Posted by: Kerry Gans | September 22, 2011

Descriptive Language and Trusting Your Reader

I’m taking a Write Your YA Novel in Nine Months class with Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba, and this week we talked about descriptive language. Marie brought in examples from published books, and the thing that struck all of us is how little description is needed to give the reader a vivid picture.

Choosing the right words is important, of course. One example described subways as “bathroom tiled” spaces, which is incredibly visual and right on the money. Choosing evocative words paints a complete picture with fewer words, because they pull in associations that you as the writer then do not have to explain.

Still, seeing how little you need to write to have a full-blown image in the reader’s head was eye-opening. It goes to show just how much the reader brings to the experience. Marie illustrated this by using the line, “He was in a spaceship.” Even without the author describing the spaceship, every one of us had a vision of the spaceship in our heads. Marie pointed out that they would all be different spaceships, but since the spaceship itself was not crucial to the story, there was no need for the author to specify details about the spaceship.

That is the lesson: Only describe the details that are vital to the story. Leave the rest to the reader’s imagination to fill in. Choose details that show the reader the characters’ POV and what is important in the world of your book.

Descriptive language is a part of the writing craft that I am still working on improving, but now I understand that by describing only the salient points, I can still get my point across while engaging in a partnership with the reader.

I think that is one of the hardest things to learn as a writer – that you are in a partnership with the reader, and you need to trust them to fill in the gaps. Trying to make sure the reader sees and knows everything can lead to ponderous overwriting that no reader will slog through. Books that honor that partnership are the ones that we remember most, the ones that as readers we have entered most fully.

Less can be more, if you do it right. Tell the reader only what they need to know, and let them do the rest. They’ll thank you for it.

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Responses

  1. I think the obstacle I come across with description is figuring out what to describe and what to leave up to the reader. The key is probably to stop over thinking it and just write. Still working on installing a “off” switch in my brain. You summary of the lesson (“describe details that are vital to the story”) really helps put things in perspective for me. Thanks for sharing.

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    • I tend to overthink (everything, not just writing!). One of my teachers says that (especially in YA) everything you describe should connect to a plot point or emotional resonance in the story. I still find this hard!

      Like


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