There are many ways to use and abuse description in fiction. There are the obvious ways of simply over doing it, and the less obvious ways. Below I've listed the six signs to keep a look out for. (Please note today's inspiration came from the comments from my previous post regarding character description, particularly those from Carol, Deniz, Tyrean and L'Aussie.)
1. The Shopping Lists. I recently read a novel where every time a new character stepped onto the scene the author would tell the reader every physical attribute of the character in a way that made me think they were checking it off a list: character height, weight, eye colour, hair colour, etc. The reader doesn't have to know every single detail about a character all at once.
2. If the Action Stops. This is the kind of description that stops the flow of the story for the sake of letting the reader know the details of the setting, the characters, or anything else that's not currently relevant. It will grind the pace to a halt, diffuse the tension, and pull the reader from the story.
3. The Tell. This kind of description doesn't show the reader the place, the atmosphere, the characters. It tells them: The forest was spooky. I'd rather the author shows me what the forest was like and I'll decide for myself whether or not it's spooky.
4. The Wall. This is also known as the info dump. It's seen as a wall of text full of nothing but description. It might be acceptable in the classics, but times have changed. It's better to break it up and pepper it through the prose.
5. The Clichés and the Stereotypes. Descriptions are a great opportunity for the writer to get creative. It's tempting to fall back on clichés for the sake of moving along in the story. This is fine for the first draft only. My first drafts are rife with them because I need to keep writing as fast as possible or I'll get snagged on a distraction. However, I'll always go back, hunt them down and dress them up into something more original--or, I try.
6. The Lack of Relevance. One of the many comments made in my previous post was the dislike for countless descriptions of what the characters are wearing. This is because it most often lacks relevance to the story. Descriptions should only be included if they reveal something of importance about a character, adds atmosphere, advances the plot etc. If it's just there because the words are purdy, then it needs to go.
Which of these sins are you guilty of? Which do you least like to see in a novel? Can you think of any others?
Award: Thanks to Coral Riggs and mshatch for the Great Comments Award. You guys rock!
Karen Gowen for the idea. Her BBQs have been wonderfully successful. The idea is to visit my blog on the 26th, bring a virtual plate of food to share, then in the comments tell everyone about yourself and your blog, and come back and visit three other people who have left a comment. Please spread the word!