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  • d. i. richardson

Description Theory

To start this off, I'm not an expert by any means. I am always learning and growing as a person and a writer, so don't take any of this too seriously. I'm just airing my thoughts about different styles of descriptions and trying to showcase the different ideas of how we describe things in our novels.

In prose, describing people and places can be challenging at times. I often find myself worrying if I'm describing something or someone enough or not. And I find myself occasionally worrying about if it is "poetic" enough. The poetry in prose conversation will be something I'll write about some other time. Right now, we're focused on descriptions.

So, obviously, the lengths of descriptions vary from genre to genre in the novel-writing worlds. In terms of setting, I'd place "realistic" fictional works in a realm of under-describing. Since most people can relate to real world items and places, they won't need to be described heavily to be understood. In science fiction or fantasy novels, the author has to essentially build a world from the ground up and fill it with magical and mystical places and items that can be hard to describe and, therefore, need longer descriptions. And then there is a third, more poetic, way of describing things.

So let's take a look at what I mean:

Redundant Descriptive

What is it? It's in the name! It means to redundantly describe something. Something that has been described redundantly is redundant. It's so redundant in its redundancy that the description starts to lose its meaning because it's so redundant.

That's pretty hard to read. It was harder to stomach writing and it is an example. What I mean by redundant describing is that some authors will tend to do overkill on certain descriptions and it can make the whole description overall a bit muddy.

Also falling into this category is wordy and lengthy descriptions that don't really add anything to the dialogue or plot in any meaningful way. Sure, you want to paint the picture, but it's not imperative to know about each scar and freckle on the person's body or how old a desk is and where in the world the wood came from.

Why do people tend to write this way? I think it might have something to do with the idea of painting that perfect setting and just running with it. Redundancy can kill a scene in its tracks. I would think it's a rookie mistake to describe something in this way, but does it have a place in writing? Not really. I don't think so. Long and wordy descriptions can sure be nice in fantasy settings for lore and world-building, but only occasionally. Like the semicolon, you only get one unless you have a very good reason for another.

Example: "The quick fox, whose fur shone deep reddish-brown in the sunlight, jumped with all of his might, might that he had acquired from his years of running track at the local high school. His mother had made him sign up for the team and now it was paying off as a large dog lie in his path, basking in the sunlight on his day off from working on digging up old bones in the backyard at his owner's behest."

Originally: "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."

The difference? The first little blurb there is 79 words long. The second description is 9. Now, my issue is not with the information being supplied. Let's say that in the story to follow, the fox's track days are never integral to the plot. It's an added detail. It might work in small bursts like this where it can be entertaining and serve character development, but imagine an entire book written with a strenuous describing style like this.

So there's really no pros unless you're trying to fill a word count. Redundancy is a curse for a novel. Try to cut it out where you can. You want it to be lean and mean. Well, maybe not mean. I'm sure your book is very nice.

Narrative Descriptive

This is probably the general description theory. It's the most commonly practised and preached. And for a good reason too! The principle behind Narrative Descriptive is that you use just enough describing to set a scene and just enough world-building where needed. It's lean and keeps readers more interested. Exposition can be deadly, lore can be friendly.

What makes it so good? Because it's the Goldilocks of describing. It's both lean and wordy, if that makes sense. Rather than rambling on about how Aeknoth's desk came from the Magnolia region of Upper Sinta, you simply state it's a desk and move on. As well, you describe massive sprawling cities in their splendour because it fits the lore and purpose of the story.

Items with significance you give a paragraph too. Items that are "cool," get a sentence. The sword that killed the a random beggar? One sentence. The sword that killed the first king and was passed through your family for generations before landing in your hands? Yeah, that bad boy should get a detailed paragraph. It's an important item.

In terms of characters, this idea of description focuses more on the important features. If a character has a massive scar along his face, that's something worthy of mentioning, obviously. The backstory behind it would likely be some character development or motivation.

Example: "The sword feels weighty in my hands as if burdened by all those slain by its blade. The last of which was the first king of our kingdom, slain by my great-great-great-great grandfather and then passed down to every firstborn son. In the hilt lies a large ruby, said to have been cut straight from the first king's crown, only adding to the beauty and splendour of the sword."

Originally: "The sword is both impressive as it is heavy. This very sword was the one used by my many times great grandfather to kill the first king of the kingdom. It's been passed down for generations."

Narrative Descriptive is really a perfect middle between Fill-in-the-Blanks and Redundant Descriptive. It allows a lot of wiggle room and I would wager that the majority of authors fall into this category in most of the things they write because it's the most natural state of describing things.

Some genres (contemporary and romance) lend better to Fill-in-the-Blanks-leaning descriptions and other genres (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.) lend better to the redundant-leaning description because of the sheer amount of world-building that must be done. It's also why word counts in those genres are higher. There's simply more to describe.


This style can be summed up in one word by people who don't like it: lazy. And in a way, I agree. It can be seen as lazy to leave much of the "creating" up to the reader themselves. I'm biased here because I actually like this style of description. I think it lets me create my own story on top of the foundation. So allow me to continue that metaphor.

As a reader, imagine you are building a house (you're not, you're reading, but pretend reading is like building a house). With the above styles, you are buying a house that is ready-made and painted and pre-furnished. With this FitB style, the author gives you the foundation and the frame of the house, but you get to paint the walls and add the portraits to the wall and visualize the bathroom and kitchen you've always wanted.

This is sort of like an IKEA style of writing. The author gives you the framework and you put the pieces together yourself. In my opinion, it helps me connect better to the characters because it feels as though I had some say in making them.

Example: "She was tall, blonde and held a smoke between her fingers. The dim room around her is full of old books."

Originally: "She was tall, with blonde locks that fell in tight curls to her shoulders. She held a smoke tightly in her fingers. The room around her was dimly lit with the only light being a small lamp on the oak desk tucked in the corner surrounded by piles of unread books."

Here, I would honestly opt for the "originally" option because it adds more to the scene. It's not redundant. It doesn't add details that are unnecessary. It paints the scene. In this type of scene, there needs to be a little flair.

But on the other hand, keeping it vague allows the reader to fill in the details with their own perception on how the room should look. Maybe the room is lit by candles? Maybe the girl's hair is straight and falls to her tailbone in their mind. It goes on. You can create your own world when the author skimps on details.


Poetic description is the one with most pizazz and one of the more fun types of descriptions to read because it's much more interesting than boring prose. Describing beautiful things can be tough to capture the exact image and feeling, likewise, trying to describe feelings can be just as hard (if not harder).

The reason poetic descriptions can be so helpful in prose is that it lends the ability to bend descriptions so that more can be said and explained in a way that is emotional and resonates with the reader. It's needing to find words for things that words don't exist perfectly for.

Example: "She kissed me for the first time that night and my skin fizzled like a thousand firecrackers exploding with each one of my heartbeats. As she crashed into me, I was swept away in waves of her warmth. She was special. She was gravity pulling me in. She was the one."

Originally: "She kissed me for the first time that night and my skin crawled with goosebumps and the hairs on my neck stood up. She was the one."

Obviously, adding in some poetic flair makes the passage a lot more interesting. The better thing still is that everybody has different variations of how they would approach the descriptions. Clichés should be avoided where they can be, though a well-placed cliché can still work very nicely within any story or description.

I think poetic descriptions work best in slow burn plots where half the fun is in the describing of ideals and feelings. Of course, poetic descriptions about nature and romance and snowfalls and the world at large can be just as amazing when executed at the right time.


More importantly than outlining the different styles is that I have to mention a majority of authors switch between all the styles, usually even in the same books. I think the most polarizing styles are Fill-in-the-Blanks and Redundant Descriptive since they lie on the outside edges or what people would consider mostly okay. Poetic may be seen as too pretentious. Narrative would seem to be the best blend for 90% of the times you need to describe something.

This is just my take on it. I'm not perfect and by no means am I the be-all, end-all authority on describing things in novels. Descriptions are hard to get right consistently, that's what makes writing an art form. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.

What do you think? Are you a fan of any particular style? Do you hate any particular style? Leave a comment and tell me why.

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