A Lesson From Mary Poppins: Dosing Out Description

Porción de azúcar en una cuchara,cucharada de azúcar.As an educator for forty years, I heard many teachers complain that the kids weren’t the same any more. They had short attention spans, and if you weren’t “entertaining” them you’d lose them. Many blamed television and video games and of course there was the generally agreed upon lack of respect for authority. The kids wouldn’t do stuff just because you told them to any more, and rote memorization and studying were a thing of the past. I couldn’t necessarily disagree with all of their complaints, but instead my attitude was, well, you’re not going to get that student back so you better learn how to adapt to the new population.

In many ways I consider this an improvement. Students aren’t interested in mindless drivel that makes no sense to them. I understand that as teachers (the experts/the authorities), we try to explain to students that they won’t know what knowledge they’ll truly need until they get where they’re going, and they should rely on us to tell them. And there is some truth to that. I didn’t love chemistry and put forth a rather paltry effort, figuring I’d be a biology teacher and had garnered enough knowledge to teach it in that regard. Of course, my first job was teaching three biology classes and one chemistry class. And yes, I had to hit the books hard each night to make sure I was adequately prepared for class. Unfortunately, some things you just have to learn the hard way.

As I’ve mentioned on many occasions, I have no formal training in writing beyond a traditional college education and I can see now that much of this attitude translates in the new age of writing. Take this passage from a 1950s novel:

               “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 yellow harvest…”

Very poetic, but I doubt a modern day publisher would read past the first sentence. People just don’t write like that anymore. The same commentary can be applied to film-making. We just don’t have the patience to wade through endless description and backstory and prefer the director snag our interest early in the story. And yet as much as I struggle with description as both a reader and a writer I understand that it is vital to our work. It’s the vehicle for visualization of people, places and things, of setting and location. The trick is to craft it Mary Poppins style, with a little sugar to make it more palatable. And the number one rule for a writer is to “show don’t tell.”

As well as I know this rule I still sometimes fall into the bad habit of giving a laundry list when describing a new scene. Something my editor just called me out on the other day. My character walks into an office and I list everything in the room, where it’s positioned and, well, all he could say was: “Seriously, a laundry list? You know better than that.” And I do. Instead of describing and listing the appurtenances in the room, I should have my protagonist… cross her long legs as she sits demurely on the black leather couch, placing her handbag on the shiny onyx coffee table. Duh.

Drawing a vivid picture for the reader is necessary in order for her to experience the story the way you want. It’s well known that people “see” very differently when looking at the same setting. Examine all the literature on the unreliability of eyewitness reports to remind yourself that no two people see the same thing. I’ve often witnessed this myself when discussing a book or character with a friend. We have different interpretations. So, the more detail you give in your descriptions the more likely your reader will get it. Conversely, many authors- I read an interview where Hemingway describes himself this way- prefer to leave a lot of the description up to the reader. I like this approach myself, and often use it. Some descriptions I’ve read made me frown, as the writer tried to impress me, but instead it just made me shake my head. It’s important to make sure your descriptions are not filler and that you drop it on your reader subtly, through dialogue and action rather than using the dreaded ‘info-dump’.

Descriptions should move your story forward and never bore your reader. A good descriptive passage should be specific, relevant, and give clues to the character’s motivation. Choose carefully what to describe and include as much sensory detail as possible. Consider all of the senses, but don’t make it obvious by checking them off on a list as you write. The rule of thumb is to stick to only three of the five senses. I’ve cringed when an author throws in a detail like a smell, that doesn’t enhance the scene at all. Go for the subtle details, and use simple yet not mundane ones. And watch your language; I’ve been bitten by the ‘purple prose’ bug more often than I care to admit. Leave the flowery words in the garden where they belong. In truth, I suffer more from adverb overdosing than adjectives and didn’t realize it until someone called me out on it. (If you have not already learned the “ly” lesson, here it is. Avoid it – it’s telling, not showing.)

So remember:

  • Avoid large lumps of description
  • Make description an active part of your story
  • Describe things your characters would notice

It’s necessary to give just enough detail when you first establish a character so that when he reappears the reader will remember him. So give him something that will stand out. I hate when I have to go back and look a character up because I can’t remember who he/she is. The best way to accomplish this is to have the character doing something when you introduce him. Give some specific insight into his personality to help the reader remember him. And don’t overdo it. Your characters have room to grow so you don’t need to reveal too much at the beginning. Intrigue is paramount.

As a reader I don’t usually “picture” a character as much as I get a feel for him. Many of the details you give will be ignored. Especially with your protagonist/antagonist as we tend to slip ourselves into the role as we read. Often we assign a character to someone we already know with similar traits. Personality is always more important than visual aspects, so hone your skills in writing body language and inner monologue whenever possible to make your characters jump off the page and into your reader’s mind. They won’t even notice your sneaky little approach when you give it with little doses of sugar in the form of action and dialogue.

Now that was painless, wasn’t it?




Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

8 thoughts on “A Lesson From Mary Poppins: Dosing Out Description”

  1. One of my very first critiques on my writing was, “You haven’t set the scene. Everything is just floating around in open space and I have no idea where anything or anyone is in relation to anything else”. I took that critique seriously and steered my writing hard in the opposite direction. I started describing everything down to the thread count on the sheets. I had 50,000 words and almost no story.

    These days I’ve settled into something of a gentler middle ground. Sometimes I still catch myself drifting toward either extreme. Sometimes I test the waters deliberately for effect, but moderation and deliberate direction are the key to description. The reader only really needs to know what is important to the scene and ultimately the story. They’re capable of filling in the details on their own, however, it’s important to also nudge them in the right direction, so they don’t go off assuming that your 20-somthing red-haired protagonist is actually middle-aged and balding.

    Great advice.

    1. I hear you. I tend toward too little description. I find writing dialogue and action to be easy peasy, but I can spend and entire day trying to describe a friggin’ room! Tough balance to find, at least it is for me.

  2. I didn’t read past that first line in the quote. Maybe I should be a book editor, lol. That quote is the perfect illustration for your point.

    I’ll add that just describing things doesn’t get you anything but an overwritten manuscript. Details, when you include them at all, must be SIGNIFICANT to the story in some way.

    I’ve changed my approach recently. I write almost nothing but dialogue and action in the first draft. Description slows down my mind too much. Unless a description just comes to me, I type in a note that says [describe the house], or whatever, and save it for the revision. This may not work for everyone, but it’s getting me good results.

    1. Me too! My first draft is all plot and dialogue. Then I go back and add in descriptions, body language, and inner monologue. Description is the hardest for me, it can take me an entire day to just describe a room. Glad to find a kindred spirit in this… 🙂

  3. At a respected workshop, an editor interrupted a critique of my work to correct what people were saying. They were telling me to add more description to make the apothecary shop more vivid. He disagreed. “Readers will default to a normal room if you say ‘living room,’ ‘bedroom,’ or ‘store.’ Only mention what is different about this room. Tell them about what’s special in this room that makes it worthy of being in this story and what it’s going to do to move the story forward or give us necessary background.” I am no longer afraid to let readers default to a room in their imaginations, because this is their mental movie that they are co-constructing with me. If there is a need for a shotgun later in the scene or in later scenes, of course, I’ll show it to them hanging over the mantel. But only if there is going to be a need for it. If your book is set in the eighteenth century, of course, you may need to set the scene of the ballroom with everyone dressed in finery and the heavy chandeliers hanging with crystals and the candles flickering (or the oil lamps). If it’s set today, though, most people will know what a car and a cell phone and a kitchen looks like. I usually try to choose the telling detail to help readers enter my fictional world.

    1. Excellent way to put it. I never thought of it quite that way, but you’re right, people will default to a particular setting and you only need highlight what makes it different. Focusing that way will help me a lot as a crit partner when I struggle to tell a fellow writer that the description is overkill. Thanks!

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