What kind of reader are you? Do you want to follow the character into a room and be fed every detail of said room? Or do you want the basic lay of the land and those few details that tell us something about the owner of that room?
How about the character whose eyes you’re looking through and the man she’s talking to? Do you want to know everything from the color of their shoes to the brand of their clothes?
Personally, I’m a bare bones kind of girl. When I see pages of description for a person or object in a book, I often skip it. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the author’s brilliance, the way he or she captured that vase on the mantle with perfection and the design on the rug, but I’m more interested in what’s happening. Who are these people? Why are they yelling? Why is that guy’s stare shifting around the room? Is something about to happen?
Because of my reading preferences, while writing, I tend to trust my reader’s sharp mind to construct the scenery and cast from my brief description so I can have more real estate with which to build the characters and tell their stories. Some people need and like all of those details to become immersed in the story, but for those who don’t, I’d like to suggest an alternative.
I used to participate in a peer critiquing site when I began writing in 2009. One of the authors whose work I’d been following ran an interesting experiment with one of his stories. He asked that we read the story, and at the end, he asked a question–what did the main character look like? It wasn’t until then that I realized he hadn’t given us a single description of her, yet I had a solid image in my mind.
The first thing I noticed was her voice sounded young, confused, a little afraid. She was running along a wooded trail, so I imagined her to have an athletic build, loved the outdoors and probably had a long auburn braid tapping against her back as she sped along through the trees. I also imagined her to be wearing a ball cap, tank top and clingy yoga pants, all in dark colors.
It shocked me how similar all of our descriptions ended up when none of us spoke about it to compare, and we all had the same seemingly generic person to describe. I learned a lot from that experiment, relying more on the nuances of the character and his or her surroundings to help the reader form a mental image instead of using explicit descriptions.
I’m liking it. Loving it, in fact, though it’s a difficult art to perfect. I’m far from it still, but now that I have it on my mind as I write, it’s coming easier. I still find places during editing where I can add in a movement, a look, an action, an inflection to the voice that tells volumes more than saying he or she wore a designer suit, and remove some of the superfluous descriptions that fall flat without telling us anything useful.
Take this picture for example. If I described a plaid sofa, wood floors, and a view of the forest out the bright bay window, do I need to say the owner of this house loves the country and the simple things in life? If I put a woman in the room, I bet you’d have an image of her in your mind long before I gave you one, and would it really matter if your image matched mine as long as you understand who she is? There are a thousand subtle ways to teach us about your characters without drowning the page with description.
The locale, voice of the character and actions are often enough to give us three dimensions. Picture your character clearly in your mind, follower her around the room, note how she interacts with her surroundings. Does she touch the picture on the wall? What does she do when she’s sad, angry, hurt? Again, don’t concentrate on what’s IN the room, but how she interacts with the room and her clothing.
Who is your favorite author that gives you the most vivid pictures in your mind? I’d love to hear from you, read what you love, as much for enjoyment as to learn from the masters.