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  • Derya Dinç

Editor's Perspective: Lack of Description

As a developmental editor and editor, I work with many different publishers and writers. Many authors, especially those finishing their first book or struggling with writing due to various issues, reach out to me for editorial, developmental editing, and writing coaching services. In this article, I want to discuss a common issue I've noticed among many new writers: lack of description.

As the writer, you are the creator of the world you write about in your novel's pages. The characters, settings, and events in this universe are as clear as a photograph in your mind. When you close your eyes, you can see the characters and settings in the finest detail; you may even have photos of them in front of you while writing. However, the reader is a stranger stepping into this world for the first time. Without the guiding words of the author, the reader is blind and deaf in this world. They need the author's help to find their way and visualize what they read.

Many new writers skip descriptions because they are so clear in their minds. This is similar to describing someone you know very well. You might have enough information to fill pages about a person you see every day and know intimately, but when asked to describe them to someone else, you might struggle to find the words.

What is Description, Why, and How is it Used?

So, what is description? Why and how do writers use it? Description is the term for defining the places, settings, and characters in the text to create a visual image in the reader's mind. The description relies on the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, and typically, the more important a character or setting is, the more detailed the description. This means you might give more descriptions for your main character but not need to provide the same level of detail for side characters.

The description is one of the most crucial elements of fictional books, but it poses a difficult decision for every writer. If you provide too much information in descriptions, the reader might get bored and put the book down. Conversely, if you keep descriptions too brief and fail to provide necessary information, your characters might not come to life in the reader's mind. The key is to provide enough information to avoid leaving the reader in the dark while allowing them to fill in the fine details themselves.

Descriptions are primarily made using the five senses. For example, visual and auditory senses are most commonly used in character descriptions. How does your main character look? This includes details like whether they are tall or short, dark-haired or blonde, and their eye and hair color. What does their voice sound like? Do they speak in a threatening manner, or do they have a thin, high-pitched voice? Such descriptions bring your characters to life in the reader's mind, making your stories more engaging and realistic. In setting descriptions, multiple senses can be used together. For example, a square might be adorned with flowers (sight), the sweet scents of the flowers might fill the square (smell), and the midday sun might add a pleasant warmth to the air (touch).

Beyond the senses, another type of description is portraying the characters' emotional states. Fictional books mainly focus on one or more main characters' adventures that transform them. These books especially emphasize the starting point of the main character (e.g., hopeless, low self-esteem, weak, lonely) and where their experiences lead them (e.g., victorious, confident, with trusted friends, strong). The emotional state of the character is conveyed through descriptions throughout the story. The main character changes, grows, and evolves, and the author must depict this transformation through descriptions at specific points in the story for the reader to become part of this journey.

Another important aspect of description is to distribute necessary information throughout the story rather than providing it in one large block. There is no need to rush to introduce your main character or anyone else. You have hundreds of pages to provide this information in a digestible manner for the reader. Ensure that the information you provide is not boring and, more importantly, relevant to the plot.

Let's examine descriptions with examples. The famous American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe begins his story "The Gold-Bug" as follows:

“This island is a very singular one. It is about three miles long, and perhaps a mile wide at its widest point. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, which winds its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, and is navigable only at high tide. At ordinary times it is little more than an extensive marsh. The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant, or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard white beach on the sea-coast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle, so much prized by the horticulturists of England. The shrub here often attains the height of fifteen or twenty feet, and forms an almost impenetrable coppice, burthening the air with its fragrance.
The winters in the latitude of Sullivan’s Island are seldom very severe, and in the autumn it is a rare event indeed when a fire is considered necessary. About the middle of October there occurred, however, a day of remarkable chilliness. Just before sunset I scrambled my way through the evergreens to the hut of my friend.”

In this example, Poe uses setting descriptions to provide the background for a story mostly composed of dialogues. As the characters in the short story move, brief descriptions of new regions are included. Remember that this example is from a short story, and more space can be allocated for descriptions in longer texts like novels.

Let's also examine a character description example. In the first book of the "Lord of the Rings" series, Tolkien first describes "Strider" Aragorn as follows:

"Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbits' talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the warmth of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits."

This passage describes Aragorn's first appearance in the story. Here, the visual observation-based description of Aragorn, one of the most important characters in this epic tale, is provided succinctly. At this stage, the reader gets an impression of a shady, dark, and suspicious figure. In the subsequent parts of the series, many descriptions about Aragorn are interspersed, but at this point in the story, only enough information is given to evoke suspicion, curiosity, and uncertainty in the reader. Here, the description is also used to keep the story engaging.

Another character description example can be found in "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," describing Albus Dumbledore's first appearance:

"Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles, and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore."

Here, as in the Aragorn example, a limited description is provided to create excitement and curiosity in the reader, but this brief description contains enough details to visualize the character. More detailed descriptions of Dumbledore are interspersed throughout the rest of the series.

Staying True to Descriptions

Writers sometimes make other mistakes regarding descriptions. When you create a character, you must remain consistent with their attributes. For example, your character cannot be blonde on one page and brunette on another. If you write "she smoothed her skirt as she sat" in one paragraph, you cannot describe the same character as wearing pants in the next paragraph unless she changes clothes between scenes. As a writer, you need to keep track of the descriptions you create.

The easiest way to do this is to keep a file for your most important characters. This file includes photos of people who inspired the characters if you have any and the character information. This character information includes basic details like age, eye color, hair color and style, height, weight, distinguishing features like scars or disabilities, and characteristic traits. Is your character stubborn, emotional, or outgoing? These details are a good start, but they are not enough for the main characters. The main character's file should also include information about health, family history, likes and dislikes, fears, relationship history, hobbies, accent, profession, and past job experiences. Even if you don't present all this information to the reader in the story, keeping a detailed character file will help you maintain consistency. Additionally, you can create a family tree to show the relationships between family members when the story requires it.

For example, let's create a character file for a fictional character.

Name: Bill Tucker

Age: 21

Height: 5'9" Weight: 158 lbs (Muscular but lean build, with a slight limp.)

Hair/Eyes: Black hair, brown eyes, military haircut.

Distinguishing Features: Slight limp, vacant eyes, burn scar from his back to his left arm.

Accent: Southern U.S. accent

Background: Born in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. He was a frail and weak child. His father left the family when Bill was eight, and his mother always blamed Bill for it. His alcoholic mother used to lock Bill in the small closet under the stairs. Bill would sit curled up in the dark, listening to his drunken mother muttering to herself. Even though the closet door wasn't locked, Bill didn't dare come out until his mother passed out from drunkenness. If he did, his mother would suddenly attack him, throw bottles at him, slap him, or pull his hair. One day, when she was very drunk, she pushed Bill towards the stove with boiling oil, causing burns on his back and part of his left arm. On another day, she broke his leg by shutting the closet door on him, and because she never took him to the hospital, the poorly healed fracture left Bill limping for the rest of his life.

Bill ran away from home when he was just 16. He saw the army as his salvation and lied about his age to enlist. However, he failed both the physical and psychological tests. With the support of a sympathetic officer, he started working as a mechanic on a military base. He often got into fights with soldiers to prove he was as good as them and was fired within a year.

Bill found work as a driver and gardener for a wealthy man he met while working as a bouncer at a strip club in New Orleans. He developed an obsession with the wealthy man's wife, who was very kind to children and the opposite of his mother.

Relationship History: None.

Fears: Small spaces, being locked in.

Likes/Dislikes: He is obsessed with the wife of the wealthy man he works for and dislikes children who are mistreated by their parents and the openly cheating man he works for. He doesn't like to talk much. He likes working on cars.

Bill is created to be the antagonist in a fictional book. Probably, details like his birthplace, running away from home at 16, or working as a mechanic on a military base won't be included in the novel's story. However, all this information supports the other parts of the character's story and brings together the character's entire background. The character file ensures the consistency of the information provided in the novel and contributes to the story's development. Therefore, keeping a character sheet for your created characters, especially the main ones, even if it's just a page long, will support you throughout the writing process.

As a writer, you may have a great story and plot in mind. But remember, without properly used descriptions, this plot will remain dull in the reader's eyes. Therefore, especially in fictional works, don't forget to pay the necessary attention to descriptions.


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