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How much descriptive detail?

c m
Less can be more

It seems to be obligatory in many gay stories to go into some detail about what the protagonists look like. Hair and eye colour. Full lips. Snub nose. Smooth. Hairy. Height and weight. Not to mention the details - sometimes exhaustive - on what hangs between their legs.

Now sometimes this is fine; sometimes it may even be necessary to understand part of the storyline. But it is a habit that's easy to get into and hard to kick, and one that is not always necessary - or even desirable.

For example, instead of all that detail, what happens if you just describe someone as having 'boy next door' looks? Well, what happens is that the reader can construct a picture of what they understand by that. If each reader wrote down what those looks were, they would all be different. So why go nap on YOUR version of it by describing it in detail?

Let me give you an, almost extreme, example.

In 'Andrew' by The Composer, in the course of sixteen chapters, we are told virtually nothing at all about what Andrew looks like other than that he is black; the most we get told is:

'When I had been younger, I had been really skinny. I wasn't as skinny now. I didn't have muscles though.'

That's it. For the rest, we are left to imagine what a sexy, teenage black boy looks like. My idea of that is most likely different from yours - but this way we both get to have the picture we want.

So far as the other protagonist, Charles, is concerned, we get a little more but nothing very detailed - and what we get is spread out over the chapters:

'He wasn't actually that much taller than me, but he was quite solid. He wasn't what you would call good-looking, but he wasn't ugly either.'

'I could see his arms, with a fine layer of hair. Golden hair, which the light had caught.'

'He was fit. He hadn't gone flabby like most men do.'

'He was also quite hairy. A line of hair began at his belly button, and ran down to his bush.'

And of the few descriptive words used, many are very general - 'solid', 'good-looking', 'fit'.

I'm not saying that this is universal good practice that should always be followed, I'm just suggesting that mixing it up a bit more than we may do by instinct is something to try from time to time. Trust your reader; give them a go in the driving seat when it comes to creating a picture of what your characters look like.

…and while we're on the subject of the benefits of 'under rather than over' describing things, a word about adjectives. Qualifying every noun with an adjective is a disease. And when someone's got it bad they use two, or even three, adjectives on each poor, little, defenceless noun. (OK, so that was three, but you are allowed to do it occasionally. It's a bit like eating cream cakes. Too many are overwhelming but, yes, you are allowed the occasional blow-out).

Compare the following:

'The room contained just a table and a chair. On the table was an empty glass. The windows hadn't been cleaned in years, and the curtains had faded to grey'.

(Just one adjective)


'The dull, featureless, L-shaped room contained just a small, battered wooden table and a chair with a stained, threadbare, purple cover. On the table was an empty, thick-rimmed glass. The grimy, cobwebbed windows hadn't been cleaned in many years, and the heavy, green, velvet curtains, had faded to a dull, flat grey'.

(Eighteen adjectives)

The first may be too plain (although it has the advantage of allowing the reader to create their own detailed picture) but the second has had the make-up applied with a trowel. And like make-up, adjectives work to best effect when they are applied sparingly. Sometimes you can even leave a noun completely naked. I think we all appreciate naked from time to time.


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