Monday, December 7, 2009

Listen to Goldilocks

How do you know when your descriptions aren't too wordy, aren't too short, but are "Just Right"?

If you remember the children's tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, she had to decide a similar issue when she tried the different bowls of porridge. The first one was too hot, the second too cold, and the third one was just right.

So what is it, that makes a description, "Just Right?"

Let's look at some examples.

Goldilocks rounded the corner and saw a strange house by the river.

It's a little short don't you think? It's not very interesting, and doesn't tell me enough detail to make a good mental image of the house. What kind of a house was it? Was it a big house? Was it a small house? What did the river look like? Was it fast moving? Was it lazy and slow?

In this description the porridge was too hot. (I know it's stretching, but bear with me... no pun intended) It doesn't contain enough detail to describe her experience. One quick touch and then you leave, not really knowing what the porridge tastes like.

How about this one?

Goldilocks rounded the bend in the grass-lined black dirt path and a house with three windows jolted into view. The left window was about 6 feet square, with stripes of white metal separating it into 2 foot squares vertically and horizontally. The middle window was about 4 feet square and it also had stripes of white metal separating it into 2 foot squares. The last window was only 2 foot square, and had no stripes. Each window was separated from the other by about 8 feet, with green siding in between. The roofline curved down at the edges to make the house.....

Are you bored yet? I sure am. Yes there is lots of detail so that you can see exactly what the house looks like, but is it really necessary? Do you really need to put all these details up front?

No, you don't. It makes for a very boring part of the story, and one that a lot of readers find themselves skipping over, because they don't need to know every last little detail. They want to find out whether Goldilocks is going to be eaten by the bears or not. This is an example of the porridge being too cold. While an extreme example you get the idea.

OK, so let's try one more.

Goldilocks rounded the bend in the grass-lined trail, to find a strange looking house blocking her path. A rounded roofed structure seemed to melt into the hillside except for three odd shaped windows of varied size. She walked up to the first window, cupped her hands around her eyes, and peered inside.

Is that better? I'm not saying it's perfect. I only worked on it for a couple of minutes, but here's the point. I only tried to show only what was different. Everyone knows what a house looks like, there is no need to describe every detail, unless there is something about the house that is different. In this case the house was built into the side of the hill.

Everybody knows what windows look like. They can be different shapes, but unless it is important for the story, you don't need to describe what they look like. In this case I mentioned that they were odd shaped. Maybe later if it becomes important I can say they were triangular, or circular, or shaped like Mickey Mouse ears, the point is if it's not important to the story, you don't need to spend a lot of time or words describing their structure.

I'm sure with a little more work I can make the description lots better, but the changes would also depend on the flow and mood of the story.

So what do you think? Was Goldilocks onto something?


  1. Goldilocks was a true activist, not only in regards to her precise and highly developed palate but, more radically, in her willingness to cross racial boundaries despite violent stereotypes often linked with the large mammals whose house she so carefully infiltrated.

  2. Great stuff. It's a little different for writing screenplays, as you only get simple present tense, and colorful modifiers aren't necessarily needed. Of course, to keep the reader interested, that's right, someone has to read it to decide if it gets produced, it's necessary to walk the fine line you describe above.

  3. I like your examples and you make a very good point. I quit reading a book once because everything was described in such detail that I kept forgetting what the plot was.


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