Description – How is it Done These Days

I picked up a story the other day written in the 1950s. Here’s an extract:

“Two storys high and built of granite, rose the Georgian house, but the porch and its pillars were of red, conglomerate stone. They broke the unbending gravity of the grey front with a touch of colour. Behind rolled blue hills, now melting into the splendour of gold and orange above them; while southward, beyond a little park, extended meadowlands, wooded ridges, and fields of corn yellowing to harvest…”

Phew! It’s all very poetic but you’d be lucky if a publisher read past the first sentence – we’re simply not supposed to write like this anymore.

Conversely, I was researching for a radio interview recently and tried to find modern examples of locality description – failing to find very much at all. I was surprised actually at how little description modern authors use.

I did find this, by Kathy Reichs, to use as an example:

“The building stood alone on an acre of land that was entirely enclosed by an electric fence. Surveillance cameras dotted the barrier’s upper rim, and powerful floods lit the perimeter…”

Do you notice how much more succinct and direct this is compared to the example above? And by the way, this is about the only piece of description in the first 100 pages of Reich’s novel!

Even physical descriptions of people are kept very brief in modern works – and are usually only inserted to help us understand the mind of the ‘describer’ – that is, the main character/s.

Modern fiction is all about action – people doing things, thinking, making links, engaged in puzzle solving and obstacle tackling. Gone are what we take for granted. What things, places and people look like are only included if they are unusual or pertinent to the plot.

I get emails about this all the time. ‘Where can I find a good resource to teach me about description?’ ‘Well, you probably can’t,’ I have to say. It’s not specifically taught anymore, because, I would imagine, it’s not a tool you’re going to use much as a modern author!

I guess it’s because of the communications boom of the past 50 years.

Because of TV, movies, the Net etc, most of us know what things and places and people look like. We only need shorthand notes to work out for ourselves what a ‘blonde attorney’ or a ‘old warehouse’ might look like. So descriptions of ‘flowing golden tresses across her pin-striped jacket’ or ‘aging stone and broken glass amidst rusted girders’ become redundant, even gratuitous.

Today, readers just want the story and nothing much else. Here’s an example from Patricia Cornwell. First line of a novel:

“The late morning blazed with blue skies and the colors of fall, but none of it was for me…”

She’s established time, date, the mood of the protagonist – and managed to intrigue the reader too – in just under twenty words! Now that’s succinct – and a lesson to us.

If you read a lot of bestsellers – which I do – you’ll see there’s no real trick to writing popular fiction – it’s more to do with discipline. The best writers seem to know when to hold back and almost disguise the fact that they’re writers at all. The story, plot and characters are everything and the only things that drive the novel.

Any superfluous wordage is excised – and don’t be fooled by the finished products you buy off the shelf. Modern novels are ruthlessly edited, pared back, honed and rewritten, sometimes numerous times by editors, proofreaders and by the authors themselves to achieve what seems like effortless, but tight writing.

They have to be – we readers want only the best now. And, if we want to write best-selling fiction, we must also learn to write, and rewrite, be ruthless with ourselves and our craft to achieve the best results.

Remember the old adage – and it can apply extremely well to modern fiction, whether it be description or any other prose related activity: “When in doubt, leave it out!”

©Rob Parnell

PS: Want your own writing honed to perfection? Speak to me first.

This article is written by Rob Parnell. Visit his website at

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