Choosing Descriptive Details

Clean me please ~ 1 0f 3 photos

photo credit: Mary Anne Enriquez

 Description can be unwieldy.  As writers, we’re in constant give and take with our experiences, with the facts of the world and the needs of our story.

But in our attempt to provide an aura of reality, we tend to clutter our prose with a lot of unnecessary details.

Rather than describe with cinematic effect, we dilute our prose with a barrage of facts.

These facts may be accurate. But we want precision. Because good writing is all about economy of language.

What to leave in, what to leave out.

How do we know when a descriptive detail is extraneous or essential? How can we curb the impulse to be compulsively exhaustive and microscopic?

In your description of the dining room, should you mention that the vinyl on the chair is ripped?  Should you tell us the chair is a 1950’s Designer Diamond Tufted Retro Diner Chair? That, in 1999, it was rescued from the back lot of the Bendix Diner in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey? That Paul and Tina ate Eggs Benedict for breakfast? And that the bonsai tree their 30-year-old daughter sent from Jackson Heights, Queens sits on a triangular nesting table made of embellished steel?

How do you select?

Poe’s Unified Effect

There’s a moment in every story where all its elements converge, what Edgar Allen Poe called, “the unified effect.” One way to decide if a particular passage of description is necessary or not is to think of the story or book as an arrow pointing toward that moment of convergence.

Does your descriptive passage point toward the unified effect or away from it?

Would a lengthy description of the bonsai tree reveal metaphorically something about the emotionally stunted daughter? Or would the tree merely become an interesting but misleading distraction?

What if you omit the bonsai tree? What effect would you lose that you couldn’t replace in any other way?

Be illustrative rather than exhaustive.

Nothing in our story should serve as mere decoration, or simply to provide a landscape. An object shouldn’t be on the page just because it was or could’ve been there in the room.

Everything in your description needs to be made use of.  Every detail should be pulling some weight.

So let’s say the bonsai tree comes up in your description. Unwrap it. If it doesn’t  reveal something deeper about character, or convey a certain mood, if it isn’t thematically significant, cut it. Save it in a separate file. It might be useful for another story later.

Descriptive details aren’t just pretty. They’re revelatory.

Objects can be repositories for emotion. And they’re often a more effective way to reveal your character’s feelings than an explicit explanation of her mood can.

In her story, “Out-of-Body Travel,” Sheila Schwartz drives home what’s underneath Suzanne’s rebellion, her  drug use and reckless disregard for her future via the objects she observes around her.

Suzanne describes the curtains, the funeral purple ones in the dining room, heavy gold plush that “fell in a gloomy cascade behind my mother’s china orchestra.” Such metaphoric descriptions evoke the deprivation and gloom the breakup of Suzanne’s parents has cast over her life. And the china-like fragility of their relationship. We get a sense of broken lives, of love on the brink of disintegration.

Pay attention to your natural urge to select significant details.

It can be overwhelming when we’re constructing a believable, realistic world for our characters to live in. Because real life presents us with so many details.

But the good news is, you already know how to select what’s important. You do it every moment of every day.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we continuously select which details to pay attention to and which to ignore or let fade into the background. If we didn’t have this built-in filter, we’d be flooded with too much sensory input. Everything would be equally significant. And so, insignificant.

What we notice reveals us.

This is the aspect of point of view that many writers miss. Our field of vision is constantly shifting to correspond to our emotional state. So it’s not just what we notice, it’s how we interpret what we see.

Observe your urge to select what’s worthy and unworthy of your attention at any given moment. Then look at  the relationship between your inner and outer world.

Your work demands the same approach.

And ideally, description and story are inseparable.

 When revising…

  1. Are sections of your narrative overloaded with descriptive detail? Prune them. Make your details concrete. Go for emphasis and precision.
  2. Are  you including descriptive details simply because the objects would, in real life, be there? Cut them. Save them in a separate file. See if your story holds up without them. Remember you can always put them back. You might be surprised how much stronger your work is once you chisel away the excess.
  3. Feel your character through the story. Don’t just observe your character from the outside. Imagine her from the inside out. What would she notice? How can you slant the details to convey her state of mind?

Over to you.

Take one descriptive passage from one of your drafts and revise it applying the three steps above. Then share your biggest  insight in the comments below.

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