Description. You’ve probably heard a lot about how too little of it affects the quality of your writing. You’ve even heard people say the same thing about too much description. But what exactly is description and how does it affect fiction writing?
1. Description is a support system
Description acts as what I call your “support system,” or your foundation for your work, regardless of genre. Your readers need to picture in their heads what you’re putting on paper. They need that extra detail to make the piece complete. Whatever you talk about, it has to resonate with the readers because they need to follow you through the story. It adds that little extra touch often needed to really drive the point home.
It also shows your dedication to your craft if you put in just the right amount. Purple prose and beige prose, which hinges on description, are a whole different thing. While purple prose relies on overly detailed or “flowery” descriptions, beige prose opts for a more plain style that neglects description. Both take description to the extreme within the story.
2. Description improves a story overall
This doesn’t mean that you absolutely need description for every little aspect of your work or that you need the same level of description and attention to detail 100% of the time. However, like I said before, it supports what you’re conveying.
Say that you want to specifically convey a certain emotion in a passage, like sadness. Description infuses this emotion into the character, the setting, and other factors of the passage. Here, description acts as a vehicle. It builds up what you convey. This contributes to its emotional resonance, or how your writing sticks with your reader long after they’ve looked over what you put down.
3. Description as seen in other pieces of fiction
Once you know the basic function of description, practice identifying it in other works as well as evaluating your own. Sometimes when I think about how description affects writing I think about Ernest Hemingway.
I read his book The Old Man and the Sea back in high school, and I enjoyed it even though I had no idea what the book was actually about. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how Hemingway’s work always lacked description, which, according to them, made his work suffer.
For Hemingway, this was a stylistic choice. Scholars conclude that his career in journalism prompted a “bare-bones'' style in his imagery and language. However, scholars also cite how the trimmed-down style of writing allows readers to fill in the blanks. I’ve noticed in contemporary literature how authors have been tending toward this (as opposed to the flowery Victorian prose popular two hundred years ago).
But either way, description acts as a necessary aspect to fiction, and readers notice when there’s too little or too much of it.
Xie, Yaochen. “Hemingway’s Language Style and Writing Techniques in The Old Man and the Sea.” English Language Teaching, vol. 1, no. 2, 2008, doi:10.5539/elt.v1n2p156.
About the Author: Emma Foster is a fiction writer preparing for an MFA in 2022. She lives in Florida, and her collective hobbies include reading, stained-glass window-making, and the occasional sketch drawing.