Robb Grindstaff – Fine Art of Description

3-D Writing, Part 2

3-D writing is the art of surrounding readers with your story, pulling them in and making them a part of it rather than just a reader. Dialog, Description and Despair are three key facets: the three Ds of 3-D writing.

Description

Much like dialog, there is a perfect amount of description your story should have. Unfortunately, there is no formula to calculate it. Too little, and the reader can’t visualize the scene, picture herself in it, or know what the characters look like. Too much, and the reader’s senses overload with minutiae. Too much actually makes it more difficult for a reader to grasp the images.

Are some characters ciphers? A generic human male-shape with no face and no distinguishing features? Even for a secondary or minor character, there needs to be something that helps the reader picture the person in the scene.

Have you read (or written) a story where every time a new character walks in, the writer stops the story cold to describe the person in a pointless level of detail?

Consider these three examples:

Laurie sat at the bar, depressed. She glanced occasionally toward the door. Then he walked in. He was tall, handsome and well-dressed, and caught her eye immediately.

Okay, he’s tall. How tall? Six-foot one-inch, or seven-five? Handsome? What does handsome look like? Might not every woman have a slightly different definition of the term (within some range, at least)? Well-dressed? In a suit and tie, or casual? Expensive or just neat? On weekends, I consider myself well-dressed if I have on a pair of jeans with only one knee worn through.

Let’s try again.

Laurie sat at the bar, depressed. She stared blankly toward the door. Then he walked in, all six-foot-four, 210 lbs. of him. He had an athletic physique even though he had to be at least 47 years old. He wore an Italian-cut navy blue pinstripe suit with a red power tie, white Oxford shirt with button-down collar and black Ferragamo loafers. His blond hair, cut neatly around the ears but with a slight flip of curl that grazed his collar, contrasted with his deep bronze tan. His cheeks were smooth except for the crow’s feet that crinkled at the corner of his eyes. His eyes were light green, the color of polished jade. He caught her eye immediately.

I don’t know about you, but I nearly fell asleep writing that. The reader spends so much time absorbing all the details and piecing them all together into a visual that the story is lost. Most readers can’t retain all those details. Later in the story, when his blond hair is mentioned again, some readers will think, “Oh, I thought his hair was black.”

Once more.

Laurie hunched over her martini and played with the olive. She didn’t know why she bothered; no one interesting ever came in this pub. Yet each time the door opened, her eyes flicked toward the entrance. When he walked in, ducking slightly to clear the door, she sat up a little straighter. She’d never seen him around before. His perfectly tailored suit accentuated the broad shoulders and trim waist underneath. Laurie turned slightly, keeping her eyes in his general direction but trying not to be obvious. His sun-bleached hair contrasted with his surfer’s tan. A yacht. Maybe he owns a yacht. “That’s the life for me,” Laurie thought as she met his gaze full on.

Okay, maybe not award-winning stuff yet, but there’s something going on here that’s missing from the first two versions. There’s action, reaction, a little bit of tension and suspense, an emotional change, a hint at her motivation, at least something mildly interesting.

We know enough about what he looks like. More than just saying tall and handsome, less than a witness description on a police report. We’re getting a physical image of him, not just through description, but through actions. We know he’s tall because he had to duck when he walked in. We know Laurie considers him handsome because she can’t take her eyes off of him, his athletic build, blond hair and nice tan. We know he’s well-dressed in a suit. We don’t know the color of his tie or brand of his shoes. Does it matter? Not in this case. Her thought that he might own a yacht provides the image of money and status better than the brand-name description of his wardrobe.

We don’t know how old he is or the color of his eyes. Yet.

Don’t dump all the description in at once. Let the initial image settle in the reader’s mind. Later, when he sits down at the bar next to her, she may notice the crow’s feet around his eyes when he smiles at her. Maybe those little wrinkles are her clue that he’s a little older than her, but not so old that it’s creepy. Later still, his eyes might remind her of the polished jade she bought in Bangkok, right before he closes them and leans in for their first kiss.

Writer-friend Phillipa Fioretti (The Book of Love) goes into considerable detail on her lead character’s vintage clothes. As a guy, I’m less enamored of these details. But as a guy, I’m not Phillipa’s target audience. The vintage clothes are a key element of her character’s personality and style, and it’s a tremendous draw to her readers. It’s done brilliantly, so that even I, a guy, could visualize exactly what the character is wearing. It conveys a vivid image of the character – not just what she wore or what she looked like, but her personality. The reader very quickly comes to know the character as a real person, in large part due to this quirky wardrobe.

Other writers, other genres, different stories, can use more or less description and still have the right amount. I used to alternate reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Their styles were so completely opposite, especially in description, from spare to intricate, yet each conveyed exactly the right amount of description. It was a great exercise to see the wide latitude available to writers, yet how there is also a very fine point of ‘just enough at just the right time.’

While I’ve focused on character description, the same techniques apply to describing anything from the kitchen to the landscape to the weather.

Next: Despair

Robb GrindstaffRobb Grindstaff is the managing editor of an international English-language daily newspaper, currently living in the Washington, D.C., area. He is a thirty-year veteran of the daily newspaper business. His newspaper career has taken him from Arizona to North Carolina, Texas to D.C., with a five-year stint in Tokyo.

He fell in love with Australia on dive trip to North Queensland a few years back, and has vowed to return. So be forewarned.

With a career in writing, editing and marketing journalism, he has turned his experience toward fiction, and writes commercial and literary novels and short stories. Sample chapters of two of his novels are available at http://tiny.cc/CarryMeAway and http://tiny.cc/HannahsVoice. He also does free lance fiction editing. You can find him wasting time on Facebook at http://artist.to/robb.grindstaff.writer.

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20 thoughts on “Robb Grindstaff – Fine Art of Description

  1. Welcome, Anna, late comers are always welcome in the kitchen 🙂

    Those little details can lift the characters right off the page and add that realism which I think is so important.

  2. Hi Robb

    More than fashionably late to the party, as always…

    As you know, I tend to create scenes vividly and then have to rein back: like Phillipa, for me the scenes have to feel real to me before authentic life can happen on the pages.

    I try to be ruthless with myself now in subsequent drafts and edit with the agenda of leaving only the details that serve character and plot,as in your third example above (emphasis on the ‘try). I don’t waste anything though and, while these edited descriptions aren’t often useful elsewhere, even in the same novel, I do sometimes recycle them in short stories and poems. Having said all of that, I do like the odd (sometimes very odd) quirky detail – in my own and others’ writing – which I think can help verisimilitude.

  3. Great post Robb! I enjoyed part one about dialogue, too, but didn’t feel the need to comment. You know how I feel about dialogue…. haha.

    I do need to work on my description. That’s one thing I’ve been told fairly consistently – that I don’t have enough description. Usually it’s the setting that I need to describe more, but also a bit with physical descriptions. Sometimes I just like to imagine that readers can fill in the blanks with whatever is familiar and comfortable for them, but I understand that readers do need a little bit of something to ground them in the story. And then of course, there are other times when I can see someone’s face, or the layout of their apartment, or they city they live in, with such clarity that I can’t help but describe it.

    Off to read part 3!

  4. Pete, I do like your description of a local politician – seems pollies the world over are the same 🙂

    Sarah, I’ll have to track down Bujold – my local library has come up blank so I’ll try further afield. Yep, you’re right Rom Susp does seem to demand sequels and Nora is the queen of them! I haven’t read any Shannon McKenna, but I’ve now got a copy of Return to Me to read. 17 pages sounds more like agony than ecstasy for a sex scene…. No danger of me ever running to that many pages…

    No Lemon poppyseed recipes but I have had requests for Anzac biscuit recipes (my heroine cooks like a madwoman when under stress) so I’ll be posting that sometime soon.

  5. You’re right, Sarah. The 3rd example handles it in a totally different way altogether. Rather than trying to split the difference between no description and too much, it takes a different approach. You’re getting ahead of me – more on that in part 3. *grin*

  6. @Helene, wouldn’t you say sequels are more than “okay” but nearly EXPECTED in the Romantic Suspense genre? I mean, trilogies are what MADE Nora Roberts the #1 most prolific writer in Romance, no?

    And geez, Suzanne Brockmann has what, 17 or 18 books in ONE freakin series and personally, I am all there for book #25 if she’s willing to keep going. I mean, hey, more US Navy SEALS is NEVER a bad thing *hee hee*

    My favorite Romantic Suspense author is Shannon McKenna who’s on (I think) Book 9 in her McLoud Brothers series. It was only supposed to be one or two books IIRC.

    My writing is somewhere between Suzanne Brockmann’s milfic style and Shannon McKenna’s edge and grit (though I’ll always put more graphic and explicit sex than Suz and NEVER do 17 page sex scenes like Shannon :-))))

    Are your first two books in this series published? By whom? What are the titles? Gee, the things you learn adn people you meet hanging out on a blog these days *grin*

    Lemon poppyseed muffins are the BEST with tea, not coffee, and you must put cream into your tea (or at least milk) Do you have the recipe posted on this blog somewhere? Linkiness please if you do!

    -sry

  7. p.s. Robb, the blank setting problem you described, picturing it so completely you “forget” to give it to the reader, is PRECISELY my biggest problem when I set out to avoid infodumping. I’m working hard these days at finding a balance. I think it just takes practice (duh)

  8. Robb, I like your example–sort of. The first two are good examples of the same thing done differently, but you changed so much the third time around, I can’t reasonably compare it to the first two as a “right” and “wrong” way. I hope you know what I mean and don’t feel I’m just nay-saying you here. In fact, I love the third example of how to integrate character’s voice and descriptive expositive. It’s outstanding!

    One writer you didn’t mention who has so utterly mastered the art of description, I tend to think of her settings as being characters (almost) in and of themselves is Award-winning Science Fiction & Fantasy writer Lois McMaster Bujold.

    When I read a Bujold, even those in the fantasy genre (which I loathe and despise, recall – and even Lois’s fantasy is still loathesome to my tastes), there is usually a sense of a tapestry being woven before my eyes. It doesn’t matter how many times I read one of her stories. I’ll ALWAYS see or notice something new and different that I never even realized was there the last time through. She so fully-integrates the worlds she builds into the stories she builds and makes the pacing and setting grow and develop together that it would be impossible for her settings to be altered and still have the same people and same story. THAT, in my opinion, is the perfect way to write a description. Whether she’s describing characters or places or events, Lois always integrates all of my senses, as a reader, into teh experience. I don’t just envision the room or the people in it, I smell them, I taste the little swan shaped pate and feel the gravelly substance on my tongue and hear the raves of the snobs behind me whilst I’m looking for somewhere to spit the stuff out and I feel every bit of social pressure to swallow that sordid substance that the character did. That’s one of my favorite moments in a novel called CETAGANDA which is a rather hilarious novel for a murder mystery in the science fiction genre. I think CETAGANDA is second only to MIRROR DANCE for Lois’s ability to layer texture upon texture into the worlds–multiple–created in one story. It’s so complex and yet, so utterly simple to absorb.

    You are soooo right about information overload being a big problem so many of us writers step into, like a mud puddle we can’t avoid. We just plop right down into the info dump and ramble away, thinking “Oh no, the reader will LIKE knowing all of this.” NOT. I don’t find Hemingway or Fitzgerald to be so breathtaking as I do Bujold, though Fitzgerald does impress me (no, really!) I think you might enjoy reading a Bujold just for yucks and grins. Or for psychological challenge that might bend your mind over Carrie, read MIRROR DANCE. You’ll be UTTERLY hooked on Miles Vorkosigan and his world. After many years in the fantasy genre, Lois has finally come back to write another Miles book adn it’s coming out this November. Now’s the time to get hooked 🙂

    Thanks for writing this article on description. It definitely got me thinking anyway!

    -sry

  9. IMHO, if your party doesn’t end up in the kitchen, you need a new kitchen.

    I took my cue on description of people from Ray Chandler, Ross MacDonald and John MacDonald. Take one feature (okay, maybe two), and find a way to describe it memorably (or, as they would, with wry wit). Here’s a description of a local politician:

    Each time I’d seen him in his comically ornate office, he seemed to be clutching his desk as though he feared being dragged from it.

  10. Robb, I’ve always been a kitchen queen at parties – very happy doling out food and a sympathetic ear 🙂

    I must admit I’m not ready to say goodbye to my characters at the end of the story. That kind of runs true to my day job. As a pilot you start life sitting in the right hand seat as a First Office. Some years later you switch to the left seat as a Captain. I can still remember how devastated I was when I made that move and I realised I wasn’t going to be chatting to the wonderful wise older Captains any more. Sure there were new conversations to be had, but it wasn’t the same… Perhaps that makes me more clingy now with my characters 🙂

    Sequels are very popular in the Contemporary/Romantic Suspense. I start #3 any day soon (when I stop having fun on blogs) and that will have all three female leads involved in the wrap up. I’m hoping some of the lessons I’ve learnt hammering out #2 will help!!

  11. The subject always turns to food here, doesn’t it? Helene, your blog is like the kitchen, where everyone always winds up at a party.

    I’m going to make sure all the characters die at the end so I’m not tempted (or required) to write a sequel. I’m sure getting the setting and description right in that situation would be very tricky since there are two sets of readers – one familiar with the story and one not.

    I know sequels are quite popular, especially in some genres, but I would have difficulty with that. When I finish a book, I’m done with those characters, no matter how long they’ve been in my head, the source of my obsession, or how fond I’ve grown of them. Once that story is done, I’m through with them. New characters are banging on my skull to get out.

    Do you find you finish a book but you’re not done with the characters, that they have more stories in them?

  12. Phillipa, I’m do the same thing! I ended up with a fully furnished house complete with garden, fences and swimming pool for Morgan when I wrote BW.

    Robb, I found writing the second book in the series more difficult that the first because I had so many visuals in my head by then. It’s a fine line describing places/people/scenes in such away that a new reader will still see it, but someone who’s read BW won’t be yawning… How did you approach that, Phillipa, with your second book?

    Hi Sandy, it was an excellent example, wasn’t it!

    Steve, less can indeed be more.

    And on matters of food, a very lovely lady dropped round to chat writing and brought homemade poppy seed muffins – YUM! Perfect with a coffee as I wade through my tax return, while procrastinating on the blog…

  13. Oh Rob, that second draft – what a laugh! You had me right up to and including the athletic physique, started to yawn at the age and went into a severe crash and burn after that. What a great example. As you say, the third try was far more engaging.

    So, Phillipa, a mint slice biccie huh? I’m afraid a Cadbury Twirl is about to bight the dust, in my region of the woods.

  14. Phi, I have the same problem with the opposite result sometimes. I picture the setting so detailed in my head, I forget to describe it at all. I have to go back and add some setting to ground the story in a reality.

    Steve, I agree. A little bit at a time, and let the reader fill in the exact image of the character in his own mind rather than try to paint the exact image of the character as he appears in the writer’s head.

  15. Excellent example of the power of description, Robb. You’re spot on that when you’re describing a character less is more. You weave a touch here, a touch there and the picture grows.
    Thanks!

  16. I love description but it traps me quite often – it traps me because I see it so clearly and it becomes so embedded in my mind as THE place these charaters live, the way they see and experience their worlds that I can’t bear to change a detail. So I go to town in another document and describe their house, or office or the cafe or wherever it is they are and then pick the most distinguishing characteristics from that description. It gets it out of my system and gives me a sort of SIM play at the same time.

    (Shan’t taunt you with other Australian chocolate sweetmeats today, but just had to mention I have, next to my coffee, a mint slice ‘cookie’)

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