Thursday, June 21, 2012

How Imaginations Take Over the World (And Your Writing)

So this post is going to be a sort of follow-up of the ideas I expressed in my last post, "When Your Imagination Is 'Wrong'", so if you haven't read that yet click the link and go do that.

A lot of the time when I'm writing or editing, I find that one of my biggest problems is with description. I have this frantic urge to describe EVERYTHING with perfect, insane detail. I'll use multiple sentences just to describe the walls of a room; I'll use a boatload of adjectives to describe a single action. I'll spend tons of time trying to put onto paper everything I see in my head, because I want the reader to see what I see.

And this, I've come to realize, is stupid. Why? Well...


Reason #1: The reader will NEVER see what you see.

Everyone is different, therefore everyone has a different imagination, therefore everyone pictures things in books differently. Have you ever looked up "fan casts" for certain books? Everyone has a different idea of who the actor should be for which character, based on how they picture the character themselves.

For example, a lot of people pictured Peeta like this:

While I picture Peeta more like this (although now that I look at them both, they look reaaally similar):

Reason #2: The reader's imagination takes what's written and runs with it, anyway.

Just go read the comments on my last post... even though characters are clearly described a certain way, people picture them differently. What's the point of describing something obsessively if your readers aren't even going to picture what you describe?

Reason #3: Imaginations don't need a lot of help to imagine stuff.

In one of the first Harry Potter books, I remember J.K. Rowling described the Gryffindor common room in about one sentence, and the gist of it was "there were some cushy armchairs." There was barely any description at all, and yet I had a perfectly formed, complete and detailed picture of the Gryffindor common room. J.K. Rowling gave me a sentence, and my imagination did the rest.

Reason #4: An author's book, as I said in my last post, does not belong to the author. It belongs to the reader.

So if you want the reader to see what YOU see, you're being like my nine-year-old egotistic author self that I talked about in my last post. You should just let the reader see what they see, whether it's the same as your vision or not, and be cool with that.

So, as far as description goes, I have learned that you really don't need as many words as you think you do.

Just look at this description-overloaded sentence of some story of mine I wrote years and years ago:

She raised her glistening silver sword into the thick black night.

The note in my edits beside this was: "adj. much???"

And now, in conclusion I shall provide you with this summary:

1. Imaginations are cool.
2. Less words are cool.
3. Books belong to their readers.
4. I used to be in love with adjectives, and that was a mistake.

And a really good example of awesome, minimal description (oh my goodness, more adjectives - apparently I am not yet over them) is the book Sold by Patricia McCormick... which is an awesome, compelling book that you should really add to your TBR list.

Oh and follow me on twitter! @AlyssaSherlock. Have a great day.


  1. YES! I know exactly what you mean about the less description, the better. So many times in WIPs I drone on about the wallpaper or decor or how many freckles some guy has, when really it should be excluded to make each reader have an individual impression.

    Sometimes "she was tall with grey hair" just works, you know?

    PS. Totally agree about Peeta. And Katniss, come to think of it. But they've both grown on me immensely since then, and now when I reread the books, they're what I see ;)

  2. If authors have paragraphs of description, I generally skip over them when I'm reading. Just give me enough that I have the general idea and then I'll do the rest.

    I wish I could remember how I pictured the characters of HP before the movies. Now when I'm reading, I always picture the actors there. Peeta and Gale were actually really well-cast in terms of how I pictured them.

  3. Your post resonate with my own writing habite. I also tend to be tolkienish with the description in my writing. I'm writing in french wich is a language, to my opinion, so rich with like 12 000 synonym for every word. I had the misfortune once to have read somewhere to never use the same word more than once or twice. Therefore i used every synonym there is. Sometime i have such clear visions in my head that i NEED to write them exacly like I picture them. anywway, long story short I too strive to write simpler and shorter description. but right now I'm focusing more on "Show, don't tell".

    Ok now i'm dragging on... so See ya!

  4. I enjoy a snippet of description as a reader, but not a whole lengthy breakdown to their vitals.

  5. Can you lend me Sold tomorrow? Or when I see you next?

  6. I always get carried away with descriptions. There's a bold sharpie line between too much description and too little description and when I'm writing sometimes that line blurs.

    Or maybe I just step right over the line and hope that no one notices. :]

    Either way I never notice I've gone overboard until I'm done with the draft and move onto the next one. Every draft brings me closer to a more balanced amount of description.

    As a reader, I don't mind minimal descriptions and sometimes enjoy the room it leaves for my imagination to do its thing. But honestly, I swoon over beautifully crafted descriptions that paint a picture for me and kind of make me feel like I've stepped into a room and am watching the scene unfold.

    At the same time, though, I don't want to feel like I'm being spoon-fed by an overenthusiastic chef. ( reality, if this chef was a pastry chef, that might be interesting.)

    As a writer I'm teaching myself to scale back a little bit on the descriptions to avoid being that overenthusiastic chef, and at the same time sticking to my mantra which is to write the kind of books I want to read. So maybe its a thinner line between too much and too little. Well, at least from this angle.

    P.S. Sold is an amazingly beautiful book. A perfect example of how sometimes less is more. Did you cry while you read it or was that just me?


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