Saturday, 23 July 2016

Description - How to Share the Workload with Your Reader

Whatever genre or form you’re writing in, getting the level of description right can be tricky. Too much and your reader might get bored, too little and they might not be interested. 

But you don’t have to do all of the work yourself. One of the things I love about writing is that the reader brings so much of the story-telling process with them.  They look at our squiggles on the page and transform them into worlds and characters in their minds. 

One of best, and sometimes the hardest, things a writer can do is to trust that process. Trust your reader’s imagination. If you give them just enough description and let them fill in everything else, not only will you prevent them from getting bored, you’ll also deepen their engagement with your story.

The psychology behind this approach


When I was in sixth form, I studied Psychology. I didn’t do particularly well (largely because I was busy applying everything I learnt to the characters in my first novel, rather than memorising the dates of each case study) but I did find it fascinating, and useful.

One of the studies that had a huge impact on me, and my writing, was The War of The Ghosts (Bartlett 1932). In this experiment, participants were told a story which contained unfamiliar words and concepts. Then, after some time, they were asked to retell the story. And the stories they told were very different to the original. The participants had replaced the unfamiliar words and concepts with those that made sense to them, or left them out altogether. And they couldn’t recall making those alterations to the story. They’d simply changed their memory of it to match their own world-view, culture and vocabulary.

They’d replaced the descriptions with things they could relate to.

As a teenager with a passion for stories, this idea intrigued me. I decided to investigate further. I had to conduct an experiment for my coursework, so I wrote a short passage - an action scene, full of tension, but with only vague descriptions. I asked participants to read the passage and then, after a few minutes, I asked them some questions about it.

Although my sample size was very small and narrow (around 30 sixth form students), it seemed significant that every single participant gave the character their own eye and hair colour, none of them even noticing that it hadn’t been described at all. They also filled in the character’s motivation and had very definite ideas of the situation, despite the passage only telling them that the character was sneaking past two people.

This study didn’t particularly impress my tutor, but it has informed my writing ever since.  My experiment taught me that, when executed carefully, readers don’t notice omitted information (very handy for writing unreliable narrators) and that as long as you describe the essentials, readers will happily fill in the rest with details that are relevant to their own lives, giving them a stronger, and more personal, connection to the story.

How does this manifest in my writing? 


Well, it depends on the story.

In a short piece, I generally don’t describe a character’s appearance beyond the focus of the story. For instance, in my flash fiction, Hair, all we know about John’s appearance is that he has black hair. But I imagine each of my readers has a very different image of John, probably based on their experiences with people like him. There was no need for me to describe him any further and allowing the reader to make this connection to their own lives deepens the effect of the story.

In longer works, I tend to write from multiple viewpoints, and it would be awkward, obvious and unhelpful to the story if I tried to stop my characters describing each other. However, I do try to stick to a less is more approach for my descriptions. For example, I always avoid describing my settings any more than I  need to. As long as I can get the reader’s imagination going in the right direction, and make sure I've given them everything that’s needed for the scene, why should it matter to me how the kitchen is laid out in their mind?

Essentially, these are the rules I try to follow:

  • If it is relevant to the story, describe it as much as you need to for clarity, characterisation or world-building.
  • If it isn’t going to affect the story, let the reader do the work. They’re usually more than happy to.



How do you decide which descriptions to include in your writing? 

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