Writing Physical Description – Part One

In my post about “Things to Avoid in Chapter # 1,” I wrote that you should “Avoid the temptation to describe your main character [on the first page or even in the first chapter].” However, I didn’t provide much insight into how to write physical description. So here we are.

There are no “rules” to writing description because it is a product of your own style. Hemingway gives us very little in the way of description while Stephen King can go on for pages. When I read The Stand twenty years ago, I remember stopping and thinking, “My God. He’s written six pages describing an abandoned military facility. There aren’t even any characters!” Now, to King’s credit, I also noted that his elaborate details enabled me to vividly picture every brick of this complex. Obviously, my reaction is also an indication that despite King’s talent, the passage was still long for my personal taste.

I cannot write like Stephen King. I will never be able to include such rich and graceful detail. My prose is average; it serves its purpose but lacks imaginative description or an abundance of figurative language. Therefore, I would never attempt to imitate King and therefore I lean toward the opposite approach: providing little description and counting on the reader to supply the rest.

Even if, like me, your prose isn’t going to win you any awards, you might still be tempted to provide plenty of minute details so that the reader pictures exactly what you have in your own head. Resist that. Instead, keep the description pretty quick and short. There are advantages to minimal character description. Yes, you will want to provide the reader with a good idea of what the main characters look like, but you can leave “a little room” for the reader to supply the missing pieces. I see two advantages:

  1. Minimal description will quicken your story’s pace.
  2. When the reader uses his/her own imagination, he/she becomes part of the creation and can become more invested in the story.

Do you want to provide details about your main character’s face? I only describe a face if there is something peculiar or memorable like facial hair, a scar, the color of lipstick, if the person appears plump or thin, etc. Readers seem happy to supply the particulars of the face. If you supply it for them, readers might not feel like they “know” the character—the character may appear as a stranger in the reader’s mind. I can think of exceptions to this rule (I’ve included Ichabod Crane’s introduction at the bottom of this post), but I think it’s generally good advice to provide the outline or skeleton of a character, dress it up with some meat and clothes, but allow the reader to unconsciously help out.

Providing a single telling detail is often more effective than a summary description. EX: “His neck was a molting snake.” See? Can’t you picture that guy? Did you imagine him as old and wrinkly? If not, is the image in your head a vivid one? If this is a minor character, this brief description is all we’ll need. If it is a major character, you can be more descriptive later, but this lays some good “ground work” so we won’t be surprised later when you tell us that this character is elderly, has a skin condition, was in a fire, etc.

Reading description is boring from a modern reader’s standpoint—it brings the story to a halt. You don’t want to slow down on the first page or even in the first chapter. Can you wait a chapter or two before describing your character? Try it. I bet you’ll end up making that description a more natural/less forced part of your prose if you hold off for a while.

Read the following description of Ichabod Crane, the protagonist from Washington Irving’s classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Note that Irving does describe his face. More importantly, look at the specific details he provides. Irving’s writing is vivid and original. Even without the sentence describing Crane’s face, the description would still be fantastic. Enjoy it for yourself.

“He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”

One thought on “Writing Physical Description – Part One

  1. I’ve always thought this is a very interesting topic. As writer, I love to go into details… at certain times. With creating all new fantasy worlds, it is hard not to do that to some level. But your advice is so true, even with epic fantasy, you have to still move the story along (if you aren’t Stephen King). The thing is, if your published with a fan base, you can break the rules. The rest of us really have to follow the guidelines 🙂 lol

    Great post as always Craig!

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