Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Avoiding Stop-Action Description

Winner of GIMME A CALL, which is the consolation prize for those who missed my first book/critique giveaway, is--CherylAnne Ham!

How's that for a convoluted sentence? Tip for the day: never write sentences like that.

CherylAnne, send your address to artzicarol [at] gmail [dot] com, and I'll mail the book to you.


DESCRIPTION: Meeting a New Character
I see this often in novels, published or otherwise: describing things in exhausting detail. And I'm sure I've done it myself. But doing so wreaks havoc on the pacing of your scene. The forward movement comes to a screeching halt while you detail someone's hair color, eye color, clothing style, exact degree of their head tilt, and other specifics of your new character. Same with describing a setting or a place. A better strategy is to describe only what is necessary to the flavor and plot, to take a cameo snapshot. It's NOT a grocery list of everything about the appearance of a character or a setting.

1. Stop-Action Description--Dump Version
I meander down the sidewalk with my ice cream cone, licking the strawberry sweetness of it up one side and down the other. It hits the perfect spot. My ponytail swings behind me, and I'm one happy camper.

As I get to the pawn shop on the corner, right in mid-slurp, I see this guy barrel out the door. The guy has a wild look on his face. He's holding a ratty, emerald-green guitar, the acoustic kind, and fumbling it like he's gonna drop it. Three of the guitar strings are dangerously unattached, and dangle in mid-air. I stare at the guy, noting the perfect powder blue of his eyes, the random carelessness of his tawny hair. A few freckles parade their way across his nubby nose. His legs are long and his blue jeans are patched. I'm scoping out the tan on his muscular arms below his short-sleeved navy t-shirt, when one of his renegade guitar strings twangs out and pokes me in the stomach. I yelp, and jump back.

2. More Integrated Description--Spare Version
I meander down the sidewalk with my ice cream cone, licking the strawberry sweetness of it up one side and down the other. It hits the perfect spot. My ponytail swings behind me, and I'm one happy camper.

As I get to the pawn shop on the corner, right in mid-slurp, I see this guy barrel out the door. He's holding a ratty guitar, fumbling it like he's gonna drop it. Three of the guitar strings are all sproingy and loose. A wild look glints in his baby blues, and his hair looks like someone shoved the front of it up when it was wet and let it dry there. One of his renegade guitar strings twangs out and pokes me in the stomach. I yelp, and jump back.

While the emerald-green, acoustic, tawny hair, freckles, nubby nose, long legs, patched blue jeans, tanned & muscular arms, and short-sleeved navy t-shirt of the first version may be important (hahaha, right), all those items don't have to be dumped into the paragraph. They can or should be woven into the scene later, while the characters are talking and she's continuing to look at him. Some details could even be postponed for another scene.

The number of adjectives in the first version are almost exhausting (as much as I adore adjectives). The first version is a total of 171 words due in part to this plethora of adjectives, while I slashed my second version to 129. That's 42 extra words--words that readers might skim or skip if you keep them away from the action of the scene too long. And will the reader remember all these details of color, shape, length, and style? Probably not. That's another reason to spread the information out.

Some writers make it a habit of limiting themselves to roughly three sentences of description about a new character or place. It's kind of the limit before your reader starts tuning out or skimming. That's how many the second version has in the second paragraph, in between the sentences of action. And no, it doesn't count if you try to cheat by making those 3 sentences extremely long!

Do you love to pepper your introductory descriptions with a lot of adjectives?
If you overwrite in your rough draft, are you able to slash the extra description later?
Do you try to describe EVERYTHING about your characters the first time your reader encounters them? What about when writing a new setting (house, landscape, city)?


  1. I tend towards finding the one line or phrase or maybe a metaphor that captures the essence of what I'm describing. I really dislike reading too much description.

    Moody Writing

  2. I try to limit my descriptions and only describe things that are vital to the plot.

    I find as a reader if the author has a ton of description I skim it.

  3. Like a lot of writers, I passed through that stage. Nowadays, I prefer to use a lot less by way of description to get ideas across. Great reminders here of what not to do.

  4. Fantastic hints! I'm terrible with description. I tend to go too lightly on place and setting, and too heavy on movements!

  5. Hehehe great way of showing what you mean. I try to limit description to what my characters would find important enough to notice. I find that cuts through a lot of purple prose.


  6. I'm with Mooderino, I go for essence. I really don't care for descriptions. I mostly ignore them in the first one or two drafts, then start adding them once the foundation of the story is structured.

  7. Good post! I like that rule about limiting yourself to 3 descriptions.

  8. Yes, I overwrite in my first draft, but luckily I don't think I describe everything the first go-around. Also, I love to cut copy. I find it challenging and satisfying to get rid of all the fat. : )

    Great tip about the three sentences of description!

  9. Great post! What writers need to remember is to allow the reader the opportunity to fill in the details, see the character in their own way. We don't need to feed them every bit of detail--that takes something away from the experience when we do.

    And too many adjectives kill me. None of this: His short, dark, wavy, brown hair draped over his baby blue ocean colored eyes. Don't do that. Please.

    Good job.

  10. I tend to be too spare my first time out. Er, make that first SEVERAL revisions, lol. It's usually not until the very end that I've finally added enough description. I hope it turns out okay, though!

  11. I usually overwrite especially when it comes to description--not so much the characters (I have trouble picturing them clearly in my head) but the setting.

  12. erm, cough, yes. Me LOVES description (as you, my dear crit partner, know all too well) ;)

    And what's wrong with that first sentence? That's an awesome first sentence (giggle)

    But seriously, great post with great comparative paragraphs.

  13. At at critique with Ellen Hopkins last year at LA SCBWI, she told me not to describe the characters. At. All. She said readers like to imagine themselves as the character.

    I only describe clothing if it's revelant to the characterization. I'm assuming the reader is smart enough to realize my characters aren't walking around naked.

  14. I like that three sentence rule. I think I do that with reading--start skimming after three.

    I'm with Stina (that makes twice I've followed her in comments today and agreed) that I try not to put too much description in so the reader can fill in enough by herself.

  15. Yes, I pepper with adjectives.
    Yes, I overwrite and describe EVERYTHING in my first draft.

    I need everything in there in a word vomit sort of way so I can later determine what to use. Seriously, my rough drafts are ROUGH in the extreme.

    But, I know I'll edit all that out - or most of it anyway - once I start on the revision. I have to write everything, no matter how horrible, in the rough draft. Just to give myself ideas later.

    LOL; yeah, I laugh at myself a lot for all the editing, but I'm also creating. I think a writer will know when they are through the drafting process - no matter how many re-writes - and into the actual production. I don't think there is a set number of revisions before the writer feels they've hit the story groove; it happens and you're satisfied with "progress".

    I love your examples Carol. They are descriptive regarding the writing process.


  16. Yay! I'm thrilled to have won the consolation prize. :D

    Great insights about desciption. You already know I go overboard on the adjectives, but now I do keep an eye for them and have no problem hacking & slashing them when necessary.

  17. I always overwrite, then in my character edit come back and figure out exactly what should be in the scene, and what shouldn't. Adjectives and I keep distant relationship though. It's one of those rules I actually internalized.

  18. I've found I don't use adjectives much. I use adverbs more, which are easy to slash after the fact. But I try to rely more on dialogue to convey characters. I'm sure you do, too~ :D

  19. ooh, that three sentence character description is a handy little tool. thanks Carol!

  20. Just three sentences? That's cool and so good to know. Some writers do overkill the description, and what happens is that I skim over it to the rest of their story. I guess it's safe to say they wasted their breath...or ink. :)

  21. Loved your overkill version! LOL. Um, I think I tend to underdescribe. Then I have to go back in and add mood to the scene. But sometimes I get carried away and have to slash words. Ack!

  22. I usually don't write the beginning until MUCH later, and it always starts out SUPER simple.

  23. Great post. Description is my huge weakness. I tend to skip it in my first draft and add it in after, or I end up with the laundry list description. I try to look for that one telling detail but it definitely doesn't come easily to me. Thanks for the advice. I like the rule of three.
    Trish @ Wordbitches

  24. I think we all start with super-wild-big-adjective description, and I think I know why . . . it's taught to us as kids.

    As a homeschool mom I get to look at lots of curriculum materials, and let me tell you - description and the use of adjectives and adverbs is pushed by most elementary and middle school writing programs. It is so bizarre when I think of how often as adult writers we have to work at trimming that stuff out of our writing.

    However, sometimes now I have a tendency to hold back too much, and my beta readers have no idea what my characters look like . . . oops.
    I like your advice, and the idea of having a limit of description.

  25. What a great post! I was SO guilty of this when i first started writing. My love affair w/adjectives knew NO BOUNDS. LOL. Thank goodness we get better w/every book. I think I've finally figured out what works for me and still stay true to my voice.

  26. Oooh this is good, Carol! I am a sparse writer upfront and pepper it in as I go along!

  27. Hey, three sentences of description and move it along...I can use that advice! Thanks Carol!!!

  28. This is a toughie for me. I once had a full ms rejected by a publisher, but it came with a full-page of suggestions. One of the things they said was that any description of a character has to come as soon as we meet that character. We shouldn't find out on our twentieth scene with this character that he has red hair, when maybe all along we've been imagining him with blond. I can see what they're saying, but this sounds like it will amount to a boring info dump. However, when I looked up character descriptions in published novels, they do seem to describe the character's appearance as soon as we meet the character - I guess maybe the trick is just keeping it short.

  29. Super super examples. Definitely something I need to work on. I think even just being made aware of this issue helps us keep our description and dialog a little more integrated. So thanks!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  30. Great post as always! I have been guilty of this (the major info dumps), though I like to think I've gotten better. I still find I can edit it down further after the first draft.


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