Description and Visuals

Writers usually think about their hook when starting a new story. What interesting, exciting, or captivating thing can they write to best draw the reader into the narrative, to hook them? Starting a book with too much description, either about main characters or setting, is usually a no-no. We don’t want to bore readers with these details, no matter how important, necessary, or interesting they are. This is where books are severely at a disadvantage compared to movies.

Books typically have to introduce contextual information slowly. Movies don’t. The visual is there, right from the beginning.

This concept was most obvious to me earlier this week while I was reading The Magicians and Beautiful Creatures. In the latter, the reader isn’t informed until page 85 that the main character’s bedroom, where most of the scenes take place up to that point, “was lined with stacks of shoeboxes, some three of four feet high.” So the kid is a packrat-hoarder and sort of weird, and it isn’t until page 85 that the reader learns this. Meanwhile, I suspect that the movie version of the book would inform us of that information in the very first scene. How strange is it to think about how slowly we get to know Ethan when reading the book compared to having an instant visual of him in the movie?

Not entirely sure this image is from the movie, but Ethan is reading that book in the first scene. What little you can see of his bedroom in the background is NOT how I picture it from the book at all. 

How Lev Grossman opens The Magicians is even more interesting. It begins with the main character, Quentin, walking down the street with two of his friends. In my paperback, the story begins on page three. On page four, we learn that Quentin is thin and tall with shoulder length hair freezing in clumps. On page 5, we learn what he is wearing and that he is walking down 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. Suddenly the scene, what I had been visualizing, changed in light of that information. In the next paragraph, Grossman describes the setting.

Now sure, all of this happens in the first three pages, and that sounds like a job well done. But interspersed with all these character and setting revelations are large paragraphs of Quentin’s back story, describing his education, his parents, his resentment towards his peers, etcetera. As a reader, the descriptions kept tripping me up in a way, resetting the images in my mind.

I haven’t seen the series The Magicians yet, but this single image immediately conveys a lot of information about Quentin and his setting.

Visual portrayals are not necessarily better…they’re different, easier for the audience. It’s something to think about as a writer. Not only how and when should character and setting visuals be established, but also, what is the most important information to convey? How can we convey it seamlessly so that the reader doesn’t find it jarring or unnatural? No one likes info dumps involving the main character studying themselves in a mirror.

I don’t have the answers. I think the how and when of revealing physical characteristics in scenes varies widely depending on the genre of the novel and the action of the scene. It is a judgement of importance that the author needs to make. What is most significant, or what is it that readers need to know at that particular moment?

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 2.44.23 PM

Now I’m intrigued by this idea of movie visuals compared to what’s written in books. I may do a post juxtaposing descriptive lines with images of what was depicted in their movie renditions.

What are you thoughts all of this? Any advice on how and when to write descriptions? Do you prefer reading books before or after seeing the movie? Do all movies made about books pale in comparison to their original source?


7 thoughts on “Description and Visuals

  1. These are tough questions. Put appearance right up front and people cry, “We don’t care”. Wait too long and they say, “That’s not how I imagined her.” I don’t know if there’s an optimal solution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think gradual is the way to go usually, but it didn’t work for me in The Magicians. It felt like too important of information for him to hold back on. I don’t mind quick descriptions early on, but they can stand out awkwardly if not done well. 😕😓

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, you’ve got to have some important info right up front. If the reader had to stop and reconceptualize, that’s bad. I’ve had that problem with not making my MC’s gender immediately clear. Readers assumed she was a man and were thrown out of the story to discover otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fascinating! I was actually pondering the other day if it would be possible to write an entire novel without specifying the gender of the MC. I started Beautiful Creatures thinking it was a female MC. When she thought about being in love with another female, I thought sisterly love then ‘whoa! homosexual relationship? neato!’ But then it was just a male MC, not female 😂


  3. It’s definitely a balancing act: too much or too little can be aggravating (unless there’s a BIG payoff the author has waiting for me). Personally, I like to have the MC’s physical and locational descriptions pretty early on, with background stuff unfolding in conversations with other characters or as the story goes along. Info dumps with lots of important facts aren’t as memorable to me as reading about the character having a reaction to something and then getting an explanation as to why (because of a childhood incident, etc.).


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