My notes from a panel on the use of description in writing. At OryCon 33.

Victoria Blake: Publisher Underland Press
Alma Alexander: Writer, described as a lush writer.
David W. Goldman: short fiction, science fiction for ~6 years.
Devon Monk: urban fantasy, and several others
Bill Johnson: Playright, screenplays
  • People don’t self describe. Beginning writers tend to have characters look into mirrors  and describe themselves. But people don’t do that.
    • Unless your character has some flaw they are very self-conscious about
  • Blake: some writers describe themselves at lyrical writers. But it can be pretty but meaningless. Lyrical can be lazy writing: lots of words that aren’t edited.
  • Monk: description has to be tied to the emotional reaction of the character. A character who has lost a child and describes a pair of baby shoes, that means something.
  • Typically these days, most people are writing with a close point of view. Anything you describe is from that characters point of view. What they see and don’t see. It does more than just describe, it tells us what the character observes.
  • Adverbs: good or bad?
    • Johnson:
      • Nouns: good
      • Verbs: good, be more specific.
      • Adjectives: a few
      • Adverbs: none
      • “Suddenly he bolted from the room.” You don’t need suddenly if you have bolted. We know that means suddenly.
    • Monk: Suddenly you can describe what you need in the structure of your writing. Short sentences go faster. Long sentences slow things down, but the reader only remembers the end of it, so the important part needs to go there.
      • Short snappy descriptions will get you a lot further than long ones.
    • Blake
      • em dash – one of my favorite tools. because it’s not a comma, so you can do interesting things with it. “John — young, drunk and stupid — jumped out the window.”
  • Blake: the view paragraph.
    • The character goes up to the top of a building, plane, or something: and they take in the view. In one to three paragraphs, we get the whole world.
    • This is good — a useful tool to give the world succinctly.
  • Alexander: China Melville is a masterful description – not by long lengths of details – but with using the right words. 
  • Monk: a great practice is to look at the world around you, the common things around you, and describe them in a unique way to you. Then think about how your characters would describe them. You want practice doing this sort of stuff.
  • description tends to fall into one of two cases:
    • expositional vs in-scene
    • exposition is not in the flow of the story, and it requires a different structure.
    • You kill your action scene if get into exposition in the middle. Just work the description into the action scene.
  • Q: What about when we have an action scene, and then in the middle of it we have a “16 hours earlier…”
    • You can do it to have fun with your reader [good]
    • Or you can do it because you are a beginning writer who wrote a really boring beginning to your story, and instead of fixing it, you try to throw something in at the beginning. [bad]
  • Q: I was in a workshop and someone said “You don’t have enough description” and someone else said “You have too much”
    • Blake: That’s workshop speak for “Somethings wrong but I don’t know what”
    • Goldman: You need to get to symptoms first, not diagnosis: I’m bored is a symptom. Too much description is a diagnosis.
    • Monk: Everyone wants different things.
  • Blake: The only way writers can learn is to study language. Learn about adverbs. Learn about long sentences vs short ones. Exposition vs not. Write a one page report on it to make it really concrete.
  • Q: Talk about using dialogue as a way to convey description
    • “Come back to bed, I’m cold.”
    • The only way to get your dialogue going is to read it out loud.
    • In first person, it’s especially helpful to use the opposing characters to bring out description that wouldn’t come out otherwise.
  • Adverbs:
    • A verb + an adverb ==> usually there’s a better verb to use. 
  • Said / Asked
    • At one time, don’t use it at all. Books were full of growls and chortled.
    • Nowadays, they say only use said and asked. Just do it and move on. They are invisible to the reader.
  • But the important thing is to write. Don’t let this hold you back from writing. Just get the first draft done, put it away, and then go back and revise.
  • Q: The use of description as it is different for each genre
    • Goldman: I’m writing with a tight point of view. So it’s about what the character is experiencing at this point in time.