Adventure into Romance with Shelley Munro
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January 18th, 2010
A White Box

A book is a sum of things—characters, setting and description, dialogue, pace and plot. It’s the combination of all of these elements, done in the right way that makes a book exciting and sought after by readers.

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It takes a lot of work to get a book to a standard that’s saleable. My first drafts are like white boxes. People inhabit the white box—my characters that is, but they’re quiet and in shock from the lack of scenery. It’s all white in there, after all.

During the first stages, my characters are a bit superficial and half the time they have no idea what they’re doing, what their purpose is in the box. It’s almost like the first run through of a play where the cast are strangers and feeling their way into their parts.

It’s during the second and third run through that I add the color and turn my white box into a real world, complete with real people. Adding setting and description is a skill I’ve fought to learn—it certainly doesn’t come naturally.

Not so long ago, it was normal to read very flowery descriptions in books. These days descriptions in fiction are briefer and spare at times.

Here’s a paragraph from Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer.

The Apparition wore a coat of the palest apricot cloth, with a flowered vest of fine brocade, and startling white small-clothes. Red-heeled shoes were on his feet, and his stockings were adorned by sprawling golden clocks. He carried an amber-clouded can and a jeweled snuff-box, while ever and anon he raised a cobwebby handkerchief to his aristocratic nose. He minced down the street towards the market-place, followed by the awestricken glances of an amazed population.

That’s a lot of description for one person, although I have to say I’d love to see him in person. You probably won’t find this amount of description in a modern romance, not focused on one person. We’re more likely to add it in more sparingly in bits and pieces.

This snippet is taken from Dark Lover by JR Ward.

When she was finished with the Twinkie, she flipped open her phone, hit speed dial, and put in an order for beef with broccoli. As she walked along, she looked at the familiar, grim landmarks. Along this stretch of Trade Street, there were only bars, strip clubs, and the occasional tattoo parlor. The Chinese food place and the Tex-Mex buffet were the only two restaurants. The rest of the buildings, which had been used as offices in the twenties, when downtown had been thriving, were vacant. She knew every crack in the sidewalk; she could time the traffic lights. And the patois of sounds drifting out of open doors and windows offered no surprises either.

With this paragraph, we get a little characterization along with a feel for the neighborhood. We learn that although the district is run down, the place is home for our heroine.

In another book, that shall remain nameless, the description of a room sounded like a shopping list. It mentioned an antique rug, hardwood floors, a Victorian sofa and the color of the brocade, a coffee table and the type of wood, the silver tea service on top, two Victorian chairs, a gas fireplace, silver-framed photo frames, the photos inside them, the mantelpiece, a cherry and glass counter and quite a few other things.

The actual story wasn’t too bad, but this description, done list style, made me roll my eyes. I’ve edited the list quite a bit. The descriptions took up over half a page.

What I try to do is show the character experiencing the setting, give sensory details. I show them walking across a thick carpet and wondering if their shoes are going to get lost in the pile or holding out their hands to catch snowflakes, feeling the cold and dampness or tasting it melt on their tongue. They might notice the cars buried in snow or hear the chains on the tires as they fight for purchase. I try to involve the character’s senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing to make the description come alive.

Here’s a paragraph taken from Tea For Two by Shelley Munro

“I see a line of dots.” Hayley Williams peered solemnly into her customer’s white china teacup. Outside her colorful curtain-partitioned area of the tea tent, children shrieked with excitement as they lined up for the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round. Her assistant chatted to one of the ladies in charge of the tea, extolling the high points of a reading by Madam Deveraux. Somewhere in the distance, a toddler howled and a brass band played “Rock Around the Clock”. Closer, touts shouted spasmodically about the exciting things available at their stalls. The clatter of china and the muted gossip of the ladies in the makeshift café added to the cacophony of fairground sounds.

For me this is actually quite a long description, but I hope it plops you right in the middle of a fairground.

When it comes to describing characters, I’m typically very brief because as a reader, I like to imagine myself as the heroine. If there’s too much description I think it gets in the way of my imagination. Just a brief hair color, eyes, build etc is all I need. You might think differently.

How much description do you like to read in your books? Do you like lots of description or a bare minimum? Do you like detailed description of characters? And writers: what approach do you use when it comes to description? Do you have a white box like me or is your world colorful from the start?

6 comments to “A White Box”

  1. I’m with you on this one, although I am bad about describing clothing/atmosphere/surroundings too often from time to time. I think a bit of description is great, it’s overkill you have to watch out for.

    Great topic! :wink:


  2. I like some description but not three pages of it describing one brick in a wall. Ya know what I mean. I actually stopped reading Anne Rice because her books were so filled with more discriptiveness than substance for me. I like enough description let’s say about how the male character looks to make my mouth water, but not so much that I get bored and couldn’t care less anymore.


  3. I’m one of those people who skip over paragraphs of description to get back into the action. I like to see enough to set a scene, but as a writer I believe you need to let the reader use their own imagination. Too much description might interfere with their reading experience. I want them to relate to my characters, the setting and the story and they have to feel invested in it too. Too much detail shoved at them can ruin this process I think. When I start to write I usually have big splashes of bright neon colors that I need to tone down and spread out a bit. These usually end up being the turning points for the novel interestingly. For me, my characters come pretty much fully formed. I just have to put them in the right places at interesting times to string the plot together. Great post!


  4. That was a great post. Explained the differences well and showed how romance books have changed over the years. I wish those that turn up their noses at romance books would read one that’s on the market today. They’d learn that things have changed for the better.

    I have a little white box too when I start out. (great example btw) My second round, I add the details.


  5. I’m glad you all enjoyed the post. I’m still in Wellington enjoying the sunshine. :grin:

    Kaily – great point about writers needing to let the readers use their imaginations. For me that’s part of the reading experience. It’s funny how you can discuss a book with friends and we all have a different vision of the characters.


  6. Yes, I don’t enjoy an overabundance of descriptions either. I like to imagine part of it in my head while I’m reading. If there’s too much, nothing left for me to fantasize about.