Saturday, January 2, 2010


One of the writing skills I am trying to improve while working on my novel is description. The challenge for me is, most of my experience with writing is news writing, where you're supposed to stick to the facts and not embellish (although many in the media today do not follow this ethic).

I have found this "just the facts, m'am" approach sneaking into my novel, which, in some ways, is a good thing because it can help with the pacing, but my concern is that I am not giving the reader enough imagery to immerse themselves in the story.

Example, I just wrote a scene where my main character was called in to the office of a big executive at her company. My first thought for the beginning of the scene went as follows:

Upon entering, I felt like I had left our office building and stepped into the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel. Two cherry wood desks, which I assumed belonged to the assistants, were positioned side-by-side along the right wall.

The scene continues with her walking over to the desks to wait for someone. My feeling was, I wanted to be concise and thought the 'penthouse suite of a five-star hotel' painted enough of a picture about what the office was like. Then, I decided to elaborate and it came out as follows:

Upon entering, I felt like I had left our office building and stepped into the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel. My feet sank into the lush, crème colored carpet as I walked forward into the entryway. Directly in front of me was a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, showcasing views of the city. To my left, a couple of fancy quilted sofas were paired with two velvet wing-backed chairs to form a comfortable waiting area. On the right were two large cherry wood desks, positioned side-by-side near the wall. Around the corner from them was an alcove that I assumed housed Nan’s actual office space. A faint scent of vanilla hung in the air, as if someone had taken an atomizer and sprayed a few strategic doses here and there.

In Jack M. Bickham's "38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes" he suggests an exercise in note taking, making detailed notes about a person or thing you are observing, then practicing distilling the elaborate description down to lean and vivid copy. He says good description "thrives on brevity, directness, simplicity, concreteness, contrast- precise, specific nouns and strong verbs." He warns of the use of too many adjectives and adverbs.

So, I'm looking for opinions about the two versions of my description. Did I hit the mark better with the first or second?


  1. I don't think I can choose between the two descriptions because I don't have an adequate view of story and pacing. If your character is going into the office because she's worried about losing her job, I say use the first one.
    If she's going in there for a less stressful reason, perhaps for a lunch meeting, use the second one. I think it truly depends on the pacing you want to convey to your reader.

  2. I actually think hitting somewhere in the middle would work. I love her feet sinking into the lush carpet and the scent of vanilla, those details draw us into the story. The first is a little too concise and the second, perhaps, just a bit long. Something to think about, anyway.

  3. I'm going with the middle of the road on this one too. The first is nice and concise which is fine if your character is not interacting with the environment. The second is a detailed description that still gives the "just the facts ma'am" approach a little bit because its the facts about the room.

    The two details Debbie liked were sensory details. One her feet in the carpet. Is she not wearing shoes? A woman walks differently on plush carpet in heels than she would on say hardwood floors, so we get that the floor is going to affect the character. The other detail is smell--Sets a very distinct image of the room if there is creme carpet and the smell of vanilla. The visual detail in the first one with the two desks actually goes really well because it gives us information that there is more than one assistant which sets up the importance of the person she is about to meet. Remember the rules about using three senses in a description and making sure that your character is interacting rather than narrating the description.

    That's my thoughts. Descriptions are my nemesis.

  4. Very good feedback - thanks! I can see how a little more editing would help me get to the mid-range description.

    L.T., good point about needing to know more of the context of the scene. She is an executive assistant who has been unexpectedly summoned to the office of the head of her division to cover for one of the assistants during lunch. She has never been to this woman's office before, and she is very nervous because the woman has a reputation of being intolerant of mistakes.

  5. I like number one. Your character is a no nonsense woman, and the first description fits her character. I like the pacing and it matches what I've read so far.

    I got bogged down with the second and found myself skimming to move onto the action. Esp. where it is first person, I didn't believe that she was noticing all those details. Maybe descriptions spread throughout the scene would flow better, but all at once it dragged.

    In real life, I notice details slower. Scent first and then as I'm in the enviroment I notice more.

    I think the description needs to have some action tied to it, or reason for noticing it, for example the carpet: I relaxed my tense wood-floor step to the sure footed step of plush carpet. (I'm not super adroit in heels, I walk easy on carpet and slow on solid surface floors)

    A lot of gravy with little meat. Sorry.

  6. Or "The soothing vanilla scent was decieving. It smelled like Grandma's house without the love and acceptance of Grandma's house"

  7. Yeah, DJ, I agree. I'm not one who loves to read long passages of description. I tend to speed read through most of them. Good points, thanks!

  8. I like what has already been said. I would just add that it's important, like DJ said, to remember what your character would notice and why. Don't be worried about overly long descriptions if they move the story forward and give us a good idea of what the main character is thinking or feeling in the scene.