Monday, 26 July 2010

Description is for Wimps

So said Aristotle. Naturally I'm paraphrasing, what he actually said was something like - the most beautiful colours, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.

By which he means, description is nothing without relevance to the story.

Like anything you wish to learn, the best way to do it is to break it down into smaller, component parts that are easier to digest and understand. We do this with writing, we break the novel down into baser elements – plot, character, dialogue, narrative, description, action, tension, exposition. We submit fractions of our prose to crit groups, to agents and editors – we polish and polish until our plots are complex, our characters fully-formed, our dialogue convincing, our narrative fluent, and our description evocative – and yet, something's missing.


We must master these elements and when we are fluent in them, dismiss them at will, using only those parts that evoke, reveal and describe the story we wish to tell.

Craft is just the long road to Art. It's ok to tell rather than show sometimes. It's ok to summarise. A general description can have more resonance than six pages of artfully worked yet irrelevant detail. The tools of our craft should be our servants, not our masters.

The rules should set you free.


  1. Saw this on twitter! I can't tell you how many books I have read by skimming over endless descriptions in order to get back to the plot. Good advice. Of course, the longest thing I have ever written is a grocery list....

  2. You're right about description and it needing a purpose in a work. Description for description's sake is pointless if there's no relevancy to what's moving the story forward. My eyes have glazed over when I've come across it in some of my reading. Lovely post. : D

  3. @Molly - Hey Molly, nice to have you back. I think as a writer you can get so wrapped up in the writing that you forget about the reader. Without readers, a writer is nothing!

    @Ezzy - another avid reader - how are you? Great to see this post hitting home with readers (I know you write too, Ezzy) - I'm reminded of Elmore Leonard's rule, try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

  4. James - I'd say we both said kinda the same thing about description! Only what is relevant and sometimes not much is needed!