Description – February Round Robin


Description. What is your saturation point? What is not enough? How do you decide what to include and when to hold back to allow the reader to fill in the blanks? 

With several books under my belt now I’m going to have to admit that … each work is different when it comes to description. I’ve found that Fantasy novels tend to be very description heavy, relying on your ability to craft a picture with words in order for readers to really plant themselves in your work.

However, science fiction tends to be different. Or at least for me it is. While I still have to describe what it’s like to be spelunking through Pluto, it comes off quite different from when I’m describing a character crawling through caves in a fantasy world.

This might be because the basics of Pluto are already given to me by science so I don’t have to reach very far to bring out those descriptions, whereas with a fantasy novel I’m trying to link the reader’s mind with something familiar and yet strange to evoke a unique picture.

Or it might be that the readership is just plain different.

A lot of people read science fiction for the possibilities it inspires and a lot of people read fantasy to escape and immerse into a new world. Which means that description has to be tackled in such a way that you’re giving the reader what they were hunting for.

Here, lemme give two examples …

FANTASY – Torven 

The snow muffled his steps through the wood, chilled the pads on his feet and made the fur on his legs plaster wetly against his skin. An aching stillness was in the forest today, broken only by the whisper of branches high overhead and the distant gurgle of a half frozen stream somewhere to the west of him. He would need to go there soon, it had been too long since he’d had a drink and Torven had been travelling some distance since the morning.

Still he tarried, continuing his lonely trek for several meters before diverting toward the stream. Snow began to drift soundlessly from the sky, catching on the leaves and piling on the ground in large, fat flakes. Some fetched up in the fur on his back but he could not feel them, would not feel them until his body heat finally melted them down to run icy rivulets over his skin.

Being a wolf did have some advantages, he supposed. It would not be as cold for him as it would be if he’d been a man.

SCIENCE FICTION – Debriefing (novelette under construction)(Mild language warning)

“This is bullshit,” Seach said from his bunk.

The tight confines of their transport vessel made his commentary unavoidable and Jorry sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. Thirteen years at war hadn’t managed to temper Seach Barlow’s penchant for insubordination and she was beginning to believe he might never be cured. Her navigation chair squealed as she turned to face him.

The back of the ship consisted of four bunks standing parallel to each other with one small space to walk between them. The low ceiling curved into a semi-circle and one set of thick yellow bracings separated the pilot’s nest from the main hold of the transport. Seach lounged in the top left bunk, one booted foot hanging over the side and she could see his frown through the holographic screen created by his personal computer. His amber eyes glared at the information he was reviewing and her stomach knotted with new worries.

He was reading their new orders.

See how the descriptions differ? The fantasy work is very focused on painting the picture whereas the science fiction gives more of a basic view of where the characters are standing.

Beyond that, we’re also having to look at what’s going on in the scene. If it’s an action scene we obviously don’t want to pause for a lengthy description of what the opposition is wearing. But we also don’t want to be so sparse with our descriptions that the reader doesn’t quite understand what is going on.

For me personally, I try to focus on the character in front of me. The descriptions can’t just be there to look pretty, they have to affect the character too. I’ve found that description says more about character than many people realize because, while I might see the dawn as a sign of hope and inspiration, to a character whose execution has been scheduled for the morning it would be something far more sinister.

This is how I decide what to include and what to take out. If the description doesn’t add to the tone of the character, if it doesn’t somehow reveal something about that character, then I cut it.

Take a look at what some of my fellow authors think about description …

Marci Baun
Skye Taylor
Beverley Bateman
Anne Stenhouse
Dr. Bob Rich
A.J. Maguire (YOU ARE HERE)
Rachael Kosinski
Diane Bator
Rhobin Courtright

12 thoughts on “Description – February Round Robin

  1. I agree with you that character defined description works great. It did in you excerpts, both of which held enough description to put mer in the scene without an over indulgence of unnecessary detail.

  2. Excellent point – that the description of the physical surroundings can have different effects on different characters. As they say, tell it from the point of view of the character with the most to lose – like the man due to die at dawn.

  3. I really liked the fantasy example. The last sentence, revealing that the person is a wolf, really put it together, and the snippets of description all subtly pointed to it.

  4. You’re right. It really does depend on the genre. Some genres, like fantasy, the readers really enjoy the description. Other genres, it’s not that description isn’t as important, but they may not want quite as many details. 🙂


    1. Absolutely! And there are some styles that are more conversational in tone, so it’s quite different when it comes to describing things. Because the conversational tone is so linked to the mind of the POV character that you’re mostly hearing their internal monologue and … Nobody really “thinks” in description.

  5. Hi AJ, it’s good to remind us how different genres require different approaches. I struggle to describe my characters and as I write regency, I know that could upset regency readers who really want to know whether the heroine is blonde/brunette/redhead. Actually I sometimes have to check back to find out… At the same time, I do love to discover a fictional reality. I once visited the Town Hall in Manchester which was so much my idea of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter novels that I was walking on air for ages. I loved your examples. anne stenhouse

    1. Goodness, I have trouble with characters too sometimes. I actually … have one character in Witch-Born who started out a red-head and turned into a blonde by the end. Ahem. Pardon me as I hang my head in shame.

  6. AJ, I really liked what you said about considering the character when writing description. I’ve found that I will definitely use different tones/vocabulary when switching between characters’ POVs. One character might be very casual and flippant while another would use much more formal wording, even though I’m writing in third person. Their lifestyles influence what they notice in a room, etc.

  7. Descriptions may vary depending on the genre you’re writing as you showed in your examples, but I think it still comes down to – is it important for the story? Does it add something to the plot? Beverle

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