Something that is key to every type of novel is description, but in many cases, it’s severely lacking. Why? Well, let’s just be honest – describing something that only you have seen is extremely difficult at times. It can be mentally taxing to try and come up with the right details. Sometimes it’s so hard in fact, that we think, “Why even bother? Does it really matter that much?”
Well, the truth is that, while description may not be the driving force of your story, it IS important. It’s what pulls the reader into the story on a deeper level than mere words can do. I’ve talked before about creating emotion with word pictures, and now I want to spend some time discussing immersive writing in general.
I’ve heard the question several times, “I try and describe things, but I can’t. Are details really that important?”
Details are part of what take a novel from being “okay” to being good, or even great. You’ve probably all read a story or scene at one time or another that really stood out to you because, for some reason, it was vividly real. While reading it, you weren’t even conscious of turning the pages. Instead, it felt like you were living IN the story. You were immersed.
And isn’t this what we as authors strive to do? Immerse our audience?
Descriptive details are what cause the immersion to happen. As a writer, you’re likely seeing the story play out in your head as it were a film, and detailed writing, like what I described in the last paragraph, will allow your reader the same pleasure.
“Karen froze, there, at the end of the hall was a figure holding a light. It was attached to a stick and didn’t bob up and down when the figure walked, it just moved steadily along the hall. The person was dressed in a white robe with white gloves and a hood over their head. The light cast and eerie glow through the hall and on the figure that held it.”
This paragraph has passable description. But is it vivid? Um….probably not. But what about this:
“Karen halted. Soft light engulfed the room in an eerie glow. Turning her head, she spotted the silhouette of a slender figure at the end of the hall, draped in white cloth that swished against the floor when it moved. The creature held a long pole in white, glove-clad hands, from which dangled the glowing orb. A flowing hood blocked the figure’s face. Shadows scattered along the walls as the creature moved with silent, even paces down the hall.”
Which paragraph creates a better image in your mind? Probably the second. But this isn’t because the second paragraph was waaaaaay longer and more saturated with details. In fact, they’re about the same length. Vivid imagery isn’t about the number if words used; but rather, the quality. Don’t settle for passive voice in description. You’re trying to pull your reader in. You’re trying to immerse them. That’s an active thing on the part of the author. You’re leading them on a journey through your world – a world that you want to be as real to them as it is to you.
Beautiful description is also not to be confused with the dreaded “purple prose.” I can guarantee you that your readers don’t want to spend the better part of their reading hours looking up words like “phosphoresce” in the dictionary. And besides, when you think about it, “Soft light engulfed the room with an eerie glow” is just nicer to read than, “Soft light engulfed the room with an eerie phosphoresce.” (And kudos if you can pronounce that.)
Description is an art. It takes practice. My own journey in learning to write immersive details led me through a few different stages:
1. The “No Details” stage.
“The man took the bundle from the trunk of the car. He handed it to his friend, and said, ‘You know what to do.’ Then he disappeared into the night.” – I think we can all agree that NO detail is lame.
2. The “Obvious Details” stage
“Bluebirds chirped in the sky, fluttering from the branch of an evergreen tree and alighting on the ground. Puffy, white clouds floated through the blue sky above.” – This is passable description, because at least we know what it looks like. But it’s not immersive because it’s too obvious. Readers expect details like these.
3. The “Purple Prose” stage
“Isaac swept his gaze across the resplendent field. The eastern horizon showed the beginnings of an ardent sunrise. Across the valley extended a glorious array of kaleidoscopic wildflowers that blossomed with lustrous fragrance.” – You probably want to look half of that paragraph up in the dictionary about now…. (Which I did.)
The key to immersive detail is the use of the unexpected. And by unexpected, I don’t mean using the word “phosphoresce”. For a reader to feel immersed, they need to be able to forget that they’re reading at all.
“From the base, the Old Metro Tower looked uninviting – even sinister, with gaping holes in the walls and shrubbery spilling through the yawning windows. Making a last sweep of the area, I ducked inside. Sweat soaked my back, making my t-shirt cling to my skin. I shivered, hating the idea of climbing to the top.” –Project RENO
In this excerpt from my dystopian novel, Project RENO, I was attempting to create a sense of foreboding through my details, which are far from purple. Rather than focus on something obvious, for example, the dizzying height of the skyscraper, I chose instead to draw attention to the greenery adorning the building. It’s a simple shift, but I think it makes a considerable amount of difference to the scene, and the mental image that the reader creates in their mind. To put it simply, draw your reader’s attention someplace they don’t expect, and yet which makes sense with the scene. Ask yourself, “What might be different about this scene?”
So to answer the question, “Are details really that important?” I would say, to be honest, a story can get by on very little detail, if the plot is still compelling. But this poses another question; do you want your novel to just “get by”, or do you want it to be great?