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“Show, don’t tell” is a staple of modern writing advice. Writers are supposed to describe characters and settings and things and hope that their descriptions are good enough that readers form the desired conclusions. A home is comfortable because of the crackling fire and warm braided rugs, not because the author informed the reader, “This was the most comfortable home imaginable.”
This approach to writing is, generally speaking, quite admirable. I hesitate to say this is the “correct” way to write or that readers should never “tell” anything, but a good description is both informative and fun to read. However, description can be a huge pitfall for writers, as well as a huge bore to readers, if done poorly. Below are some characteristics of the descriptions I like to read. Feel free to express your thoughts on the topic in the comments!
Good Description Adds Something to the Story
Description should not be filler, but instead should operate as an important piece of a narrative. It can help readers build a mental image for something or someone that is somehow important to the plot, such as laying out the terrain that questing characters will have to cross. It can also help creative a mood for the entire novel, or for a single scene.
At sunset Emily sat in the lookout room. It was flooded with soft splendour. Outside, in sky and trees, were delicate tintings and aerial sounds. Down in the garden Daffy was chasing dead leaves along the red walks. The sight of his sleek, striped sides, the grace of his movements, gave her pleasure–as did the beautiful, even, glossy furrows of the ploughed fields beyond the lane, and the first faint white star in the crystal-green sky. (Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery)
Good Description Describes Something Real
Have you ever read a piece of amateur creative writing, where the descriptions were incredibly over-the-top because the writer was more interested in being “creative” than in actually describing something? Perhaps falling in love was like “entering a multi-faceted vortex of pulsing and psychedelic feeling.” Which hardly means anything at all. Description does not need to be literal, but it should evoke an image or feeling that readers can understand.
She moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx. (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor)
Good Descriptions Are Interesting and Well-Written
A boring description is one that should that should have been cut. In the first place, it may be boring because it broke Guideline 1: It is not important to the story in any way, so no one cares. It is possible, however, that it is relevant, but that it is too long, too detailed, and or just phrased plain language.
As mentioned in Guideline 2, a description only really needs to be an image. Saying a character looks “like an angel” can be effective (assuming readers react as desired and work under the assumption that angels are beautiful) because it allows readers to conjure their own, individual images of perfect beauty. No one is disappointed here, or mentally arguing that the freckles on a character are not an asset. Sketching in some details, of course, can help and is perfectly appropriate, but two pages on the girl’s pert nose, with one nostril slightly larger than the other, and her luscious emerald eyes specked with minute flecks of gold is just going to lose people.
The best descriptions are often an idea, rather than a written photograph.
I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed! Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something. (The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien)