Writing description: There is a small mailbox here.

Zork I for the Commodore 64If there’s one failing to my writing it’s probably a lack of description. This isn’t to say that I don’t include any description. I do. But when it comes to including long, laborious passages about the moss-covered flagstones or the texture of the fabric in a character’s clothes, I tend to ignore it and move on.

For me, the story is the thing. So I prefer to write about the action and let the reader fill in the details with his/her imagination.

Personally, I blame this tendency on the game developer Infocom.

Back in the 1980s, when personal computers were little more than suped-up pocket calculators, the great game designers at Infocom put out a series of video games based on the Great Underground Empire known as Zork. Go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait. … You’re back? Okay.

Unlike the early arcade games and Atari console offerings, Zork was a text adventure. No pictures, just words. And the descriptions in the game were¬†utilitarian, to say the least. If the game said the room included a table, you’d better believe there’s something on the table. A lamp? You’d better take it. Chances are you’ll need it later.

Here’s the opening description from Zork I:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

Pretty simple, right? There’s a good reason for that.¬†You see, back in the day, we didn’t have gigabytes of data storage. In fact, your average 2-sided floppy disk held less than 1 MB of data, so every bit (byte) counted. As a result — and this is pure conjecture by me — the Infocom crew didn’t put a lot of erroneous descriptions into their story because they didn’t have room.

So, back to writing and why I avoid descriptions. I don’t always do it purposefully. In fact, I admire writers who can build worlds and make me feel like I’m there. I love the way Hemingway uses the senses when he describes eating a piece of fruit, or the way Dickens can transport me to London, England. I wish I could do more of that.

But when I write, I am telling a story. I want to capture my readers as quickly as possible, to drag them along at a break-neck pace on a thrilling adventure. I don’t want to slow down and describe a sunset, because I don’t want to give them time to pause and put down the book. I want them with me for the ride, hopping from scene to scene like a child skipping through a game of hopscotch.

To do this, I write a lot of dialogue and keep the description to a minimum. And if there is a lamp on the table, you can bet one of my characters is going to need it. Because sooner or later, they’ll discover the awful truth:

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

> Light lamp.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.


  • Ted Boone says:

    Zork Reference = You Win. Nicely done.

    • Ashley says:

      Yes. Any time I’m reminded of the great Grue menace is a good time. Though I’ve never actually played Zork. Husband references it.

      But Kevin, I’m with you entirely. I generally assume the reader is going to fill in the bulk of the description without me describing the exact shade of the character’s eyes — but whenever I see writers who can craft a perfectly visual scene I weep with envy.

      WEEP, I tell you.

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