Description: Getting It Just Right

When I sit down to write, I have pictures in my mind. I can see my setting, whether it is an exotic foreign temple, a seedy motel, or a trendy night club. I have some sense of my characters’ physical appearance. I imagine the action as it occurs, playing out like a movie in my mind. Most authors, I believe, have similar mental images.

Part of our task as writers is to communicate all these pictures to our readers. Description is essential in building a fictional world for our readers to inhabit. Description of the setting helps to establish a mood for the story as well as conveying factual information in order to set the scene. Description of a character allows readers to understand who the character is, why he or she reacts in particular ways or evokes desire, hate or fear from other characters. Effective description of action is essential in order to move the story forward along its plot arc.

Some authors might disagree, but I would argue that it’s nearly impossible to write a good story without some description. How much, though, is enough?

A common weakness in the work of novice writers is over-description. A story will begin with four paragraphs of text about the weather, the manor house, or the windswept Scottish moors. A character cannot show up on a page without having some adjectives or adverbs to drag around. A love scene explains in excruciating detail what the hero’s left hand and right hand are doing at each moment.

Why is this a problem? Because too much description can interfere with the progress of the story. Consider the following passage, adapted from a very early story of my own called “The Ambassadors to G79-3”.

She emerged first from stasis, a faint humming in her ears, a strange saltiness in her mouth and a sharp tingling in her secret parts remarkably like sexual excitement. Her eyes gradually focused on the luminous neon scope attached to the curved inner surface of her personal stasis chamber. The temporal-spatial coordinates displayed there were reassuringly familiar. The ship was right on course and the stasis mechanisms had functioned perfectly, awakening her a mere six hours from the destination.

She stretched her long limbs luxuriously, enjoying the soft, gentle pressure of the cushioning foam that lined the chamber. Lyrene fumbled a bit with the mechanical release latch, then swung the port wide and stepped clumsily into the cylindrical control room that formed the heart of their ship. Blue, green and gold lights blinked and flashed as the ship’s advanced biocerebral core rapidly calculated alternative landing trajectories and touch-down coordinates. The viewing dome in the middle of the floor glowed golden from the raging fires of the star G-79. Lyrene deftly flicked a switch, executing an 180 degree turn, and the dome revealed an endless field of deep blue spattered with flecks of silver, and a greenish egg shape hanging near the edge.

This is the start of the story. As any experienced writer will tell you, the first few paragraphs of a story or novel are critical. This is where you must “hook” readers, catch their interest, excite their curiosity, make them want to read on so that they can find out what happens next. In this case, though, I am two hundred words into the tale, and nothing has really happened. If I continue in this vein, I’m going to lose my readers’ attention.

Clearly, I need to set the scene. If I don’t manage to communicate the fact that this is a space ship, then the next paragraphs will not make any sense. However, I can streamline the entire opening, simply by cutting some the adjectives and adverbs, restructuring a few sentences, and omitting details that really are not important.

She emerged first from stasis, a humming in her ears, a saltiness in her mouth and a tingling like sexual excitement in her secret parts. The luminous scope inside her stasis chamber showed temporal-spatial coordinates that were reassuringly familiar. The ship was right on course. The stasis mechanisms had functioned perfectly, awakening her six hours before the scheduled landing.

Lyrene stretched her limbs, stiff after months of immobility, then crawled clumsily through the stasis chamber port into the cylindrical control room. Lights blinked and flashed as the ship’s brain calculated landing trajectories and touch-down coordinates. She requested an 180 degree turn. Instead of the fires of the star G-79, the viewing dome now revealed a field of deep blue spattered with flecks of silver, with a greenish egg shape hanging near the edge.

I have cut the passage by more than seventy five words. More importantly, I have focused the reader’s attention on Lyrene and her actions, instead of on what the ship looks like. One technique for doing this is to remove references to intermediate acts unless they are essential for understanding the scene. In the revised version, I dropped any mention of unfastening the latch or opening the port. Notice, however, that I did not remove the adverb “clumsily”. I felt that this was necessary to convey Lyrene’s physical state after the long space trip.

The passage above is hardly a model for great literature. However, it does set the scene better than the previous example, without holding up the story.

Another hazard in the realm of descriptions is over-describing your characters. Of course you want your readers to be able to visualize your hero and heroine. Leave some space, though, for the reader’s imagination. Sketch your character, highlight the critical aspects of their appearance or personality, but then let the reader’s personal preferences fill in the details.

Here’s another example, once again adapted from some of my unpublished work.

Why did she arouse me so strongly? She didn’t look the least bit tarty. Her beige skirt ended a modest distance below her knees. Her white crepe blouse draped her torso, suggesting rather than revealing the roundness underneath. The V of the neckline exposed the hollow of her throat, where I caught the discrete sparkle of some silvery charm. She had arranged her hair, a warm brown threaded with hints of red, into a neat chignon at the base of her neck. She was probably wearing make up, but it was subtle enough that it merely enhanced the overall impression: a beautiful, business-like young woman with a smile I might be willing to die for.

How tall is this woman? What color are her eyes? How old is she? Is she Caucasian or some other ethnicity? Is she slender or voluptuous? What size bra cup does she wear? Forgive me for the last question, but I have read far too many beginner’s stories where the author apparently viewed this this item of information as essential. ;^)

Each of you, reading this paragraph, will have a somewhat different image of the woman being described. I have not provided any of the above details of her appearance, because they are not important to the story. What is important is the narrator’s impression: that she’s “neat”, “business-like”, “discrete”, “subtle”, “modest”. (As it turns out, this character is not at all what she seems, but rather is a sexually ravenous dominant.)

Lawrence Schimmel, the celebrated gay author, has compared writing to creating a radio play. In the days of radio, the entire family would sit around the “wireless”, listening to comedies or dramas. The voices would evoke different pictures for each listener. The playwright’s job was to suggest, to hint, to guide the imagination.

I don’t have space in this article to consider the question of over-description in action, which can also be a problem. However, I would like to leave you with a few suggestions for improving your descriptions.

1. Make each adjective and adverb count. Some writing gurus advise eliminating all adverbs and most adjectives. I think this is just plain silly. However, before you write about a “blue chair”, consider whether the blueness really matters for your story. Be selective.

2. Avoid starting a story with pure description. There’s a risk that you’ll lose your readers’ attention before you get to the action.

3. Keep the focus on the characters and the events of the plot. Interleave description with action.

4. When in doubt, cut. Don’t hold on to descriptive passages just because they paint a beautiful picture.

In writing, despite what some people may say, there are no hard and fast rules. You need to discover what works for you. Personally, I’ve found that applying the suggestions above help me turn overblown, wordy descriptions into more effective passages that support rather than interfere with the action.


by Ashley Lister

One of my favourite writing exercises comes from Jose Silva and Philip Miele, reiterated in Julia Casterton’s Creative Writing, a practical guide.

It goes:

Close your eyes and sit quietly.
Bring into your inner field of vision – a lemon.
Examine it closely.
It is porous, with a little green dot in the middle of each pore.
Feel the knobbly cool surface.
Imagine a knife.
You are slicing the lemon in half.
You raise one half to your mouth and sink your teeth into it.
What has happened?


Casterton bets that anyone reading the description, and investing in the content, will find their salivary glands pumping at the stimulus of the description. Personally, I think she’s right because, even though I’ve shared this exercise with dozens of classrooms, it continues to make me drool in response to that fictional acidic rush of citrus juice.

And this is what we should be aiming to do with each aspect of description in our fiction. Description should be an immersion for the reader into the physicality of the storyworld. If a character is wielding a whip, we want our readers to flinch from each snap that it makes. If a character is enjoying a sensual massage, we want our readers to shiver with the tactile frisson of skin touching skin.

Description is where the magic happens in writing and it’s a skill that can best be developed through practice. As writers, we’re involved in a contract with the reader where we’re supposed to facilitate their suspension of disbelief. This is greatly helped when we present them with a world that seems so real they can experience it through their physical senses. And we achieve this by using exactly the right words with specificity, detail and sound symbolism.

Specificity: don’t tell your reader there are yellow flowers at the side of the road.  Describe them as daffodils or dandelions or buttercups. It’s not a fast red car: it’s a scarlet Ferrari. It’s not a jaunty nineties pop song: it’s Britney singing, ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time.’ Notice how, in each of these examples, it’s easier to see or hear the more specific description.

Detail: in the example at the top of this page, we are shown the little green dot in the middle of each pore. I had never noticed this feature until I read the description and now I see it on every lemon I encounter. If you’re describing buttercups, tell your reader about the silky sheen on the inside of each petal; talk about the way the petals sit awkwardly together; or mention the icing-sugar dusting of pollen that coats the stamen in the centre of the flower.

Sound Symbolism: I was once engaged in a discussion with a publisher about which word was most appropriate to describe a type of glass: the snifter or brandy balloon. Snifter is the US name for this type of glass whilst balloon is the UK name. Being a UK writer, balloon was my go-to phrase when I described this in a story. However, the publisher suggested I reconsider the word and use snifter. Their argument made sense. The fiction was going to be published in the US and, as per my point above regarding specificity, it made sense to use the word readers would most easily recognise.

But I wanted to argue for holding onto balloon. The vowels in snifter, a short i and a concluding uh, don’t reflect the full rounded shape of the glass I was describing. Balloon, with that full final vowel sound and the association of roundness we have when we hear the word ‘balloon’ seemed more appropriate to my ear.

Description is a vital tool in our writing arsenal that can make readers feel as though we’ve spoken to them on a very personal level. With the careful use of specificity, detail and sound symbolism, we can ensure that the description we provide helps our readers to immerse themselves fully in  our fiction.

Once Upon a Place

In what city does Fifty Shades of Grey take place?

I had to look this up. The answer is Vancouver, Washington, but does anyone care? Does the setting matter at all in erotic fiction?

Many authors (and I suppose readers) might argue that it does not. Certainly quite a lot of the erotica and erotic romance I encounter is set in a generic urban or surburban environment without any distinctive geographic or cultural features. These tales focus entirely on the characters and the action, which apparently could be happening anywhere. The background is an undifferentiated blur.

Personally, I prefer stories that provide a strong sense of place. I guess that’s because I read erotica for the total emotional experience, not just for the sex. However, I also find that a specific, vividly depicted setting can heighten the erotic charge.

One time-honored technique in writing erotica is to use all the five senses. Our bodies are located in space, and our senses bring us messages from that space. So the roughness of the cheap blanket in the seedy hotel room—the fragrant fresh-mown grass clinging to our sweaty bodies—jazz, drifting in the window from Bourbon Street—the sticky sweetness of the ice cream we shared, before you dragged me into the cool shadows under the pier (which smells of rust and seaweed)—the distant orb of the full moon sailing above as I lie on my back with you pounding into my cunt— all these sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures combine to bring an erotic interlude to life in the imagination.

Of course, you can provide sensory details without specifying exactly where it’s all happening. As an author, though, it’s easier to conjure these details if you have a particular setting in mind.

Setting complements and enhances both character and plot. Where you come from, where you live, strongly influences who you are. A person from Boston thinks, speaks and acts quite differently from someone who comes from Los Angeles (not to mention Marseille or Singapore). Even when I don’t mention it, I almost always know my characters’ geographic histories. Not infrequently in my stories the major conflict flows from background or cultural differences between the protagonists.

Meanwhile, certain events can occur only in certain places. For instance, a devastating landslide is pivotal in my MMF tale Monsoon Fever, providing a catharsis that pulls the characters into three-way sex. That story is set in hilly Assam, India. It just wouldn’t work in Bangkok, or Venice, or Minneapolis.

I guess I’m known for my evocative and varied settings. My novels take place in Thailand, in Boston, in London and LA, in Pittsburgh, in rural Guatemala, in Paris, in Rajasthan, in Manhattan, in Worcester MA, and in northern California. I’ve written stories set in Provence, in Newport RI, in Nebraska, and in Amsterdam. I do tend to return in my writing to places I’ve lived or visited often, as I can describe them with greater ease, but I certainly haven’t been to every location that shows up in my fiction.

I wonder if readers can tell which of my settings are based on real experience, which on research and imagination.

For me, the joy of reading is being pulled into a new world, rich in detail, intense and believable. So I want to know where a story is happening—even if that location is totally fictional. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has the strongest sense of place I’ve ever encountered in a book. That’s one reason why I love it.

I try to offer my readers the same joy. I know some of you don’t care. I’m writing for those of you who do.

(If you’re one of those people, check out my new Asian Adventures series—short erotic pieces set in different Asian locales. The most recent title, set in Thailand, is Butterfly.)


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