I’ve been thinking a lot about my current work in progress, specifically trying to figure out how much description is enough to build my world and at what point to do readers have their fill and begin skimming? I do not want skimming but neither do I want them wondering what the heck a character looks like?
Every writer weighs how much is too much versus how much is not enough. The late, Elmore Leonard famously said, “think of what you skip reading in a novel: thick paragraphs of prose.” He is right of course. I do, did, will. But I may take his reminder that, “I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.” a little bit too seriously.
Readers need to be grounded in a setting but expect not bored with unnecessary detail. How much of a hero’s face, form and physical characteristics are expected for the genre and how do you work in those details so they don’t slow the pace?
I know enough not to drop an entire paragraph of description in a large chunk, like a cinderblock in the middle of a stream of your nice even primrose path. What the heck is a primrose path anyway?
In any case, I’ve been paying special attention to how much description authors write and, more importantly, how and where are the descriptions insert it into their stories. I’m currently a fan of the hit and run style. That’s what I’m calling it. The dialogue is rolling along and then-bam-the writer hits you with a two-sentence extremely concise, telling descriptions so rich that they not only give you a picture in your mind, they make their descriptions do double duty. And then before you realize it, pow, you are back in action or conversation.
Here is a masterful description of setting by Kristan Higgins that conveys not just the place but the purpose and all in two well-crafted sentences:
Manning Academy was the type of prep school that litters New England. Stately brick buildings with the requisite ivy, magnolia and dogwood trees, emerald soccer and lacrosse fields, and a promise that for the cost of a small house, we’d get your kids into the colleges of their choice—Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown.
~Kristan Higgins, Too Good to Be True~
Here is a physical description by Susan Elizabeth Phillips from Call Me Irresistible:
Lucy’s elfin features and thick, little girl eyelashes made her look younger than her thirty-one years. She’d grown out her shiny brown hair since her college days and sometimes held it back from her face with an assortment of velvet headbands that Meg wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, just as she’d never have chosen Lucy’s ladylike aqua sheath with its tidy black grosgrain belt.
~ Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Call Me Irresistible~
Author Phillips manages to get a physical description and attire of a secondary character in here with backstory between this character and the heroine and in addition, she relays how the heroine feels about her friend’s choice of wardrobe. I have to sit down, I’m so impressed.
Here is one from Julia Quinn from a novel in three parts The Lady Most Likely by Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway. Notice how Author Julia Quinn weaves dialogue into her description.
“I told you she looked like Botticelli’s Venus,” her mother said proudly to her father, after a fourth gentleman had commented on the resemblance. And indeed, with her wavy hair, alabaster skin, and sea-green eyes, Gwen did bear a striking resemblance to the goddess as interpreted by the Italian master.
~Julia Quinn, The Lady Most Likely~
In addition to mixing dialogue into her description, Ms. Quinn also makes her description appropriate for the historical period she is writing and for that I tip my Regency bonnet.
All three of these examples highlight different methods of inserting description naturally into the prose. None of these authors overstayed their welcome by rattling on and on over a place or person but all gave critical details with extra value by making their description do double duty. And that is how it’s done!