Descriptions in fiction writing – less is more

Creating a realistic world for your reader can be challenging. Description of the setting and characters can help your reader “see” your world.

Descriptions of setting allow the reader to see where events are taking place. And descriptions of characters allow the reader to see who is involved as well as draw conclusions about the characters. Descriptions should engage the reader, draw him into the story and stir up his curiosity.

The key is to decide how much description your reader needs to see and feel your character’s world.

My writing style is usually light on the descriptions. I prefer for my readers to use their own imagination to build the world and characters. I perhaps do this because I am not a fan of reading pages upon pages of description.

I try to leave out the parts readers skip. ~ American novelist/screenwriter Elmore Leonard

In my case that would be the description.

Now I am not saying you should have NO description in your book. I am just one who like to use it sparingly. A few good choice words can bring vivid images.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. ~ Russian playwright Anton Chekhov

And this quote is a good reminder that you need to incorporate the senses in your descriptions. Don’t just say how something looks, but includes how it smells, feels, and tastes. (Obviously, those aren’t applicable in every scenario).

A few choice details can do much more than long paragraphs describing the scenery or what the characters are wearing.

I will end this short post with these rules of writing from Elmore Leonard. (At least half of them deal with description.)

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never us a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation point under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never us the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Show, Don’t tell: A sample

Often as writers, we hear “show, don’t tell.” This simply means that instead of stating someone is hungry, scared, nervous, excited or angry that we should get that message across by how our character acts or reacts to the situation.

Now for some, this may be a daunting challenge. How do I show this, you might wonder. Sometimes it might help to imagine yourself in the situation. Or perhaps you can think of a scene from a movie.

If someone is hungry, they might lick their lips as they stare at a pie, or they may place their hand over their rumbling belly.

When you are scared, your heart pounds. You jump at strange noises in the darkened house as you tightly grip your flashlight.

Hopefully, you get the idea. I wrote the following short scene as a demonstration of “show, don’t tell” based on a shore excursion my family took this week. (I am on vacation now so this scene was actually written BEFORE we went on the Twister Boat.)

The Twister Boat

Her hand gripped the edge of the seat. Her heart pounded as the speed boat raced across the water. The driver turned sharply. Her stomach tightened as the boat spun. A wave of sea water crashed over the squealing passengers.

“Uno mas, Hector!” someone yelled.

Others joined in, calling for Hector, the driver, to do it one more time.

Hector, a tall thin man with an easy smile, laughed as he set the boat racing again. Stella steeled herself for the upcoming maneuver. The brochure had promised the daring excitement of a high-speed boat with moves guaranteed to soak you. And it hadn’t lied. But Stella longed for the white sandy beaches and margarita that the brochure assured her was at the end of this wild ride.

As the boat spun again and the other riders called out for another spin, Stella sighed. Obviously, Hector would continue to indulge the others. He set the boat speeding across the water. This time she relaxed her grip on the seat slightly. Tipping her head back, she closed her eyes as the boat twisted in the water. A warm wave of salty water drenched her. She laughed.

“Uno mas, Hector,” she cried out.


Instead of telling you that Stella is nervous – perhaps even scared – by the maneuvers of the Twister Boat, you learn about it by her actions. Her heart pounds. She grips the seat. And then in the end, she tries giving into the fun by not clutching the seat as tightly. She tilts back her head and closes her eyes to enjoy the motion of the boat. And we know she likes it because she laughs and calls out for ‘one more time.’

So keep the writing adage of “Show, Don’t Tell” in front of you as you write, and let your readers feel and experience what your character’s feel, rather than telling them.


Beware: Too many or too few speech tags

A speech tag lets readers know who is speaking. She said, he snapped, Aunt May whispered. But using a tag on every line gets to be cumbersome to read.

Example #1

“I still think it is suspicious,” Sally insisted.

“You are being paranoid,” Mike said.

“Don’t you think it is odd she just happened to show up at the same restaurant in the exact same dress,” she asked.

“You look better in it,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said.

Mike took her hands and looking into her eyes said, “Look don’t worry about her.”

Sally sighed. “Ok, OK,” she said. “I can do that.”

“Good,” Mike said with a smile. “Now let’s talk about something else.”

As you can see from this example, there are way too many speech tags. Often you can go without the speech tags at all and still let the reader know who is speaking. Here is the same example without speech tags but letting the characters actions announce who is speaking.

Example #2

Sally shot him a look as she dropped her purse on the bed. “I still think it is suspicious.”

“You are being paranoid,” Mike said.

“Don’t you think it is odd she just happened to show up at the same restaurant in the exact same dress?”

He came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her and leaning his cheek on her shoulder. “You look better in it.”

She smiled. “Thanks.”

“Look don’t worry about her.” His breath tickled her ear.

Sally laughed. “Ok, OK. I can do that.”

“Good.” Mike kissed her neck. “Now let’s talk about something else.”

The second example reads better without all the he said, she said business. It also adds to the scene to have character actions instead of just dialogue. And as you can see, one line has no one attributed to it but in a conversation between just two characters, you can drop the speech tags or any indication of who is speaking – or at least for a while. Any more than about 4 or 5 lines without tags and you have the possibility that the reader won’t remember who is speaking.

Example #3

“Let’s get out of here,” John said pulling her hand.

“No, we should stay.” Misty looked around. Nothing seemed out of place.

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

“You worry too much.”

“And you don’t worry enough.”

“Just give me a minute. This won’t take long.”

“Ok, just one but then we go.”

If this conversation goes on without tags, the reader can forget if it is John or Misty speaking. I know it has happened to me when reading. Sometimes it is clear by what the character says but other times it isn’t.

There is no hard or fast rule on when to use a speech tag and when to not. And each writer may have their own preferences. However, it certainly can improve your story to eliminate an overabundance of he said, she said.

Writing a night or low lighting scene

So I was recently writing a scene that took place in a darkened street. A battle ensues and a chase. There is a lot of hiding out and sneaking down alleys. The fact that this takes place in a world without street lamps only makes the writing more difficult as I focus on what my characters would be able to see.

When writing a scene in the day time, it is easy to talk about the color of clothes or hair on someone that your character sees. They will be able to describe the flash of light as the sun reflects off the sword blade or the way the water sloshed in the bucket.

skating uid 1462866But when you are writing a scene in low light – whether it be at outside at night or just in a darkened room – you need to take into account what can actually be seen.

I remember writing an assignment for a writing class. I had a thief sneaking into a room filled with bottles. The only light was the moonlight coming in from the large front window. In my description of the room, I wrote about the glistening of the liquid in the bottles.

The instructor and a couple of peers in the class noted that the liquid shouldn’t glisten in that little amount of light. And they were right. So I reworded the passage.

As I am working on my current scene, I have often paused to consider what my character can and cannot see in the dark. A dark figure is something he can see but I won’t be commenting on any facial features as they are hidden in the dark. If there were street lights, maybe we could see his face but in this world, that isn’t happening. All I have is the moonlight.

This focus on details is a concern all authors can face because all of us – mystery writers, romance authors, writers of thrillers – can have a scene out in the night or even in the low light. And as with all of your writing, you want to make it believable. You don’t want to jar the reader out of your story by showing something that couldn’t possibly happen.

So how do you avoid this? The first step is to be aware that writing a night scene or one in low light that what you might normally describe – grimaces on faces, color of eyes or shirts – will not happen.

To make your descriptions more accurate, I suggest you visit a similar area to the scene you are writing. If you are writing a scene between two lovers, grab someone and stand in a darkened room to see how much of the other person you can see. If you are writing a fight scene in a dimly lit bar, visit one. (But I don’t suggest you start a fight to complete your research.)

In my case, there are no street around here that aren’t affected by lights from buildings or street lights. But still a nighttime visit to my backyard (or the countryside) can at least give me an idea of what my characters will be able to see. That additional realism may not be one your reader notes but not having it could easily pull them out of the story with your impossible scenario.