The Reader’s Imagination

Before we start, I need to state, right up front, I’m not a fan of description. In fact, I’m really not a fan of lots of description. I know I’ve said this before (several times) but I felt I needed to just slip it in there once more.

The thing is, description is based on a number of things, and we all have different ways of seeing the world. If I’m reading a book, and there is a long description of, say, a sunset, I guarantee I will skip it. And so will most other readers.

We’ve all seen sunsets countless times before. We’ve all been astonished and moved by their beauty, and bored our loved ones with photos that never seem to quite catch their true glory. Even if we are visually impaired, I doubt that any written or spoken description will truly bring a sunset alive in our minds. This is because a lot of what we see is based on our emotions and our previous experiences. A sunset is not just a 2D picture in an isolated context.

So don’t write, ‘Sophie gazed at the awe-inspiring glory of the sunset over the valley,’ then follow it with a massive description of the colours, height, width, timing, or scale of the sunset or the effect it had on everything and everyone around it. Your character may ponder, and drink in the natural beauty. Your reader will not.

It’s not just natural beauty or emotional landscapes that should be approached with a less-is-more attitude. Elmore Leonard’s advice on writing includes, ‘Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.’ With that in mind, be careful with description of people and places too.

We all find different things attractive or unattractive. This is never truer than when describing a protagonist. Not everyone likes chiselled looks or dark flashing eyes. So don’t describe your main protagonist as ‘irresistible’, and then itemise his or her physical qualities. Especially don’t devote a whole paragraph to describing them. You can be fairly sure that a large number of readers will find your ‘irresistible’ hero all too resistible if you go through every feature in fine detail.

Try to keep things fairly general and non-specific. Let the reader’s imagination do what it was designed to do by filling in the gaps and furnishing the details. Never insert a long passage of description unless it is absolutely vital for moving the plot forward. Even then, I would do it sparingly, putting a little in here and there, not in one long section to be waded through by only the most patient or determined reader.

Too much description is not only boring, it slows down the story, and dictates the terms for the reader too precisely. Give their imagination some scope, let them imagine the protagonist for themselves. Let the reader supply the furniture, the wallpaper, the ornamental details of the rooms, houses, towns and cities of your story.

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