Shooting the dead horse

Ready, aim, fire!

One of the major shortcomings of the beginning writer is description. Many teachers tell their students how important the use of description is when writing a story, to create the world and characters within the readers’ minds.

I don’t have a problem with this. Where the problem comes in is  they don’t know when to stop, or how to effectively use description. How many times have you read something similar to this:

When she entered the room, everyone turned to look at her. Her blonde hair fell in cascades over her shoulders, pouting red lips shimmering under the glare of the fluorescents above. She strode forward, her 5’8″ frame lithe and tanned, and her long legs ending in designer shoes. 

Okay. So, as soon as the character enters we get an list of all of her characteristics. One could argue that some of those characteristics reveal character, such as the designer shoes. Sure. But, the execution of the description is a complete and epic fail. How, you say? Because, I am a firm believer in the idea that any description used must complete one or more of these three objectives:


1. Character

2. Plot

3. Theme

Well, you say, it did reveal character! Yes, but if this is a main character, just like exposition, these are traits that are better exposed through dialog or action, not description. And, just like exposition, it should be sprinkled throughout the story. If this is a minor character, you could arguably get away with this. But, not for a main character.

These is the same for those of you guilty of overly describing the setting. This is especially true for sci-fi and fantasy writers. They love to explore their settings in lush, and nauseating detail. Certainly, in these venues, it is important to understand the world in which the characters live, but not at the expense of the story and the reader. Only describe what is absolutely necessary to convey the scene. And no more.

This malady arises from the novice writer’s fear the reader will not be able to visualize the scene, character, setting, or other aspect just as they, the writer, has. I say, WHO CARES? This isn’t about you getting the audience to see it just as you do in your mind. If that is the case, become a filmmaker. The job of the writer is to convey the story. The STORY! All else falls by the wayside. If you haven’t conveyed your story properly, all that beautiful description will be worth less than  Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. And if you liked that movie, you shouldn’t be a writer anyway.

You can argue with me if you like, but I guarantee you, using description sparingly in favor of action and dialog is much more effective. Anything else is excessive.


2 thoughts on “Shooting the dead horse

  1. I agree with you, the trend in stories has been this way for a long time, but you never know; it may swing another way at some point. I hope not though, because that wouldn’t be any kind of story I would want to read.

    • Many people seem to really desire that lush description, and I certainly think that Fantasy and Sci-Fi are excluded from this a bit, as it is a necessity if you are writing fiction that is not urban fantasy, or magical realism.

      When you are creating a whole new world, it would be difficult indeed if you did not lay the proper ground work.

      Thanks for reading. I will do likewise.

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