From the editors of Critique My Novel:
I find myself writing this over and over when working my way through a manuscript.
“Specific details help us picture the scene.”
However, I should point out that this only works for the important details. Mundane details, such as the specific order in which the character dresses, what side of the bed she rolls out of, or what type of soap she uses in the shower, are NOT needed.
Summarize the mundane details; be specific with the important ones. These are the details that show the scene, that are unique to the character, that vary from the norm.
It takes practice and talent to decide which details are important and which are not. Next time you are giving details, ask yourself if those you choose are details that paint a picture, or details that don’t really tell us anything.
Here is an example:
Carrie opened the red door to the hotel room. She saw a king-sized bed with a hotel-issue floral-patterned bedspread. She sighed. This would be her home for a while, so she needed to get used to that fact and make it work. She shut the door and dropped her bag with her clothes and toiletries on the cheap wooden dresser. By the window was a small table where she stacked her dictionary, her laptop, and a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. She flopped onto the bed and turned on the bedside lamp. There was a second lamp on the other side of the bed, as well as one by the TV.
Is anyone still awake after reading this? I almost fell asleep writing it. Can you picture this room? It’s just a generic hotel room. We know it has a bed a table and lamps. Don’t all hotel rooms have these? So why did we have to sit through that? And after a description like that, do we even want to continue reading? Maybe to battle insomnia.
If there isn’t anything specific about the room, then don’t waste your words describing it. You can add some detail if needed using active descriptions. Active descriptions are those where the reader is given details as the character is interacting with the object/setting instead of stopping the story to describe it.
Carrie pushed the door open with her hip and wrestled her duffel- bag through the doorway. She dropped it in front of the dresser, plopped her book bag on the table by the window and after locking the door, she finally sat down and took a deep breath. Safe. This room would be her home for a while, but she didn’t mind as long as she was safe. No one could find her now.
It seems that in this paragraph, the layout of the room isn’t the main focus. Her plight is. Who cares about the room?
If, however, you do want the room to be a focus for mood or tone, then pick out the unusual details that do this. The telling details.
Carrie’s suspicion about the age of the hotel had been confirmed when the desk clerk handed her the key. Not one of those new key-card keys, but a metal key dangling from a stained plastic fob. And now as she struggled to roll her suit-case over the cracked sidewalk toward the room, she wondered if she had made a mistake.
After she fiddled with the lock to the point of frustration, the door finally opened. The odor of musty carpet mixed with the twang of too much air deodorizer hit her in the face. She wondered how long it had been since this room had fresh air. This is the last place anyone would ever think to look for me, she thought, and went into the room.
She plopped her bag and suitcase on the bed, which had a definite depression in the center, and sighed, wondering if it was safe to sit on this bed-spread. Safe? Compared to what she had been through the past few weeks, a spotted bed-spread wasn’t gonna scare her off. Even after she saw the paint chipped off of the wall behind the headboard. She crinkled her nose.
She walked to the window and pulled the curtains back. The glass was dusty and several dried-up moth carcasses littered the sill, with a few more ground into the carpet below. Once again, she crinkled her nose. This was going to be her home for a while and it was all she could afford. Luxury was not an option. She just needed to borrow some supplies and clean the room herself. That made her feel better and she stood watching the dark clouds roll across the sky.
Yes it’s longer, but can you get a feel for this room and how it ties in with her plight?
Your descriptions are great. Anya
Thanks, Anya. I think maybe I should add that if you are describing a room we haven’t seen, then you can give some other details such as the type of furniture and anything else that shows the room. I use the example of a hotel room because we have all seen one and don’t need the basics described to us.
Thanks for this description of important details. Maybe, instead of telling or showing, on should say \”feeling\” details, those that create a mood such as you did. JKopp
That is a great way of describing the details. It is a much more ‘specific’ term isn’t it? Thanks for your input.
Great post and wonderful examples of the good and the bad. Would like to see you offer more tips like this. Mary
I hope to do more posts. I’ve always been bad at keeping up with blogs, but I will try to do better. This one was fun, and people are actually reading it (as opposed to other blogs I’ve written). Thanks for commenting.
I think I am guilty of this. I was trying to write a graveyard scene last night and worried that I didn’t have enough details about the surroundings. I even went to a cemetery and snapped 36 photos so I could use them later. Now I’m thinking I wasn’t being descriptive in the right way. Your post helped put things in a different light for me. Logan
I recently read a manuscript that managed to go from town to town, forest to forest, mountain path to mountain trail without any defining or identifying descriptions. The travels became repetitious and hard to enter into, because they blurred together without anything to differentiate where or when the characters were. Esther