Writing description: how much is just right? – Sarah Skilton

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By Sarah Skilton

Most readers don’t enjoy slogging through lengthy descriptions because it can feel like an interruption to the main story line. On the other hand, if you integrate your description with the character and plot, the right sentence or two between beats of action or dialogue can mean the difference between an evocative, emotional reading experience and a bland one.♥

So what makes for good description, and why?

Good descriptions, used sparingly, should:

1. Reveal a character’s feelings. The words they use to describe their surroundings, and the very things they include, will tell us about their priorities, their background, and their personality. Do they feel comfortable or uncomfortable here? If they like where they are or hate it, if they’re delighted or unnerved, if they’re pleased, bored, or frightened, these reactions all provide information about our characters, which in turn helps them come alive in a subtle, realistic way.

2. Provide foreshadowing to the plot or reveal the tone of the scene. Used sparingly, information about the weather – I know, it feels like a cliche, but some cliches are worth employing – provides a sense of what’s to come: It is an ominous downpour? A cheerful sun?

3. Plunge readers into an unusual or unique experience. Does your book take place in a foreign city? A small town? The story’s setting, and what it means for the characters and plot, can be vital in helping your reader feel immersed in the narrative.

In Club Deception, my third novel, the main set piece is a fictional, underground (in both senses of the word) magic club in downtown L.A. Having impulsively married a magician and moved to his city, 20-something Jessica is new to the scene, feeling vulnerable and off-kilter when she first experiences the club. The description of her surroundings reflects her uneasiness.

“Club Deception was a hidden, members-only club built out of a converted speakeasy in downtown Los Angeles for use strictly by magicians and their guests… As a first-time visitor, the only thing Jessica knew about Club Deception was that she couldn’t find it. The air was strangely cool – after ninety-nine degree weather all day, she’d expected the evening to continue in that vein, as it did in the Midwest. But the instant the sun went down, all warmth left with it. The lone streetlamp nearby was cracked, and her taxi had departed despite the tip she’d given the drive to stick around…”

Since it’s an important setting – several dramatic scenes take place there – I wanted to make it as easy as possible for readers to imagine it, and to hopefully look forward to revisiting it throughout the book. Because it’s new to Jessica, she becomes our “in,” the perfect person to lead us through it. It’s new to her and the readers. Brevity is key.

“Upon arriving downstairs at the dimly lit bar, Jessica’s attention flew to the enormous gilt-framed lithographs of Carter the Great, Chung Ling Soo, Harry Houdini, Alexander Herrmann, and Dante… They glowed like stained-glass windows, hauntingly beautiful, suspended by near-invisible wires that hung from the ceiling. At first glance, they appeared to float…”

In short, if the description is only there to tell us where we are, but doesn’t relate to or convey mood, tone, character POV, or story, delete it or rewrite it until it provides at least one of the above attributes.

Abracadabra, your description is saved and your readers will be delighted!

Sarah Skilton was a professional script reader in Hollywood for nine years. She is currently a book blogger with Barnes & Noble as well as the author of two young adult novels, Bruised and High & Dry. Club Deception — a glamorous murder mystery featuring magicians — is her first adult novel. Sarah has been married to a real live magician for many years!


Excerpts are from the book Club Deception by Sarah Skilton. Copyright © 2017 by Sarah Skilton. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.


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