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YMMV: Describe With Actions

🖼️ Could You Take a Picture, 'Cause I Won't Remember...

I think it's time for you to meet Steve. Steve is a CPA in his mid-twenties. He has sunken green eyes and a seemingly permanent 5 o'clock shadow. His sandy brown hair is unkempt. He wears an un-ironed white button-up shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows and a red tie that sits loose in his collar. He likes fast food and vinyl. He has a bare bones apartment and a compact car. Steve... sounds real boring, right?

Describe With Actions

Most writers view description as a necessary evil. It's not fun to write--or to read--but if you want your reader to be able to picture the scene in their heads you have to give them something to work with. So you pick a few important details and string them into a paragraph and plop it somewhere near the character's introduction. It's not interesting, but if you keep it short you won't use up too much of your reader's attention budget. Besides, readers are accustomed this. That's how you end up with the description of Steve up above. It is a series of facts about a person presented in the most unoffending order you can manage. It's boring, but it's serviceable.

And then at some point early in your writing career, you decide that description shouldn't have to be boring. So you look for ways to sex it up a little. And the first impulse you indulge is to try to make the language itself more vivid and interesting. This is doubly true if you write literary fiction, fantasy, period pieces, or any combination of those (looking at you, George R. R. Martin) [Editor's note: you know he doesn't actually do this, right?]. And this makes a certain amount of sense. After all, there is no shortage of writers who are renowned for their beautiful sentences. Why can't you be one of them? So you end up with paragraphs like this:

Steve is a warlock with numbers and tables, though youthful in age and mannerism. His eyes sit deep in his skull like pinpricks revealing a field of chartreuse behind them. His hair is like a thatched roof atop his head. A thin beards paints his chin like iron filings. He is clad in the uniform of the exhausted salary worker: a wrinkled L.L. Bean shirt and a tie the color of richly-oxygenated blood.

And the result is predictably terrible. It lives somewhere on the spectrum of grotesque to indecipherable. And the sad thing is: you will get positive feedback for it. Someone in your writing circle will say that they liked your evocative imagery, even though they don't have any idea what Steve looks like and will be surprised to learn several chapters later that Steve isn't actually a warlock. Here we see one of the pitfalls of overly purple prose in speculative fiction: the reader doesn't automatically know what's a metaphor vs what's world-building--which is a useful footnote, but it's not the real problem here. You see, while the paragraph isn't boring, it doesn't successfully describe anything. It doesn't fulfill the purpose of description. It is an overcorrection.

Shortly after this you'll be tempted to go in the opposite direction. You've read Cormac McCarthy or Hemmingway or The Murderbot Diaries and you decide that maybe you don't need any descriptions at all. Let the reader fill it in for themselves. And it will not work, because you are neither Cormac McCarthy nor Earnest Hemmingway nor Martha Wells. (Unless you are, in which case... call me.) Your readers will complain that they actually would like a little bit of description, thank you very much. You will realize that while you have taken the opposite tack, you've arrived at the same overcorrection. In an attempt to make things not boring, you've failed to actually describe anything.

A secondary problem your readers will inform you of is that they have trouble keeping track of who's who. That's because when the only differentiation you have is a name, it gets progressively harder to keep them straight. And if you go back and re-read The Sun Also Rises or The Road, you'll note that while they are sparsely written, they also have rather small casts. Now, in all fairness, there is a recent trend in short form science fiction of eschewing description almost entirely. You see this in The Murderbot Diaries as well as Amal El-Mohtar's and Max Gladstone's This is How You Lose the Time War, and while I enjoy both of those titles immensely, I found the lack of description in both to be frustrating. They only work at all because they're extremely character-centric, they're novellas (novellae?), and they were written by some very seasoned professionals.

So let's assume, for the sake of argument, that you do want to give the readers some kind of description. And then you stumble upon the idea that description ought to reveal character and backstory, not just physicality. So you end up with something like this:

Steve is a CPA, fresh from his college exams and now doing drudge work for little pay. He lives in a dinky studio apartment and is still driving the beater he'd inherited from his older brother. His hair is mussy and unkempt--a far cry from the mohawk he'd rocked back when he still dreamed of being a bassist in a punk rock band. He has eyes that a former girlfriend had described as "beady little emeralds" and a thin layer of stubble on his face. It's not that he was trying to grow it out or anything, he just never seems to wake up early enough to give himself a proper shave before he has to leave to get to his office. His button-up, another hand-me-down from an older sibling, is clean but hasn't seen an ironing board in years. The sleeves have been rolled to the elbow ever since lunch. This was the same time Steve had loosened his candy-apple red power tie--something he'd actually purchased for himself--because having that top button buttoned was starting to make him feel like he was choking. The tie is not his only extravagance. He's also a music enthusiast who'd gotten into records as a teen and spends what little disposable income he can scrape together on expanding his collection.

See that? That's some interesting description. It's engaging and it reveals character and backstory. Once you start exploring this method of description, you start using it everywhere and it does dramatically improve your writing. It also dramatically balloons your word counts. Suddenly a 4,000-word short story is sitting closer to 5,500. And soon you realize that it gets to be a little exhausting. If you've ever read Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, then you are aware of what happens when a three-hundred page book is nothing but backstory-driven description. I loved every individual chapter of that book, but reading it for any amount of time literally made my head hurt.

There are two problems with this kind of description. First: it's not very economical. Second: it does nothing to advance the plot. So while it's great on its own, in any kind of volume it just bogs the story down. Now, obviously, my paragraph about Steve is overlong because I am exaggeration things for effect. In practice, you're probably going to limit yourself to three important details and bake that into your word count projections, and that's fine. This is a perfectly suitable practice that is employed by many professional writers. But I think we can do better. And to accomplish this, we need to take a step back and look at the real purpose of description.

You may think that the purpose of description is to make sure that the audience gets the right picture in their head while they read your story. You would be mistaken. The real purpose of description, rather, is to make sure that they don't get the wrong picture in their head.

Wait, "right" versus "not wrong"... what's the difference? The difference, dear reader, is everything.

Let's jump back to our model of an attention budget. One of the worst things you can do is make your audience have to go back and re-read things, because it breaks their immersion and makes them spend extra attention on the same passage multiple times. One of major causes of re-reading is when they have to recalibrate, because they'd made an assumption about something that turned out to be wrong. Like, they assumed that the protagonist was white and then discovered five chapters later that they were East-Asian. Not only might they want to re-read parts to figure out what they got wrong, they also need to re-construct their entire mental model of the story. That takes brain power and can often be enough to make them give up.

An extreme example of this comes from my mother, who tried to read Dr. Zhivago when she was young and didn't have any familiarity with Russian diminutives. If you have a character named Henry and someone calls them "Hank," you intuitively know that those are the same person because you are familiar with English-language diminutives. But unless you're familiar with Russian, you probably don't know that Vanya is a common nickname for Ivan, or that it's far more common there for people to use different diminutives based on their relationship to you, or even for one person to use multiple names interchangeably. So if you encounter someone talking to both Ivan and Vanya, you'll think they're different people. According to my mother, about halfway through the book she realized that there were half as many named characters as she had thought, and she gave up.

Little things can trigger this, too, and the later they come in, the more the reader has to recalibrate. This is different from a surprise twist, because a twist is not a recalibration so much as a recontextualization that--when effective--should answer more questions than it raises. Learning that Bruce Willis was [REDACTED] all along is cool! But if you get to the ending and that's when you learn that your protagonist has been wearing glasses this whole time... that's just frustrating. It will break your immersion and detract from your overall enjoyment of the story. And the point of description is to prevent that.

Put more succinctly: Description is not a blueprint; it's a guardrail. If something is important to the story, then you include it as soon as you meet that character or enter that location or whatever. Story-pertinent details should be introduced as soon as possible, and if it's not story-pertinent, you can leave it out entirely. An instructive example can be found, caveat injurer, in the Harry Potter franchise.

(Caveat injurer: literally "take care to not be offended." This is a shorthand way of saying that "I know the creator of this work is a controversial/problematic/garbage person, and I do not endorse or condone their controversial/problematic/garbage views or actions, but we're going to talk about this anyway because cultural touchstones at this scale are hard to find." Try to add this phrase to your regular vernacular whenever Harry Potter or Firefly comes up. If enough of us start using it, I bet we can make it take off!)

In the books, Hermione's skin color is never explicitly given to us. Ron is a ginger, so we know he's white. Harry is pictured on every cover, so we have a pretty good idea of what he looks like. But Hermione's main physical feature is that she has a big mass of curly, tangly hair. That could describe a white girl, but it could just as easily describe a black girl. Readers have interpreted her both ways. And, in fact, we've seen this borne out in adaptation. In the movies, Hermione is played by Emma Watson, who is white. But in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, adult Hermione has been played by black actors--both Noma Dumezweni who originated the role, and Jade Ogugua who plays her currently. Now, did Rowling intend for Hermione to be specifically black or white when she first put pen to paper? Probably, but who cares? She never spells it out, so whatever you imagine is fine as long as it's not proven wrong later. If the finale of the first book had told us explicitly that she was Japanese, that would be a problem. But since it never comes up, it doesn't matter.

Now way back at the top, I said that if you don't give the reader something to grasp onto visually, they're going to feel a little lost. But you only have to give them the bare minimum to get an impression. It doesn't have to be the right impression, is just needs to not be contradicted by something later in the story. For Hermione, we know that she has thick, curly hair, we know that she is studious, we can see that she gives off strong older-sister vibes, and we know that the wizarding world is completely alien to her. From that, you can put together a visual, even though most of those details have nothing to do with her appearance. They suggest something about her appearance, and that's really enough.

In fact, I would take it a step farther. I don't think readers care what your characters look like at all. They want to understand the character's personality. And in our day-to-day life, the way we do that starts with us judging how they look. So readers want to know what a person looks like right away so they can start forming ideas about personality in their mind. But you can just skip the middle-man. If you let the reader know about the character's personality, then they will assume whatever mental image that they have mapped to that kind of personality.

This is a powerful tool, and it explains why describing with backstory isn't very economical. You give an element of physical description, which the reader then uses to build the character's personality. You then give context for this physical description. The context is backstory. The backstory reveals character. This then either subverts or reinforces whatever your reader has assumed about personality based on physical appearance. I'm not gonna lie, it can be very effective. But you can also see how it balloons your word counts. In order to contextualize the description, you're basically describing the character twice, and that's just bad word economy. Fortunately, we know another great way to reveal personality, don't we?

Remember last week when I talked about business--that is, the incidental actions that characters take during conversation? These are actions that probably aren't driving the story, they're just there for pacing, dramatic emphasis, and to reveal character. Well, you can use them as descriptions as well. And since actions are more engaging than narrative--which is what backstory is--you can use them to imply backstory or character motivations or whatever else you want. If they give clues to physical appearance, then the reader will intuit those without having to be explicitly told. And remember, they don't have to be right. They just have to not be wrong. Let's look at an example, going back to our friend the CPA.

Steve arrives home bedraggled. He flips on the light and squints at the sudden brightness. With his free hand he loosens his tie and hangs it--still knotted--on the coat hook by the door. He stumbles the three feet to his kitchen and sets his Taco Bell bag down on the counter. He should eat it while it's still hot, but his bed is beckoning to him. It's a whopping five feet away; nothing is far in this apartment. He just needs to turn off his brain, to stop thinking about numbers and other people's taxes. So he drags himself towards the bed, but first he stops by the hi-fi, his one and only extravagance, and puts on a Dead Kennedys record.

I haven't really told you anything about his physical appearance, but I bet you've got a good picture. I didn't tell you about his stubble, but you know that the kind of person who doesn't tie and untie their tie every day is also the kind of person who doesn't shave every day. The only things I need to call out specifically are the ones that are going to be important later. Do you need to know what color his hair or eyes are? If so, then I'll want to bring them up, but if I'm just telling a story about an exhausted accountant questioning his career choices, then I've set that up pretty well. The important thing is that it serves its purpose as a description while being engaging and advancing a little bit of story. It even has a bit of an arc to it: Steve arrives home and wants to eat, but he's too tired, so he puts on some music and lies down instead. In a way, it makes Steve an active agent in his own description, and giving characters agency is one of the best things you can do to make your reader care about them.

Now, obviously, this is a very contrived example. And I mean very obviously very contrived. But hopefully I've illustrated a point. Using character actions as a way to hint at appearance, when done right, can be enough to satisfy the reader's curiosity without sacrificing word count to description. Hopefully your interaction with Steve is simultaneously answering your questions about his appearance and arousing your curiosity about his past. Hopefully it leaves the reader wanting more, because if they want more, they're going to read faster and when you hit those satisfying resolutions, they're going to have more impact. Because in a way, you're only telling 80% of the story, even though it feels complete to the reader. And this is a great tool for maximizing your word economy, and that's going to be very import for next week's post.

Next week, we're talking about an important skill that you need to start cultivating ASAP...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.