Friday, April 13, 2012

How to add description to your story without boring your reader!

Let's face it, some of those old time novels could get mighty lengthy on the old description.  Zzzzzzzzzz.  Talk about boring. If you're going to spend a page describing the scenery, I've already closed the book and moved onto something else. Yes, I'm that neurotic!  More like OCD distracted. Besides, in the pre-TV past, people had more patience and more time, but in the age of instant gratification, we want to jump right into the action.

I'm not really a detail person. I like the overall picture, a hint of two about the scenery and characters and then let's dive into the DRAMA.  Love drama on TV and in books. Not so much in real life.  Anyway, so how do you give the reader a sense of the surroundings and what the characters look like without putting them to sleep?

Simple. If you can't write a story without description (which I don't recommend), then make description part of the story!

Just like turning setting into a character, you can transform description into part of the character's experience.  What you want to avoid is writing a laundry list of descriptors such as

She entered the room. Glittering sconces lined the walls and chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The foyer was large and crowded with people. An orchestra played.  Intricately carved crown molding lined the ceiling above Dutch floral paintings.

(Yawn....  Oh, sorry, I drifted off.) 

Here are some excerpts from my upcoming release, Veil of Pearls.

Light from hundreds of glittering sconces and chandeliers blinded her. She blinked as they greeted the host and hostess, both of whom barely acknowledged her. . . .The foyer was ten times the size of the Doctor’s and abuzz with chattering people who all shot their gazes her way to see what strange oddity Mr. Rutledge had brought to the party. Orchestra music drifted atop beaded and jeweled coiffures from a room to their left. A butler took Mr. Rutledge's cape and hat and her shawl before she could protest. She didn’t plan on staying that long. Mr. Rutledge patted her hand and led her into the massive ball room. The first thing Adalia noticed was how large the room was, the second, the intricately carved crown molding lining the ceiling above Dutch floral paintings and crystalline chandeliers—such beauty and lavishness she’d never seen. The third thing she noticed was that once again everyone turned to stare at her. In fact, the chattering faded to clandestine whispers as ladies leaned together behind fans.

The best way to write description is:
Show how your character reacts to his or her surroundings
Interject action among the description
Allow the setting to interact with the description

  • The lights are bright. They blind her and she blinks.   
  • Instead of just saying there were a lot of people, show how your character sees them and how they sound. Abuzz with chattering people.  
  • Instead of just saying that the character heard music, combine the music with an added description of the people.  Orchestra music drifted atop beaded and jeweled coiffures
  • Notice there's action incorporated into the description. A butler takes their cape and hat. Her escort leads her into the room.
  •  And finally we have the description of the crown molding and paintings..followed by her reaction to them, such beauty and lavishness she'd never seen.  You can almost feel her awe and wonder!

And the same thing applies to descriptions of people

Mr. Rutledge seemed quite the don juan. He was handsome, wore a simple linen shirt, waistcoat and trousers tucked within high boots. He had wheat-colored hair, green eyes, and dark whiskers on his chin. 

By the way the ladies lining the marketplace gaped at him, Adalia assumed Mr. Rutledge was quite the don juan. Perhaps he wished to add another feather to his cap with the new lady in town. No doubt most servant girls would swoon over any attention paid them by this handsome, wealthy rake. For he was handsome, indeed. Even more handsome than she remembered. His face no longer held that look of abject boredom so often found on the spawn of the tediously affluent.  In fact, he seemed much more alive. Maybe his common attire—a simple linen shirt, waistcoat, and trousers tucked within high boots—brought his usual arrogance down to a manageable level. In any case, it couldn’t hurt to enjoy the way his wheat-colored hair flung about him in wild abandon, the sprinkle of dark whiskers on his chin, and even the spark of mischief in his stark green eyes. Though she’d spurned him, he held himself with authority as he awaited her reply.
  • By showing how others react to Mr. Rutledge, the reader gets a good feeling of his appearance. the ladies lining the marketplace gaped at him  and swoon over any attention paid them by this handsome, wealthy rake
  • This statement not only gives us a hint of his expression, but gives us great insight into our character's opinion of the wealthy.  His face no longer held that look of abject boredom so often found on the spawn of the tediously affluent.
  • Again, our character is reacting to the sight of Mr. Rutledge when she says brought his usual arrogance down to a manageable level.   The reader sees that his current attire is not as fancy as what he normally wears. Plus we realize she thinks he is arrogant.
  • We have the wind interacting with Mr. Rutledge's face:  wheat-colored hair flung about him in wild abandon,
  • And instead of just saying he had green eyes, we see them through our character's eyes.... she sees the spark of mischief. 

 So, don't bore your readers!  Jump into your character's skin and show us how he or she reacts to what they see. It takes a little more work but the result is worth it!

Happy Writing and Reading!


  1. Man oh man! I really want to read this book. You explain things so well, you make me want to write. But, alas, I am lousy when it comes to details. I could probably come up with a storyline, but that's it. I am currently trying my hand at writing a grandparenting book. Something different to do in my spare time. Keep the great advice coming.

  2. Ok, I'm hooked already too. Can't wait to read it!
    Thanks for the post - I love the idea of folding the description into the characters and setting, rather than making a list. I think, as I write, my brain pictures all this good stuff, but what ends up coming out is the "His eyes were blue. He was tall. The room was big. She was bored." ;) A list is easy ....
    I do have to admit it is fun stretching my lists and thinking on it a little longer to come up with something more adventurous.

  3. Fri Apr 13th ....
    "Morning, MaryLu."
    "How to add description to your story without boring your reader" ... and you add that description SO very well !!! Just reading the excerpts from "Veil of Pearls" ... causes me to be excited and eagerly anticipating your upcoming release. Love how you work those descriptions in !
    And, I for one .... am once again, content and happy to be "the reader" !!!
    Way to go, MaryLu !
    Take care, and, God Bless,
    In Him, Brenda Hurley

  4. I know I've improved in this as I try to use details to give characterization. And lookie loo what a dashing hero!

  5. Debbie, I think you'd be great at a Grandparent book! You're such a wonderful grandmother. Good idea.

    Glad I could inspire you, Caroline!
    Brenda, you're so sweet, Thank you.
    And Debra, He is quite dashing, isn't he?

    Have a great weekend, ladies!

  6. Oooh now I REALLY want to read Veil of Pearls!!!!!! I, too, get VERY bored with too much description.

  7. I love how you weave description into a character's experience. I can't wait to read VOP. :-)

  8. Ohhh....this book had better come soon! I'm anxiously waiting!
    Great tip Marylu! I recently read a book where all it did was list descriptions of everything! It had no adventure, drama, or emotion in it at all! I guess that's why your books are some of my favorite!

  9. Thanks so much, everyone. Some of the old classics (can't think of the names at the moment) but you know authors like Faulkner and Melville and Hemmingway.. they would go on and on for pages with descriptions.. it is amazing.. but people didn't mind back then. The stories were great and the writing superb! But I would get so bored reading them. Times have changed!

  10. I loved the pic of the beautiful women and men dancing and your description as she entered was fantastic, if I began reading a chapter like this I am sure I would finish the story before laying it down. thanks for sharing with us..
    Paula O(

  11. Another great writing lesson!
    MaryLu, you do this so well that I don't even realize how good you are and how bad some stories could be until you put them here right next to each other to compare! I'm sorry to say that while I'm reading, I don't always think about how long and hard the author worked on the book, but you are definitely helping me to see that, and to pick out the well-written books from the just okay :D

  12. Those are some great tips, MaryLu! I showed this post to my dad and he really found it interesting!
    I only enjoy reading your books!! No author writes like you, where I can really get into the story. You have entertaining descriptions, realistic characters, adventurous plots, and a lovable time period with ships and swords and balls. You have a gift for writing ... your books have something that other authors dont have.
    You really know how to grab a readers attention! Keep it up MaryLu! Cant wait for Veil of Pearls!!

  13. This has helped me A LOT. I'm so lucky to have stumbled across this post. I'm only 16 years of age but I love writing, but sometimes when I read my work over, it does have that very rigid, list-format when it comes to the description. Your descriptions give me a buzz of excitement when I read them because I can picture them so well and you inspire me to write my descriptions in a similar way! Thank-you!

  14. Really helpful post! Thanks so much! Just one question - How would you go about describing the main character? As for these descriptions your main advice has been to do it 'through the character's eyes' and look at their 'reactions', but of-course this can't really happen when they are the one that you're writing about ...

    Much love,

  15. Lucie-Rose, thanks for dropping by! When you're in the point of view of any character besides the main one, you can use their impressions to describe the main character. However if you're writing in first person only through the main character's eyes, you have to be more clever.. you can have them pass a mirror or look at themselves in a window reflection.. or you can have them reflect on their confidence in their character or appearance in internal dialogue or you can just use their actions to portray certain qualities.... hope that helps!

  16. Wow!I came on here because I was stuck on my Writing homework! And this really helps! U are truley amazing! :) THANKS! Really helped! <3ed it!

  17. Nice.Thank you so much for sharing this post.