What’s too much?
What’s not enough?
Description helps stimulate the imagination of a reader. That’s the key. If should give enough details the readers can pretend to be in this spot just like the characters are.
Description relies on the senses to explain a situation, event, or setting.
You do not need to use sight. Sounds, smells, tastes, touch, etc need to be known as much as sight is. I’d rather know the room was set far too cold, pimples were covering my skin versus it was a light blue room. Sight is not our only sense. It is not the only one we use.
This actually falls into info dumping. When you enter a room, you do not give a detailed description of it before you start the action of the room. You give something. You offer something. You describe whatever is important to the narrator or characters. You can expand on it later. It does not need to be written as pure prose. Use dialogue if the characters notice something and want to go crazy.
Nan loves cats. So when we entered the cat cafe, she was glued to every single cat in the place.
“The red tiger-y one is my favorite!” Nan picks up the big fluffy cat with stripes along its back. “But I love the queen cat sitting on her cat tower. Pure black kitties are normally so unloved. She looks perfect.”
I scan the cat tower finding the black cat on top of it. “How do you know its female?”
“I just know, okay.” Nan sticks her tongue out at me.
I ignore the cats and Nan’s attraction to figure out the cafe part of things. There’s a divided area where I can buy beverages. I’ll leave Nan to the cats while getting drinks. That was why I came.
How much description did you get from the scene? Was it a lot? A little? Did you feel as if you were apart of it? Were you joining them?
I could add things like basic sights and sounds. A cat could be scratching a post. I could give the reader an idea how many cats are there. Is the floor carpet or wood? What are the sounds of the environment? Could the narrator find the cafe portion of the place by hearing the espresso machine go off? I would probably want to add a little more description to this scene, but as a quick one-off it has enough. The bare minimum.
I don’t think I have never written purple prose before. That’s because as you can tell with my one-off and several of my stories, I lack in description. I typically lack so much there is missing information. That is just as much of a problem as info dumping.
We need to be able to see the scene. We need to be able to feel the scene. Let us get drawn in by description. But don’t bog us down with too much.
Some useful techniques
Humans pick on specifics faster than generic. Pick out something that would show the scene or what happened or what’s happening that is easier to really see and write. Yes, we like dead bodies, but if you focus in on the lifelessness of the eyes, you’ll probably have more people crying over the death.
But if you give the same level of description for the eyes as for the face, the neck, the torso, the clothes, the hands, the etc… That’s when we get purple prose. There’s only so much a human can take reading the same thing. We get to the point of “I got it, move on.”
I get to that point earlier than others. That’s part of why I write so little description. I want the story, I don’t care what color the walls are.
Pertinent information must be there. Without it, the story will lack. We need to know stuff to understand the story you’re telling. There is a lot of wiggle room between required and too much.
At what point does it sound like I am highlighting the wrong part of information?
The pertinent stuff is required.
Let’s go back to that quick one-off I wrote. Let’s try to turn it into purple prose. (It will be much longer this way.)
My favorite friend, Nan is tall, blonde, and beautiful. It’s not real blonde. It came from the store, but on her is looks amazing. Normally she is this perfect bombing beauty that saunters through life. The only time she really winds down is when we visit with a cat cafe. It’s why we come every Tuesday- that’s the only day we both can make time.
Nan drops her confident power tripping looks the moment she spots a cat. Her heart swells three sizes beyond normal and the cutest mew escapes her luscious lips.
She picks up a big tabby with red and white stripes. It doesn’t struggle in her grip. Personally, I’m a tad shocked she lifted the thing. It covers everything about her chest. The tail whips back and forth while it bats at her nose. No claws. Not even a cat would attack Nan.
The red striped tabby is only one of the numerous cats lazing around. I can see three black and white cats curled up under the massive cat tower. No other cats are using the thing minus the big black one asleep on top. Another red and white striped cat is clawing at a free cat post to the far side of the room. This room isn’t small either. The various chairs, sofa, and carpets are made for humans to rest a while. Currently the cats are using them. The two of us are the only ones in with the cats.
I look to Nan. Her mewing at the cat in her hands has my heart swell. This person is… “Nan, I’m gonna get coffee.”
Nan doesn’t even listen to me. Her actions are focused on the cats.
My thoughts are set to the espresso machine I hear beyond the glass wall. Plexiglass wall as I get closer. I tap it checking strength. It has the barista offering me a smile. One I readily return. “Want a coffee?”
“The red drink. You know which one I like.” Nan puts the red tabby down and moves to the big tower. She pets the one on top first. “Good morning Queeny.” Then she leans down to rub the three black and white ones on the bottom. They’re tiny.
I come more for the drinks and cute baristas. This isn’t just Nan’s downtime. It’s mine too.
You know… It may tell a bit of a different story, but I don’t think I managed to get all the way into purple prose. The shorter scene up at the top works out well if the cat cafe is more of a quick setting and scene where something else is important. The second is more a complete story on its own. Or at least this would be deemed the main scene and main characters. This is more showing minimum versus maximum.
I said I can’t write purple prose. It could be purple prose if the cat cafe scene isn’t important or if Nan isn’t an important character.
Try writing the scene twice. Once as if it’s a basic scene that doesn’t have a lot of importance. Then again as if it’s the most important scene of the book. That’s your max and min.
Part of my rewriting is streamlining, but it’s also turning my scenes which all look like the first option into something more on par with it’s significance.
If you’re like me and struggle with description try a few description practices.
- Sit down and write out everything as if you are creating the scene you are in. Set a timer and write. Try it a few times restarting the timer and using a new page. The more you practice the easier it’ll come.
- Take a picture book. Use the words on the page, but add in whatever the picture contains. Expand the short sentences into something longer.
- Create a daily description journal. Use adjectives and adverbs to describe your day. Every day put a few description words next to the date. Expand if necessary, move on.
- Imagine your favorite task (or one you know well) and write it from memory. Get all the reasons out why this is your favorite or well known task.
- Pick one sense and start writing up sentences to describe a scene. Don’t just use sight, sound, and smell. Those are the big three when describing; they aren’t the only ones. Try: spatial orientation, touch, body position (proprioception), pain (nociception), pressure, temperature, vibration, or texture. There’s more out there. Imagine you could only gain insight to the item in a black box through one sense. Pick an item and try to describe it well enough someone will know it.
- Don’t rely on color. Color can be used, but it is not the only description. Try creating a scene you can see and not mention any of the colors. Can you make it sound of high quality?
These are only a few options to help you understand how to write description through practice.
This is not my strongest field when writing. It is by far my hardest. There have been plenty of stories I have written that did not hit the minimum amount of knowledge through description. I know that. It’s something I have to do an extra revision focusing in on. Where I ask the question: Did I describe this well enough?
You may not be like me. Description may come easily. If it does, watch out for the purple prose issue. Too much is just as bad as not enough. Description is required, but it can’t bog the story down.