I’ve read approximately 60 percent of the Sherlock Holmes collection, and it’s hard for me to decide which book I like best. From a writer’s perspective, however, the choice is obvious. Filed under The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is an obscure mystery titled “A Case of Identity” that offers a gem of writing advice for those who pick up on it.
The case begins with a visit from a woman in need of Sherlock’s assistance. He interviews the lady, and after she has left, he remarks that she intrigued him more than her case.
Watson states, “You appeared to read a good deal upon her which was quite invisible to me.”
“Not invisible, but unnoticed,” explains Sherlock. “You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important. I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumbnails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace. Now, what did you gather from that woman’s appearance? Describe it.”
“Well,” says Watson, “she had a slate-colored, broad-brimmed, straw hat, with a feather of a brickish red. Her jacket was black, with black beads sewn upon it, and a fringe of little black jet ornaments. Her dress was brown, rather darker than coffee color, with a little purple plush at the neck and sleeves. Her gloves were grayish and were worn through at the right forefinger. Her boots I didn’t observe. She had small round, hanging gold earrings, and general air of being fairly well-to-do in a vulgar, comfortable, easy-going way.”
To this Sherlock makes the immortal reply: “’Pon my word, Watson, you are coming along wonderfully. You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method… Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.”
In this article I hope to demonstrate how this is some of the best advice on writing descriptions you will ever encounter.
The Great Description Debate
I’ve heard numerous times that detailed descriptions supposedly bog down a story and should be avoided as much as possible, which isn’t altogether bad counsel. We’ve all read plenty of books containing details we couldn’t have cared less about, yet Dickens and many other classical authors have succeeded in dumping a gazillion details on us while keeping us eagerly turning pages. How are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction?
Sherlock phrased it admirably when he said, “You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important.” Like Watson, sometimes writers bombard us with descriptions that don’t increase our perception of the story. Although descriptions are vital to creating a vivid tale, not everyone comprehends how to do descriptions right. To paraphrase Sherlock, “We must divide the essential details from the unessential details.” We have to discern which details will produce the mood we desire, and those are dependent upon two factors.
#1: Determine Your Scene’s Context
When deciding whether a description is worth including in a scene, ask yourself three questions:
- What mood am I trying to build?
- What revelations do I want to make about the plot and character relationships?
- Would the surrounding characters (especially the POV character) naturally notice this detail and how would it affect them psychologically?¹
To illustrate this point, I’ll pretend I’m writing a scene in a fantasy story about a king. In answer to the first question, my intent is to convey grief. In answer to the second question, I plan to have the king confess to his love interest that he is the true king’s evil twin and that he murdered his brother to steal the throne. As for the third question, I can’t fully answer it until I show you the descriptions I’ll consider using, but for now I’ll mention that the love interest is the POV character.
What if I specify the king is tall? Would that be relevant to the scene? Does it intensify the mood of grief and the plot and character reveals? Would it have any psychological effect upon the king’s poor love interest, Luuzetta? The answer to all these questions is no. It’s a trivial detail. However, if I describe the king looming over Luuzetta, tearing at his breast, and gushing out his tale of woe, suddenly his height would have meaning. It would manifest his aggressive desire for Luuzetta to know him for the traitor he is.
I’ll try another one. What if I describe the king’s attire as majestic, manly, and haughty? Those might be interesting details in another setting, but they don’t enhance the mood, the plot and character reveals, or the psychological effect on Luuzetta. Instead, what if the king has reduced his raiment to a simple tunic smeared with blood and soot? Then his clothing would poetically symbolize how he has fallen from glory to rags and that his inner self is filthy, not royal.
The key to choosing your details is to pinpoint the mood you want for your scene, and then sculpt all your descriptions from there.
#2: Focus on the Right Details
As Sherlock told Watson: “Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.”
This is often the difference between showing and telling. Descriptions such as “scared eyes” or “a voice which threatened” are sometimes fine. But usually they’re lazy descriptors, because they are impressions, not details. A detailed description looks like this: “His eyes bulged and the whites glimmered like watery milk as he stumbled backward.”
As another example, instead of writing “the predawn grayness,” you could say, “the predawn skies were gray like the color of dead teeth.”
This rule also applies well to describing crowds of people: “The crowd seemed to rise to a peak as he uttered his stirring climax” versus “A gruff, bearded man in the front row fainted as the orator uttered his stirring climax.”
When you grasp how to write descriptions effectively, the theory that descriptions inflate a story doesn’t make sense. Descriptions bring a story to life. That’s not to say you can’t overdo them. If you feel you use too many descriptions, strive to replace them with a few powerful ones. I imagine some of you need to write more descriptions. In this case, embrace the details, and your minimalistic tendencies should hopefully curb extravagance.
It’s Elementary, My Dear Watson
This might seem like a lot to juggle at once, but it’s really not that complicated. You may shed some sweat and tears to work it out on paper for the first time, but you will soon become proficient at it. Think of yourself as Sherlock Holmes and your reader as Doctor Watson. Your reader, like Watson, can perceive the significance of even the most obscure details if you present them in the right context. As the detective, your job is to decide which details will give your reader the most insight into the case. Every time you’re writing this month, remind yourself that you need to act like Sherlock. Search for those little clues that are crucial to a deep understanding of a scene.
May your struggles to bring your novel to justice be fruitful, and may no complex writing mysteries evade you. Keep your eyes sharp and your wits alive for good description opportunities.
¹ Note: If you are writing in omniscient POV, it is sometimes acceptable to include details that characters might not normally notice. This practice should be rare though, since you risk making your writing impersonal.