and dramatic similes. It starts with one of these three things.

The Idea:

The best writers have fresh ideas. It might be their worldviews. Or it might be unique observations they've picked up from life.

And some of the best descriptions have unique ideas attached to them that make them beautiful, that make them significant, that make them feel like they could be poetry.

It's the fresh perspective of the thing you are describing that is interesting.

The Image:

The thing about purple prose is that it's taking something ordinary and trying to describe it in a way that sounds amazing.

You can do that sort of thing, but it's the image that counts. (Not all the fancy adjectives and adverbs you loaded onto it in purple prose.)

Great poets know it's the image itself that makes a moment amazing, not stacking on a bunch of modifiers.

I love the image of fog that J. Alfred Prufrock includes in his poem "The Love Song."

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Prufrock is making a stanza sound elevated by rendering an interesting image: how yellow fog is like an animal.

The Concept:

Some things feel dramatic, significant, or meaningful because of the concept. What the writer thought of to put on the page.

You could say this is similar to ideas, but to me, the ideas are the worldviews and insights attached to the description; concepts are the content of what is happening or exists. Concepts are more like the thing itself.

A tree trunk with a heart and initials is one thing, but a tree trunk with a suicide note carved into it is a concept that has more meaning to dig into.

It's hard to talk about writing in elevated prose succinctly because it's actually rather complicated to break down and so easy to do wrong. But if you want to learn more, read my purple prose post.

I would also say things like symbolism and extended metaphors help elevate the description as well, and therefore make it more interesting.

Finally, I want to briefly mention one other problem with descriptions that come up--descriptions that take away from the tone of the passage. Sometimes a description is bad because it doesn't fit the tone. You can learn all about tone, and that in particular, here.

And as always--don't forget about appealing to all five senses. We have more senses than sight.

Now go forth and write! 


  1. Great post! I've been trying to focus on keeping the boring out of my prose lately. Turning cliche words or sentences into something fresh. Describing characters in a different way. Bringing settings to life with new eyes.

  2. I was part of an online critique group many years ago, and I recall one instance where one of the readers mentioned that he thought the details the writer added to the story (which took place in a somewhat spooky flower shop) were boring. After a while, it occurred to me that the problem wasn't so much about the descriptions being boring, but that the writer had chosen to mention the wrong details. Instead of of boring the reader by describing the types of things that one might expect to find in almost any flower shop, the writer should have been describing the things that made this flower shop different than all the others.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Yes, that sounds like exactly what needed to be changed! Usually we want to mention the most unusual features--and after all, if they are usual, it's probably what the viewpoint character would notice first anyway.


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