Take a look at the following three paragraphs:
“The waitress brought us our coffee and set them on the table with an abnormal degree of force, causing our drinks to spill over the sides. Under her eyes were purplish half moons, though whether they were formed by sleeping with yesterday’s eye makeup on or by not sleeping at all, I couldn’t say. It could’ve been a trick of the dim dawn light filtering through the windows.”
“The waitress served our coffee. She had on at least thirteen layers of mascara and aggressively smacked her bubblegum. She made me think of my mother, not because my mother used to smack her gum, but because she had found such aggressive chewing extremely unbecoming for a lady. ‘Makes you look like a cow chewing cud,’ she used to say. The waitress made me miss her, something I hadn’t done in years.”
“We sat down at the table, and the waitress quickly took our drink orders. I ordered a coffee, and Lucy ordered an iced tea with lemon. The waitress had frizzy red hair, wore glasses, and was skinny as a rail.”
If I succeeded, then the first two paragraphs were more compelling than the third. They’re telling a story, whereas the last paragraph is simply telling the reader information, irrelevant information at that.
In the first paragraph, the waitress seems to serve as more than a server, if you will. She’s serving as an intriguing new character, a woman whom our point-of-view-character finds mysterious, and will likely tell us more about as the scene plays out. Maybe by the of the scene, he’ll have her phone number.
In the second paragraph, the waitress acts as an unexpected catalyst for nostalgia. The obnoxious way she smacked her gum reminded our point-of-view character of one of her mother’s quirky pet peeves, one that moves the character to miss her mom for the first time in years. The reader can’t help but wonder why it’s been so long since she’s missed her mother, what happened to her mother, or wish to know what other pet peeves the woman might have had.
The third paragraph is unnecessary filler. It’s the literary equivalent of the “um’s” and “uh’s” and other such throat clearings we use in our everyday speech.
Filler might contain interesting descriptions that paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but it does nothing to move the story forward. Unless the skinny, red-headed waitress is going to play an important role in moving the scene forward, whether by her actions or her influence on the main character, there’s absolutely no need for me to spend a sentence describing her appearance. Nor is it necessary to know the two other characters’ drink orders, unless it will prove to be critical information later on.
Always, always, always make sure your descriptions have a purpose.
Don’t say it was a “warm and cloudless day” unless thusly setting the scene will also set the mood or tone, reinforce a theme, or establish an ironic contrast. Don’t mention the extravagant chandelier, or the dusty Steinway piano, or the Louis XV desk unless that information is pertinent to your story. In other words, descriptions should not exist for their own sakes.
Gratuitous descriptions that lead nowhere will frustrate your readers, because readers are smart, and they know that expert authors don’t just write something to write something; every word is deliberate and meaningful. If you write something that later proves unmeaningful, they’ll probably want to chuck your book across the room.
You can certainly describe the sun as throwing “long fingers across the floor” and write that “the curtains glow with power,” as they do in Margaret George’s Helen of Troy, but make sure such detail enhances and enriches the scene. In this scene, for example, the vibrant glow of the curtains is contrasted with the lack of power felt by the protagonist, Helen, who says:
“But I had no power. I was as drained as an empty wine flagon and my arms hung limply over the side of the bed.”
Be judicious with your descriptions. This can be especially tough to do when beginning a new scene. Instead of writing down the first thing that comes to mind about the scene’s location, or the weather, or the way another character looks, ask yourself these questions:
- What do I want to accomplish in this scene?
- How is my protagonist feeling right now?
- What opponent, whether external or internal, imagine or real, is he/she facing?
- What details in the setting will compare to or contrast with how my protagonist is feeling and/or facing?
- What details can I include that will set the mood?
- What details can I include that will provide a sense of foreshadowing, or set something up to be paid off later on?
When you’re finished writing a scene’s set-up, run back through the above questions and ensure that everything you wrote aligns with your intentions. If something was written for its own sake, you’d better hit that “Delete” key!
PS: Book 2 in my Young Adult Fantasy series, The Petros Chronicles, comes out on 2/21! You can pre-order your 99-cent copy HERE, or click below. I hope you enjoy it!