Descriptive Writing, Agency, Telling Details, and Adjectives

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Descriptive Writing

As I continue to edit my work in progress and think about meeting readers’ expectations, especially when it comes to descriptive writing, I recently came across and interesting review of Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read, “a book that explores how people imagine and remember the things they read.”

I’ve always been loath to write (and dislike reading) detailed descriptions of characters and settings. I’m OK with details that surface as the story progresses when they are relevant, but one of the fastest ways for me to lose interest in a book or story is a front-loaded block of description sentences which have no other purpose, and an abundance of adjectives and adverbs. She was tall and had green eyes. She stepped over the puddles with her long legs while smiling at Bob, showing off her perfect, white teeth… Ugh.

It may sound like a stray tangent to descriptive writing, but I also dislike first person computer games. Though the graphics are more impressive every year, I find them terribly limiting. As this article argues, you have no freedom in such games to fill in the gaps, to make (meaningful) decisions. Perhaps there is a connection between my dislike of PC games and thick blocks of description.

Agency in writing

When I think about descriptive writing, I’m hoping to learn how to better take advantage of what readers already know. That is, evoking what they know and their experiences, so they fill in the blanks. Mendelsund calls this “agency”. That frees me (and all writers) from having to bog down the story-telling with exhaustive detail. Even if the descriptions are good descriptions, if they are not needed because the reader can build the image with just a few prompts, then good description or not, it is unnecessary words.

For instance, it would take me many words to describe an ER room to my satisfaction because I know nothing about them (other than the few times I’ve passed through them in life). But readers of fiction focused on the medical professions could “see” the ER room with just a few choice words from an adept writer.

Ditto readers of contemporary military fiction. If I say “The M16’s bolt carrier stripped two rounds off the top of the magazine…” everyone who has spent enough time with an M16 knows instantly what happened (the weapon is “jammed” and won’t fire), how it looks and how to fix it. For readers unfamiliar with these genres or niches, it would take many words to fully detail these things.

Description Words

So the question is how much to detail — how many adjectives and adverbs, in particular, as well as dedicated sentences to spend describing. What informs these decisions is how well the writers knows and understands his or her genre and readers.

I’m pondering this right now because I’m spending a lot of time ripping out every extraneous word – especially adverbs and adjectives — from my forthcoming military science fiction novel, Lonely Hunter. What seems to be extraneous to me, anyway. Not just in action scenes, but all scenes. In some cases, I’m cutting entire scenes. Those that stay are slimming down. I’m concerned, though, that I’m taking it too far. I have to carefully consider the story and emotional value of every word in doing so.

My Creative Writing Workshop says…

When I shared this with one of my writing groups, this article on “Telling Details” came up. My reading is that the differentiating (“telling detail”) is what makes the setting unique for the reader. Though this is also important, I am currently more concerned about not spending words on the things I would expect my target readers to know in the hopes that the reader could build their own mental image with minimal prompting from me.

Back to “Agency,” which is defined in the article I referenced at the top, as “…the ability to … to shape the world around you, is often an illusion in gaming. True agency is so elusive in video games … books seem to offer more of it to its readers,” according to Peter Mendelsund in his book What We See When We Read.

So, the “telling detail” is what guides and differentiates the generic image the readers is creating with minimal prompting.

Of course, using fewer words and granting agency to your readers can result in the unexpected…

In discussing these two thoughts with my fellow writers, one shared a story about finding out one of her readers had an entirely different view of what one of her main characters looked like. She was surprised and disappointed by this even though the reader liked the story.

I asked her why it mattered to her if her readers imagined her characters differently than she did. I said that I don’t think that is a bad thing. Personally, I would rather have readers like my story than have an identical view of my character’s facial structure. She had no satisfactory answer (to my mind) other than that they did not match her mental image of her characters.

Emma Darwin, the accomplished writer and writing coach on descriptive writing…

Physical details do matter, and in some instance, they will matter critically in our stories. But I don’t think it plays well with readers to introduce such details only when they are needed. In an article on descriptive writing, the always insightful Emma Darwin said (in part):

it really helps to think about why you want to describe this thing or place, and why just here in the story. Why do we need to know it? Does the narrator choose to tell us about the terrace, and why? Are we in the girl’s PoV, and does she notice the terrace, or is she too busy working out how to dump the girlfriend? And what would she notice? How stuffy and tidy the houses look, with their gardens laid out with a ruler and the lawns shaved? Or how cosy and friendly they are, and now she’ll never live in one? That’s why it’s also a mistake to think of Description as a lump of scene-setting before you can get going on dialogue and action. How is it part of the forward-movement of the story? How do the characters-in-action inter-act with the setting?

I think this all true, but too often less mature writers spring important details on readers only when they are needed, which seems poorly thought out to me. In my novels, I’m introducing them in subtle and innocuous ways (I hope) early on. I expect the same from the works I read. Otherwise, I sense that the author did not spend enough time working out the details and obsessing about the nuances. …just my bias.

An example

Here is an example from my WIP: I’m working on a series of SciFi novels. When I wrote the beginning of the fourth…

empire, Federation, eBook Cover, science fiction, military fiction, SciFi, space, human, aliens, fight, battle, war, spaceships, two suns, humanoid, dystopia, dystopian fiction, planets, apocalypse, apocalypse fiction, dystopian novel, young women, woman, planets, outer space, colony
Mock-up cover for Book 4

…a child is intrigued by how fine ridges of skin appear over the bridge of IrSaa’s (one of the MCs) nose when she smiles. The child gently touches them with her fingertips. It is a short but important moment (as will become clearer in the fourth novel 😉 ).

So this detail does not appear as something I just dreamed up for the fourth novel, I have introduced it in the first novel and mention it again in the second and third novels. Both are short, fleeting references. But they provide that “telling detail” that makes her unique as discussed above while also laying the groundwork for it being more significant later.

This is actually one of the few physical details I provide about this MC. By keeping my descriptions limited, it makes my novel a faster read and I’m giving the readers more freedom to define IrSaa in greater detail to their own satisfaction. I hope this makes my writing more accessible and appealing.

I’m curious, though, how other writers attempt to address the challenge of descriptive writing? Your turn.


Descriptive Writing, Agency and Telling Details
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Descriptive Writing, Agency and Telling Details
The How To of Descriptive Writing: Agency, Telling Details, Adjectives, and Adverbs. And understanding your genre and readers' expectations.
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Tiffany Writing
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