Monday, September 26, 2011

At Issue: Description

I hear quite often from readers that they don’t like “too much description” in their stories. In contrast, I often say that I love description. I’ve finally figured out what the difference is. Or I think I have. And it’s genre based.

I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and in those genres good description is absolutely necessary to the enjoyment of a story. If you’re introducing me to an alien race, or letting me explore an alien landscape, or taking me to an exotic fantasy world, you darn well better give me enough description to center me in the world you’re trying to create. If it’s something readers haven’t seen before, then the writer needs to do the “seeing” first and relay that information to the readers so they don’t get lost as the story moves along.

On the other hand, if you’re writing mystery or crime fiction, or mainstream fiction, then you don’t need to give the readers a detailed description of a hotel bar, or a shopping mall, or a contemporary dining room. The readers have seen these and need only the bare essentials to place themselves firmly in that scene.

Let me give a couple of examples. I was reading a fantasy novel back years ago and there were numerous references to people riding “horses.” Then, at about 80 pages in, I found a sentence that mentioned one of the “horses” as having fangs and claws. I was pretty put out. When you describe something as a “horse,” the reader is going to get a certain visual image that will not include fangs and claws. If the creature really is a horse the reader doesn’t need any more description that that, but if it’s something different than a horse the author better give us enough description to let us know. To do less is to cheat and disrespect the reader.

The second example I have comes from a contemporary thriller. The hero went into a business office and had to wait to see the boss. We then got a page and a half description of the waiting area, from the secretary’s desk, to the chairs, to some boxes piled up along one wall. Say what! I thought maybe the office had some important role to play later in the book, but that was not the case. The author just decided to describe in detail a scene that pretty much everyone has seen.

The fantasy novel had too little description; the thriller had too much.

I do find, however, that I can forgive too much description more easily than I can too little. I can always skip over useless description, but I can’t fill in what isn’t there in the first place. And many genres need that extra description. Historical stories, for example, need more than contemporary ones. I also find that I prefer descriptions of natural landscapes to those of human ones. I really don’t want to read a description of a mall, but I rather like descriptions of a desert range or a wild swamp.

Finally, the best kind of description, in any genre, is that which sets a mood in addition to giving the basic elements of setting. I see this particularly in horror fiction, where the author describes a common setting, like a mall, but does it in such a way as to create a sense of menace. Any story can benefit from this kind of thing, though.

Ultimately, as is often said of dialogue, if description can be made to serve more than one purpose, both the author and the reader win. I’m one reader who’ll certainly be happy.

28 comments:

Angie said...

That pretty much agrees with a rule I try to follow -- beyond a certain minimum (living room, university library, coffee shop) that'll bring an image into pretty much everyone's head, you tell the reader what's different. It was a shabby living room with avocado-flocked wallpaper that was peeling in places, or it was a shiny chrome coffee shop with a big, mud-spattered tank sitting in the middle of it, with the remains of a few crushed tables and chairs sticking out from under its treads. That sort of thing -- the basic that the reader can imagine, and then the special bits they'll only see if you describe them. :)

That said, I'll admit description in fiction isn't my strong point; I have to deliberately remember to include much at all. Maybe it was all those years working in a text-based online roleplaying game, where 90% of the writing was description that made me sick of doing it, although when I get going I'm pretty good. :P If you want to hone your description skills, go work for one of those games. Twenty unique descriptions of bare stone corridor, or fifty descriptions of bramble-lined dirt path will either drive you crazy or turn you into a Description Master. [wry smile]

Angie

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, you are so right about different genres. The speculative genres often need that description so the reader has a sense of the place and/or time. In fantasy and sci-fi, sometimes even something as simple as lighting has to be explained or shown, just so the reader can understand a scenario.

G said...

I agree that you're treading a fine line when you're writing description. Even though its one of my strong points, I still have to battle on a daily/weekly basis on trying to find the right blend of too much/too little.

Not sure why, but I find it easier to write description for people as opposed to places and things.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I love writing description but having to write it for those games might change my mind it sounds like.

Ty, in writing more mainstream stuff or stuff set in the real world,I often have to think how to describe the situation. I don't want to give too much, or too little.

G., I'm the opposite in that I find it easier to describe landscapes and such than people. Not sure why that is.

Ron Scheer said...

As a technical writer, I learned the difference between need-to-know and nice-to-know information. The first is critical; the second can get in the way of the first. What you say here, Charles, nicely draws the line between the two.

David J. West said...

I like a balance-I greatly prefer genre reading but some of the phonebook size fantasy novels have too much description for me too & I'm like "Get on with the story!"

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, thanks. That's a nice way to put it, need to know vs nice to know.

David J., I know what you mean. I can't even get started into those tomes. A lot of times it's not just excess description but what I see as excess characters.

BernardL said...

Yep, the tightrope walk between description and filler can be hazardous to the plot. I can forgive either if the story's good, and I don't care about either if it's not.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernarld, although I prefer a well plotted story, I have been known to read a book just for the beautiful langauge. it's a slow reading but it's kind of like reading poetry.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Definitely genre based. If you are describing another world, it's a totally different from describing what a 2011 man is wearing or looks like. Our imagination can not extend that far.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Makes sense different genres require different levels of description. I probably still lean toward less description though. Guess I have a good enough imagination to fill in what's missing.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Unfortunately some descriptions feel as if the author put them there to fill up the page count. That puts me off greatly and I find a few of my favorite authors whose books I put down at the second or third chapter because they spent so much time with describing one scene that the story was lost in the process.

As for too little description: that has the same effect. There is a fine balance. Description can be in context of the characters, colored by their perspectives, which keeps the story moving along.

Charles Gramlich said...

pattinase (abbott), your post last week about description helped me formulate these thoughts. Much appreciated.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, but not all your readers might have that kind of imagination. It’s a delicate balance, of course. You don’t want to overload the readers with good imaginations but don’t want to undermine those who struggle a bit more with imagery.

Jewel Amethyst, good point. I think the description from the POV of the characters is particularly important and salient.

Erik Donald France said...

Agreed. The more different from the every day present, the more helpful are the telling details folded in.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, I think so, for sure.

X. Dell said...

I've always been of the thought that description should be as brief as possible--just enough to bring the reader to the scene. The writers I like best are those who don't have long descriptive passages.

Naturally, if the world is alien, it requires a bit more description. Then again, even in those stories (e.g. Taleria) while there were a few exotic concepts (e.g. an artificial planet) or species, there are still a lot of analogues to the human experience.

Jodi MacArthur said...

Interesting. I've noticed that in some stories I write more description, and in other stories more quipped settings. I never considered why, just figured that was what the story needed. Your posts always make me think I need to think more. Ha. ;-) I appreciate you.

Captain Black said...

I prefer it when description is worked into the story, rather than done in large chunks. This is true even for SF genres as well. I also think it's important, as Jewel said, to give the descriptions through the eyes of a character, otherwise you risk it reading like an information dump.

A character who's in a scene would not think in terms of big descriptions, since they are (usually) familiar with their surroundings. Instead they would just internally describe whatever they are currently focussing on.

Angie said...

CB -- I think that's one of the reasons outsiders are so popular as POV characters; as they learn about the setting, the situation, the gizmo, the curse, the whatever, the reader can learn with them, in a much more organic manner than if the author gave them a page and a half of infodump lecturing.

Angie

oceangirl said...

I get it. It is like acting in a movie is not the same as acting on stage.

Charles Gramlich said...

X. Dell, I think that’s why SF and fantasy also relies fairly heavily on metaphor and simile, to make comparisons between an alien thing and some earth like object or phenomenon, and why in the Talera books I make comments about the so and so race are called the “Dog people.”

Jodi MacArthur, thinking is overrated, but I enjoy it. :)

Captain Black, agreed. I don’t like soliloquies, where the description runs on and on. I do want it to have a bearing on the story, although I don’t mind taking a step back and enjoying the scenery for a paragraph. Much more than that and you do want to get back to the story.


Angie, yes, in the Talera books, of course, Ruenn is from Earth so he has to describe some of the things if only for himself when they are so alien to him

Oceangirl, yes, I think that’s a good analogy.

Tyhitia Green said...

Charles,

Very informative post. It really made me think about description and what I like and don't like about its use.

And more importantly, it made me think about how I will revise my novel. Thanks! :)

laughingwolf said...

agreed, charles

when it comes to screenplays, tv scripts, or even stage plays, the main idea is always: 'show, don't tell', in other words, if the character is doing something, one does not need a detailed narration of the action

the director decides what to emphasize, usually in camera angles, except on stage, of course

The Golden Eagle said...

I like your point about description setting the mood of a story--a book in one genre usually has a feel completely different from that in another genre.

Great post!

Charles Gramlich said...

Tyhitia, well I guess it was a good thing then. thanks.

Laughing wolf, that's one big advantage that visual media have over literature.

Golden Eagle, thanks. Mood is all important in a book, at least to me.

jodi said...

Charles, I like clear but efficient descriptions, too much detail and I lose interest.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, yes, it's easily to confuse the reader with too much attention to detail. The reader has a feeling that something that is covered in detail must be important so it's important to keep that kind of promise.

eric1313 said...

As I often remember from a wise teacher: "Anyone can take down all of the details. That's called a list. A good writer knows the right details."

And yes, I think that if you can use those 'right' details to characterize something, making the fantastic accessible, or the mundane extraordinary in some way, you should do that.

At this very moment I'm taking a break from a page I need to pay more attention to. Writing my first story in a long time. After too much thought and too long idling, I'm beginning to move.

And this was the kind of post that truly helps. You have a knack for that as of late, bringing up posts that help me to set about the story I am envisioning. From creation of myth, to handling of details. I feel better about it each time I read around these parts.