The art of description – better too little than too much!

By Anna Belfrage 

Whenever summer comes around, chances are I’ll be slouching in the shade reading a Lee Child novel. There is something very comforting about reading his books. Jack Reacher always survives, is always on the side of good, and the pace is fast and gripping. It is also a relief to read something outside my own genre, as the reading experience becomes more relaxed when I don’t go “Ooooo, that was an elegant insertion of historical detail” or “OMG: I wish I had written that!” or “That can’t be right, can it? A match in the 18th century?” (turns out it was – sort of).

So I read Lee Child to relax – except I don’t, because Mr Child is an expert at succinct descriptions, a few word sufficing to paint a person, a location, a situation, and I read and reread, because seriously, to describe your characters is an art. As a writer, I have a very clear picture of what my protagonists look like – but the moment I turn them over to the public in a published book, I’m also inviting the readers to form their own images, and to do so I must describe some things but not all things.

Take, for example, Adam de Guirande, tall and rugged 14th century knight. Now I know exactly what he looks like – all over.

“No you don’t,” Adam objects. “It’s not as if you’ve seen me stark naked.”

Days of Sun & Glory Anna BelfrageUmm…I sure have. I’ve seen him in the bath, I’ve seen him curled up in a dungeon, I’ve seen him hoisting his little son up in the air, I’ve seen him kissing his wife. More importantly, I’ve experienced his fears and hopes, lived through his rushes of adrenaline, felt the indescribable pain of having a mallet slammed through his foot (my toes curl) felt his heart beat faster when he sees his Kit, cried with him for Roger Mortimer when he’s dragged off in chains, hated Hugh Despenser as fervently as Adam does – the whole gamut of emotions experienced by an adult man torn apart by his loyalties in a time of severe unrest.

In each and every one of these situations, I know exactly what my fair-haired knight looks like. I know if he’s unshaven, if he has bags under his eyes, if there’s egg-yolk on his tunic (“Never,” Adam says, sounding quite offended. He’s wrong. A weakened man does not always eat as neatly as he’d like.) But I don’t impose all these visuals on my readers. I just drop some details – his scruffy hair in one scene, a vulnerable set to his mouth in another, a narrowing of his grey eyes in a third.

Other than Adam being tall, fair, grey-eyed and with a thin scar running down his face, I leave the rest of him up to my readers’ imagination. Does he have a long nose? Is there a dimple on his chin? Do his brows grow bushier towards the temples? I know, obviously, but I’ll allow each and every person who develops a relationship with Adam to decide those things for themselves. That way, they can make Adam their own. Well: He’s mine, but I can share him. (So as to avoid having my eyes scratched out by Adam’s wife, Kit, I hasten to add that ultimately he is her man, not mine. Of course.)

Lee Child has perfected a similar approach. After twenty odd Jack Reacher books, I dare say all readers have their own impression of what he might look like, and the only thing the avid Lee Child readers will agree on is that he does not look like Tom Cruise. At all. For starters, Jack Reacher is big – like very, very big. And then…Ah: that’s right, we don’t know much more than that, do we? More to the point, we don’t need to – we all have the imagination required to fill in the details.

Well, after this little reflection, I return to my Lee Child book. The tea in my cup grows cold, I even forget to eat my digestive biscuit. Hours fly by, and suddenly it is dinner time and people are asking me what’s for dinner – despite the huge advances in gender equality, some things remain unchanged: Mama is responsible for feeding the hordes. Okay, okay: hordes is an exaggeration – the Belfrage summer household varies between six and nine people.

Fortunately, dinner is a quick affair – and even better, it is a perennial summer favourite. A perfect dish when you have other things to do but cook, and still want to serve up something tasty. And as the main ingredients is shrimps, it is also a very typical Swedish dish – we like our seafood – in this case spiced up with some Spanish aioli.

Crap I with Sauce Anna BelfrageSalt-fried shrimps with aioli

Put on the oven, 225 – 250 degrees C (430 – 480 degrees F), grill function

Cover the bottom a frying pan with 1-2 cm (half an inch or so) of coarse salt. Note! Use a frying pan which can be put in the oven – i.e. no plastic details. I use a cast iron thing that weighs a ton and can be used as a murder weapon.

Fill the frying pan with shrimps – boiled and in their shells. Set them on their “bottom” so that the heads point upwards.

Place the pan on the stove – maximum heat. Heat until the salt starts steaming and the shrimps start whitening (3-5 minutes – no more than 5 minutes)

Put the frying pan in the oven, as close to the grill as possible. 1-2 minutes.

Take out, place the frying pan on the table, serve with aioli and bread.


3 egg yolks

1 garlic clove, grated

1-2 tsp dried oregano crumbled

3-4 pinches of salt (I use Maldon salt)

½ tsp Dijon mustard

The juice of ½ lemon

2 -3 dl (about a cup) of neutral oil (I use rape-seed oil)

Mix eggs, garlic, salt, lemon juice, oregano and mustard (use an electric mixer)

Add oil in a drizzle – too much and the aioli will scramble. You don’t want that, you want a smooth sauce. If you feel the sauce is too thick after adding all the oil, you can add some more oil – or some lukewarm water (like 2 tablespoons or so)

Right: and with this I must leave you. Jack Reacher calls, and I just know that unless I keep an eye on him, he might end up in trouble. Come to think of it, Jack Reacher is ALWAYS in trouble.



Annna_Belfrage 2015

Anna Belfrage is the author of the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, winner of multiple awards, including the HNS Indie Award 2015 and eight BRAG medallions. Her new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015 and is also the recipient of a BRAG medallion. The next book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out and Anna urges you to “enter a world of political intrigue, follow Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer as they invade England, watch my protagonists Adam de Guirande and his wife Kit navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.”

If you want to know more about Anna, drop by her webpage or her blog!


The comments, advice and opinions expressed here are those of authors whose books have been honored with a B.R.A.G. Medallion. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the owners, management, or employees of indieBRAG, LLC.

3 responses to “The art of description – better too little than too much!”

  1. Anna Belfrage says:

    Thank you for hosting me! And may I add the shrimps are nicely complemented with fresh raspberries and cream for dessert 🙂

  2. Alison Morton says:

    Absolutely agree. Robert Harris is another writer who conjures up characters with a few succinct words. He is my writing muse/genius/inspiration.

    And I must try your recipe…

  3. Geri Clouston says:

    It is amazing what a few important words of description can do for a reader. Each of us paints our own hero and that is why it is often such a point of discussion when a movie of a book casts the main characters. We may envision someone completely different and be disappointed in the movie makers vision. In some cases – Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird- they capture you’re your perfect image!

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