Describe without Details

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We may describe a scene or a background to develop an atmosphere, a feel for the scene we are writing, but we must maintain restraint. Pages and pages on the colour of trees and long winding roads, etc., are no longer de rigueur in novels — except in literature class. Let us eschew the hell out of doing this, even for gothic novels.

Marcel St-Amand, author of the Lemon Ultra action-adventure series, is a master at providing just enough detail to set a scene’s required mood. From Book 2, Lemon Ultra: The Road to the Salt Mine:

When they finally emerged from the gorge, the landscape of the Kalash Valley presented itself like a majestic forgotten world and it was breathtaking. The Hindu Kush Mountains towered above the valley be­low with their snowcapped walls, and Himalayan cedar forests painted the rest of the mountains. Houses, sanctuaries, and fields gripping the hill­sides combined with meandering streams that sparkled like some sort of precious necklace of pearls. It was a picture of a lost nation.

With one short paragraph (four sentences) about this place, the author has triggered the storage facility in our right brain (the concept side) and we can feel it, understand its loneliness, its sorrow, its isolation, its power, its danger.


We need not describe a character in great detail, either. In fact, it’s usually not a good idea at all.

Again, from Marcel St-Amand’s Lemon Ultra: The Road to the Salt Mine:

He heard a scrape of footwear coming close to him, then his hood came off. A man stood in front of him, dressed in Mujahideen fashion complete with a pakul that sat slightly back on his head. He was a young man with eyes as dark as charcoal and which had an intensity of conviction. The young man’s thin hands—almost out of place as they really belonged to an office joe—held an Avtomat Kalashnikova, an AK‑47 Soviet rifle, with a firm grip. The weapon, with its distinctive magazine that curved outward, had seen better years as grunge had built up on the stock and the barrel was in need of bluing but still, it rendered that sad patina gained from daily usage. When Peter’s eyes adjusted, he realized he was indeed in a small grotto.

Note that Mr St-Amand has described only:

  • the young man’s clothing
  • the colour of his eyes
  • his hands
  • the weapon he holds

… but we can see all of him in our mind; it feels like we know a lot about him; we are afraid.


It is best to eliminate ALL physical descriptions that pertain to Race — unless it’s important to the story. Readers like to imagine they are the character as they read. If our characters — especially our main characters — are described as White/Black/Asian, we are alienating potential readers.

Relatively recent world stats on population by Race are:

  • Asian 54%
  • East Asian 24% (Korea, Mongolia ,China, Japan)
  • South Asian 21% (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal)
  • Southeast Asian 9% (Cambodia, Burma, Philippines, Malayasia)
  • Black 15%
  • White 15%
  • Hispanic 8%
  • Middle Eastern 8%

Before the First Edit, Make a List of Characters

Beside each name, let’s write the way we have first described physically each of our characters: main, secondary, tertiary and beyond.

How many have long flowing golden locks and flashing blue eyes?


Instead, describe the character’s character — no doubt where the term “character” came from in the first place. How about something like:

The deep-fryer that was born of some inner rage sizzled off him.

Continue to think of this guy in terms of, e.g.:

  • hot temper
  • hot bod
  • is he a chef?

… but don’t continue with the simile. It will become tiresome.

In General

Watch out for a procession of adjectives

the large, expansive, far-reaching meadow stretched before him.

… because these adjectives are usually redundant and lead the writer through the malapropism mine field.

What’s wrong with …?

the meadow stretched before him.

Mantra: I will not be lazy. I will use the right noun/verb. I will not fluff up my sentences with extra words explaining things. I WILL BE CONFIDENT! I will not be lazy. I will use the right noun/verb. I will not fluff up my sentences with extra words …


Next post — Describe with Action

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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