Describing your world: the importance of being selective (tip 53) 2

Why is it that bikinis are sexy and naturism isn’t? Why do we never get to see the Blair Witch? And who cares whether your protagonist has attached earlobes? D.D. Johnston discusses the importance of being selective when describing your fictional world.

Video transcript follows below:

We’ve talked a lot about the importance of description, but something we haven’t mentioned is the importance of not describing things. It’s strange that writers don’t talk about this more. After all, in every scene we are choosing, consciously or otherwise, to not describe 99% of the things we could describe. Most often we choose not to describe things because they are of no importance to the viewpoint character, and/ or because they don’t assist us in telling the story.

So when Jhumpa Lahiri writes:

‘Shoba would throw together meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare, from things she had frozen and bottled, not cheap things in tins but peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes.’

We are likely to note the specificity – the things Lahiri does describe – and we’d be correct to note that her description is more vivid than something vague, such as: ‘Shoba would hastily prepare delicious Indian food’.

But it’s worth remembering all the things Lahiri doesn’t describe: she doesn’t tell us that Shoba’s freezer is a 12/24 V DC Siemen’s Nofrost. Nor does she tell us that Shoba has detached ear lobes, or brown eyes, or size six feet, or a million other facts about Shoba that just aren’t interesting or relevant.

But at times you may also choose to not describe something that is relevant, something that may be hugely important to your story. See, a curious feature of being human is that a thing we can’t see is often more exciting or terrifying than the same thing when we can it.

That’s why bikinis are sexy, but naturism isn’t.

That’s why film directors have to deploy elaborate devices to avoid showing us the monster in horror films. When we can actually see the monster, it’s rarely as terrifying as we’d imagined. Take the creature from the black lagoon, for instance: he looks a bit like Roy Hattersley. Imagine if we actually got to see the Blair Witch!

So the next time you’re writing about the object of your protagonist’s desire, perhaps describe how he makes the protagonist feel, but leave us to imagine his square set jaw and ruggedly handsome features for ourselves.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Balachandra Krishnamurthy. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here:


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