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I have trouble imagining things. With me everything is blurred, as if I were almost blind. That's why I find it hard to describe things. For example, the protagonists enter a castle. I have a very rough idea of what the castle looks like. But when it becomes more precise, it becomes much more difficult. I couldn't say exactly how the rooms are decorated, only that they are decorated. I'm always worried that I won't describe enough and the readers can' t get a picture of the setting. How much description is necessary and when is it too little?

  • 2
    If you like, you can also ask (in a separate question) how to help yourself visualise a location. – Galastel Jan 31 at 21:25
  • "Blindness" of this sort is sometimes known as aphantasia. – Spitemaster Feb 1 at 19:13
14

A complaint from readers if description is not sufficient goes something like: "It felt like floating heads were talking in a white room."

Readers wish to feel grounded. You don't necessarily need to do this with external detail and description (but there is a quick work around for that, below the first quote box). You can instead do it with internalization, ideas and reactions, and so on. Instead of describing the castle, for example, describe the person's response to the castle:

It was like being alone in a cave. So big, with nothing to to focus on, nothing familiar, nothing comforting--just open space and hard surfaces. It made him nervous to even be there. He hesitated to make any noise at all, afraid the sound would echo.

That's mostly internal stuff and vague externalities, but it grounds the reader. You want the reader to be grounded more often than not.

Now, if you decide what you want is external detail and can't picture it in your head, simply pull up an image online. Google image 'castle' and you will see the following details without any imagination needed:

Soaring turrets, ivy draped stonework, softened edges--perhaps from centuries of rain, narrow windows occasionally dotting the walls, grey and brown brick ...

Those are details from the outside of the castles, but you can specify inside a castle in your search.

This is a similar trick to the common advice regarding dialog--just pay attention. Listen and look and take notes. You are allowed to do this. :) You are allowed to use tools like this, especially if it helps you reach a better story.

10

How much description is necessary is a matter of style, taste and to a certain extent, genre.

Some genres, such as Young Adult, possibly crime and others tend towards more broad strokes when it comes to description.

Other genres, such as fantasy, sci-fi and literary (not exactly a genre, but you know what I mean) usually indulge in much more heavy description.

Whether you should write a lot of description or not, you need to learn from experience. If you enjoy painting a vivid, detailed picture, then great! Tha's what you should do.

But if you find it bogs you down and you just want to get back to the action / dialogue then you have your answer.

Having said that, it is almost always a good idea to use specifics in description, even if they are sparse. So saying the room was 'decorated' is not much help. Even saying there were tapestries on the walls would be better. Describing the exact content of the tapestries is even better.

But you say that you have trouble visualising that level of detail, in which case, I have a few suggestions:

Images - I'm a huge fan if using images to inpire and inform my writing. Look up castles in a Google image search. Browse until you find one you like, then narrow your search to images of that specific castle. What details do you notice from the photos? The content of the tapestries? The colour and style of the stones? The number and shape of the turrets? Does it remind you of something, like a skull or a tree or a mountain?

Blueprints - just another form of images I suppose, but I find it very helpful to find example blueprints of the places I'm decsribing. This can help you make sure your charcters don't do anything logistically impossible and can also give you ideas about how the surroundings can incluence the plot, such as tables and chairs getting in the way of an argument or brawl.

I wrote this article a long time ago that goes into more detail - you may find it useful: https://www.novel-software.com/blog?article=developing-locations-and-settings

7

Description isn't just visual.

You did a pretty decent job describing your "blindness" to imagining how something looks.

Let's imagine that castle....

  • How does it sound? (echos indoors? surrounded by ponds with singing frogs? what about hearing more outside noises when inside? I can imagine the windows are non-existent or not very tight, but then the walls are thick, so is sound more muted or more noticeable?)
  • How does it smell? (musty? old? mineraly from stonework? can you smell forests or ponds or other open space when indoors?)
  • How does it *feel?" (are the walls very sturdy or do they seem like they're going to fall down? Is the floor thick and unyielding? Is it cold?)
  • Where is it located compared to other places? (Far away from regular houses? Was it difficult to get to?)

All of these things will immerse your reader in the setting and help her/him to imagine being there. Even if you were good at visual description, you would need to involve the other senses.

As a direct answer, yes you need description and you need some of it to be visual. It can be small things if the setting is familiar. I've never been in a real castle but they're so common in books and movies that I can imagine one. If I was reading a book set in a castle, I wouldn't need more than a few words here and there that oriented me to the type and size of castle and a few other details as needed. But if the setting was someplace else and not familiar, I would need more.

You don't need (or want) pages of description. It's best to weave it into the story. Perhaps a short paragraph setting the scene then a line here, two lines there, and a few evocative adjectives.

The best way to know if you've done too little (or too much) is to ask people to read your work. There's no hard and fast rule. If they don't understand the setting or can't immerse themselves in it, then you need more. If they're bored with the long descriptions and want to get back to the story, then you need less.

4

Not a direct answer to the question, but I find that it can help to look through dictionaries to find the right nouns, adjectives, and verbs to describe a setting, especially if it's somewhere architectural like a castle.

In this particular instance you might find the following two lists of castle-related words useful:

https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/thesaurus-category/american/castles-towers-and-fortifications

http://medievalcastles.stormthecastle.com/castle_words_terms_and_definitions.htm


Examples from the first list:

belfry noun - the part of a tower that has a bell in it

bell tower noun - a tower of a church or other building in which there is a bell

campanile noun - a tall tower with a bell at the top, especially one near a church but not a part of it


Examples from the second list:

Motte and Bailey: an early form of castle where a large mound of dirt was built up then a wooden fortification was placed on top. This wooden fortification was in the shape of a timber fence that formed a circle like a crown at the top of the mound. The Mound is the motte, and the timber fence and the space it enclosed is the Bailey.

Ashlar - Blocks of smooth square stone. They can be of any kind of stone.


The same goes for any sort of setting, or even a character or event you're trying to describe. Trying to describe a character? Look up a list of facial-feature descriptors. here, for example is a list of terms just for describing a person's eyes:

https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/thesaurus-category/american/describing-the-appearance-of-someone-s-eyes

(edit: adding a more direct answer to the question)

As for how much description is necessary, it depends on the pacing as well as the desired tone you want to achieve in that section.

For instance you might glide over a whole event by saying something like:

"He strode through the gates, across the busy courtyard, and didn't stop until he stood before the throne"

Or draw it out a bit:

"He entered under the tall arching gates and strode across the courtyard, now full of milling townsfolk, livestock, and a retinue of soldiers. None of these gave him much heed and he was able to enter into the winding hallways on the other side. The air in the stone halls was damp and chill and he hastened forward down a series of torch-lit halls and dim chambers until he found the throne room. No guards warded the great oaken doors so he slowly heaved one open and slid through the opening, then swiftly crossed the chamber until he stood before the throne.

2

Something to keep in mind:

Your readers are not stupid and they have imaginations of their own.

You don't need to write a lot of description, just enough so they can form an idea of what people, places and things look like.

Here are techniques you can use:

Pick out a novel you enjoyed reading. Start reading it again, and when a character or a location is introduced, make a list of the adjectives the author uses to describe that person or place. Odds are it's only about three.

Pick a visual example, then describe it with two to four words. Do an internet search for 'castle interior' or 'palace throne room' then pick an image you like and describe it with a few adjectives.

EDIT:

In one novel, a character was referred to only as 'the girl in the orange sweater' despite appearing in a series of tense scenes.

  • And conversely, too much detail will turn off many. "Boy&girl watched a romantic film together and enjoyed it" is far more believable than "Boy&girl watched The English Patient together and enjoyed it" because the boy would have started making snide remarks after 20min and a full-blown argument involving one's sister and the other's mother would have broken out by minute 45. [...] Basically, superficial detail like that precise title will just annoy some readers, date the story, and break the spell of those that were taken by your story (as they imagined themselves & their favourite movie) – user3445853 Feb 1 at 13:49
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    Exactly. Writing "Protagonista's raven hair cascaded over her smooth shoulders like wave of midnight sky, with the whisper-soft ends coming to rest at her slim shapely hips." will make the reader throw your book away in an airport trashcan. – TheLeopard Feb 1 at 17:20
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    @TheLeopard I would absolutely read a book like "Protagonista of the Raven Hair" - assuming it was consistently as obviously satirical and over-the-top as that. – Jedediah Feb 1 at 19:37

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