Skip to main content

No Description Dumps! Crafting a Story With Details & Immersion

Image placeholder title

Today's guest post is by Jim Adam. It is part of a series on
storytelling and The Strengths of the Potter Series. Check out Jim's
book, Motherless.

Rowling’s
boxes of notes for the Potter universe are legendary. Those notes
translated into highly detailed characters and settings that captivated
readers. As much as the details themselves, Rowling’s careful selection
of which details to use—and which to exclude—illuminated the story
world without derailing the flow of the story itself.

Generally,
when a major character appears for the first time in the Potter series,
they receive one paragraph dedicated to their physical description—a
description that often ties into that character’s personality.

These descriptions never degenerate into a bland list of details, nor are these mechanical “head to toe” descriptions.

Instead, the descriptions pick a select number of key features which,
taken together, allow readers to form a mental picture of the person in
question.

The first description of Harry, for example, covers
the color of his hair and eyes, his glasses (held together with tape),
his scar, and his scrawny build—accentuated by his hand-me-down
clothes. Even though this is Harry we’re talking about, his physical
description doesn’t appear the moment we meet him. Instead, we first
see Harry waking up in his closet, dusting off a coating of spiders,
getting dressed, and being ragged on by Aunt Petunia. Only then does
the story pause to describe his appearance.

Also, the story
uses this first bit of description to point out that Harry’s life has
been a difficult one. The tape on his glasses is there because Dudley
picks on him. His scrawny build might have something to do with living
in a cupboard. His hand-me-down clothes imply an impoverished
childhood, one where Harry is a second-class citizen in the Dursley
home.

Another key feature of Harry’s appearance, his unruly
hair, comes out not in the first bit of description, but several
paragraphs later, in response to Uncle Vernon’s telling Harry to comb
his hair. Here again, a descriptive passage is made to do double duty,
this time illustrating Harry’s relationship to his uncle (the passage
focuses not on the exact appearance of our hero’s hair but on how his
unruly hair makes his life difficult).

By weaving
details in as part of ongoing action, the Potter series keeps those
details from being distracting. Instead, the descriptions become a
natural part of the flow of events.

Settings
receive a similar treatment. Minor settings, such as the Reptile House,
are described in a few sentences—enough to ground the reader, but
without belaboring a setting that will appear only once in the story.
This understanding of proper emphasis is another sign of an author who
knows what story she’s telling, who recognizes what is central and what
is ancillary, and who consciously places emphasis on key characters and
settings, not letting minor figures distract the reader or delay the
progress of the story.

As for a major setting like Hogwarts, details still aren’t dropped on the reader in a single blob. Instead, they filter out as needed.

We gets hints about the school when Hagrid makes his appearance at the
cottage on a rock. A few more tidbits come out during the trip to
Diagon Alley, where Harry first hears about Quidditch and the four
school houses. Then, when Harry first lays eyes on Hogwarts, the event
is covered in a single sentence! This again shows that the goal is to
keep the story moving forward, rather than reveal how much research the
writer has done.

What we see in the Potter series is not only a
depth of detail, but also a solid control over those details.
Descriptions don’t necessarily appear the moment a character or setting
is encountered, and most descriptions are dribbled out over time rather
than plopped down all at once. The result is that the Potter universe
feels layered and immense, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed or
bored. This is how it is supposed to be done!

Next in series: Showing and Telling

Looking for more help on the craft of fiction? Check out our Elements of Fiction series:

Photo credit: orngejuglr

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

Author Anat Deracine found her agent at Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned to help other writers become authors. Here are her 5 tips for successfully pitching literary agents in person.

Tips for Reading Poetry in Front of an Audience

8 Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Front of an Audience

Poet's Market editor and published poet Robert Lee Brewer shares eight tips for reading your poetry in front of an audience.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character lose their powers.

Sharon Short | Point of View Quote 1

Managing Point of View: Mythbusting

In the first of this three-part series, novelist and WD columnist Sharon Short breaks down 7 of the most common myths about choosing which POV is right for your story.

Channel Your Inner Authorpreneur for Your Writing Labor of Love

Channel Your Inner Authorpreneur for Your Writing Labor of Love

As self-publishing continues to become an attractive and popular options for writers, it’s important to know what you’re getting into and to have the right expectations. Here, author and entrepreneur Tom Vaughan shares how to channel your inner “authorpreneur” to help your book find its readers.

Mark Kurlansky: On Coincidences Driving Memoir

Mark Kurlansky: On Coincidences Driving Memoir

Award-winning author, playwright, and journalist Mark Kurlansky discusses the experience of channeling Ernest Hemingway in his new memoir, The Importance of Not Being Ernest.

In-Between: Writer's Digest 2nd Annual Personal Essay Awards Winner

In-Between: Writer's Digest 2nd Annual Personal Essay Awards Winner

Congratulations to Alyssa Rickert, Grand Prize winner of the 2nd Annual Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards. Here's her winning essay, "In Between."