Delayed Description

LP Halloween 2011

One of the more serious mistakes that I see new writers make is what I call ‘Delayed Character Description.’

If the writer does not specify how a character looks, dresses and talks early in the piece, then the reader will release their own imagination and begin to formulate a picture in their minds.  I’d opine that this image formulates quickly, as most people like to attach a face and body to a character.

Now, it may be that it’s not important what your character looks like, but if you want to control this aspect, I would advice you to do it early on in the work.

Personally, I find it disconcerting when no physical description is given and probably would not read very far into the work.  Even worse than no description is the delayed description.

Call it a dream disturbance that you do not want to happen.  To related that to real life: Imagine that you’re talking to someone and all of a sudden they morph into another person.  Imagine that you’re flirting with a cutie, leaning hard on them and wondering if you’re being too aggressive, and suddenly their dentures drop out or they revert to a prepubescent state.  Would that be enough to make you forget what you were talking about???

Delayed Character Description can be just that jolting.  Don’t put a bag over the reader’s head and expect them to listen to dialogue; don’t expect them to stand in the kitchen and listen to what’s going on in the bedroom.  Human beings are visual creatures; they want to SEE most of all.


Author’s Note:  This rule goes double for location.  Don’t allow them to imagine that they’re in Europe and find out several pages in that they’re actually in South America.


9 thoughts on “Delayed Description

  1. I once read that Orson Scott Card purposely didn’t describe Ender in Ender’s Game because he thought it wasn’t necessary.

    I think it depends. I think a lot of new writers put too much emphasis on hair color and eye color–two things that really don’t matter much at all. And personally, as a reader, I’d rather have no description at all than a clumsily inserted description that doesn’t matter at all to the story (i.e. “I brushed my long golden hair off my shoulders and stared into my crystal blue eyes in the mirror.” It’s cheesy, not to mention, no one thinks those things while looking in the mirror!)

    So I say yes, I’ll take a good description if it can be slipped into the story in a creative, realistic way. But find a few details that really matter, and give me that. Don’t give me a head to toe overhaul of each character as soon as they appear on the page. I just read a book that did that and it got old fast.

    Tell me the hero has a grease stain near the rip in his jeans and smushed hair on the back of his head where he obviously took a nap after lunch. Don’t tell me he has raven black hair and a chiseled chin, and cheekbones that are a sculptor’s dream. Because frankly, I’ve heard it all many times before, and it doesn’t tell me a darn thing about his character.

    Sorry. I think this sloppy character description thing is a pet peeve of mine.

  2. Yes, it’s good to have a description that happens soon, but if you take an example like in The English Patient by Ondaatje, the only description of Almasy (who is the Patient) we receive is the way he looks after he is burned (almost beyond recognition). There is little, if any, knowledge of what he looks like before, except we surmise that he must be rather handsome.

    I’m writing a story where the story begins with two characters introduced–a narrator and a a person with a male name, but six pages in we discover that the person with what we assumed is a male name, is actually a woman who has what sounds like a male nickname. So we think we’ve been reading about a gay relationship, but it’s actually “hetero”—an example of mis-direction

  3. Thank you for that post and for the comments on it. I am procrastinating editing a short story for a class I am taking. I need to get from 6 thousand words down to 2. And I think I know where to start now. This is the push I needed. I think I fell in love with parts of the story or parts of an image in it so much that I lost track. It’s just so easy to lose oversight of the important issues, of the *essence* of a story, and to linger in details the reader doesn’t care about. (Kay knows what story I’m talking about…)

    • I wouldn’t say they are details the reader doesn’t care about, they’re just details the reader doesn’t care about yet. You know how it is when you’ve fallen in love with a book and its characters–you’ll gobble every cut scene, every outtake, just to know more about the people you’ve learned to love. I think you just have to dish it out sparsely in the beginning, make your reader hungry for more before you feed them.

  4. Glad to help. Of course, you don’t need a lengthy detailed description, and you don’t necessarily need all in one place. What you want is to make sure that your readers are not allowed to wander off in the wrong direction by giving at least a hint. Remember you are master of the story. Take control and speak with authority: I know what I’m talking about, even if I don’t.

    Most of what you can cut is probably right in the beginning. I once read an interview by a college professor who said that he routinely threw away the first 3 pages or first 3 paragraphs of a short piece. I know that I’ve said that before, but it made a big impact on me.

    • Good point, Kay. To avoid an ‘info-dump,’ details should be lightly basted into the story. And yes, after we fall in love, we what to know everything little thing. 🙂 But we want to find out slowly.

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