Images in Words

A member of my book club mentioned that she skips speech tags and descriptive passages when she reads. I was amazed. Sometimes, I might be able to keep track of who’s talking without tags, but I always want to know where the scene is set. In a mystery, especially, any aspect of the layout of a house or the geography of a canyon might be essential to the plot. Also, I feel that setting affects characters. I read for immersion as well as for the plot.

I’ve read a book by one currently popular author that featured too much description of upholstery and curtains, but that same author also said too much about the food, about the details of love-making, about the clothes characters wore—about everything—for my liking.

I’m now considering how I choose what to describe and what to let readers imagine. Is the setting so ordinary that “small town” or “café”  will suffice, or is it so off-beat that readers would never imagine it without help? Does the image have symbolic or evocative meaning? Does it reveal something deeper about the story? Does it help the reader enter the character’s experience? Is it necessary to give the scene form and grounding? Smell and sound can touch emotions. And while I find excessive food description gratuitous, taste is part of the sensory wholeness of certain scenes. So is weather. There are writers who scarcely describe characters, but how we look—both naturally and through self-presentation—affects how we interact with the world.

Now I’m curious. Do you skip descriptions when you read? If you’re a writer, how do you choose what to describe?