Description in Your Novel: All or Nothing or Somewhere in Between: Where Do You Stand?
Do you enjoy reading long passages of in-depth description of settings and character? Do you hate being bogged down with too much description? How much is too much? How little is not enough? It's a confusing issue, especially for newer writers. Experts, agents, publishers, and published authors seem to have conflicting opinions on the subject.
Many writers believe that you shouldn't go into too much detail in your narrative. They find it boring. I've read just about every book on the craft of writing and I've read conflicting advice on this topic. Some writer's and readers don't even like for the author to provide a physical description of the main characters in the novel. They like to form their own picture, in their mind of what the character looks like. I've read books and blog post (No- I cannot think of the particular authors right now) by writers who are disappointed when the character's description contradicts the image they have already conjured up in their mind.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you will find experts, like novelist and professional book doctor, Jeff Gerke, author of The First 50 Pages, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, and Plot Versus Character. There are many more professionals who share Gerke's view on the description issue, but he is the one who came to mind as I began writing this blog post.
In his book The First 50 Pages, Gerke discusses the school of thought that says the author should never describe anything or anyone. "Let the readers see my places as he will," and I will never dictate anything to the reader, is the motto of this school of thought. Gerke, quickly points out that he is not of this school. His opinion is that the choice not to describe, is better attributed to simple laziness than to artistic individualism and the let it be notion. Gerke quits reading a book, after page one, if he cannot picture the people and the places.
I read all genres, but I'm partial to mystery/suspense, thriller, legal thrillers, and other crime fiction and I don't find as much description in these genres as in the chick-lit, YA, and other books that I read. I suppose it's because, thriller writers concentrate more on action. I love action, but too much action is a turn off for me. I'm not into speeding car chase after car chase...after car chase. I need a breather; I need to come up for air.
I fall somewhere in the middle of the two schools of thought. I need to be grounded in the book that I am reading, and that requires some description. I admit, however, that I am not a fan of long, flowery prose and I really don't like description overkill.
I read a book last summer (I am not going to give the title or name the author, because, It was clearly not my favorite read), but it was a legal thriller and the author is considered a celebrity of sorts. I was boggled down with the author's description of the character's clothing and her lavish meals. At times, I felt like I was reading a travel guide, highlighting the eating and drinking hotspots of L.A. Other times, I was certain, I had picked up a copy of Vogue or a Neiman Marcus catalog.
Every time the protagonist changed clothes (which was often), the reader was given a detailed description of the clothing, the name brand, store that said outfit was purchased from and how exceptional the beautiful protagonist looked in the alluring, sensible, casual, or- just-for-fun attire.
Likewise, every time the main character enjoyed a meal or cocktail, the reader was given an overly detailed description of the bar or restaurant, from the outside landscaping, bushes, flower beds, type of concrete walkway- to the interior colors, ambiance, bar stools, decor, paintings on the wall, the gold piping on the cobalt and ecru colored dinner plates to a run down of the entire menu, including the twenty or so appetizers, salads, entrees and deserts that she contemplated.
Whew! I had to come up for air, just thinking about those long, descriptive passages that the author drowned me (and the story) in.
I recognize that I am in the minority, when it comes to reading descriptive passages, but I tend to skip over large chunks of block text that does nothing but describe a person, place or event that is not pertinent to the story and is not necessary to move the story forward. I want the writer to give me a physical description of the main characters, but I am not going to quit reading on page one, if they have not done so. I much prefer getting to know the characters in the books I read, by their actions and dialogue. I can form a vivid image of a hunky hero or a bitchy main character, by the way he or she acts, reacts, treats others, speaks to others, and how other characters view him or her.
Before writing this blog post, I re-read certain parts of my favorite novels to find what I like best about how the authors managed the issue of too much vs. not enough description, and this is what I discovered.
1. Great authors manage to slip description in without me recognizing it as a descriptive passage. They find ways to blend it into the story.
2.Use all five senses for description. Smell and touch are often overlooked, but both convey more with less.
3. Pain, balance and weather are are effective conduits of description
4. I like when an author uses movement as a method of setting description, by letting the setting unfold, little by little as the character moves through the scene.
Denise Robbins, wrote a good article about description, a while back, but I found it very informative and useful. Here is an excerpt, from her blog post, Description in Fiction that really brought it home for me:
A good, effective description evokes a vivid picture, drawing the reader into the story by allowing him/her to experience it through sensory detail, yet leaves the interpretation open enough so that if you ask any two readers what they "see," they will tell you something different. A well-written description moves the story along and adds to characterization.
Notice that last sentence. Description is not meant to be “filler”. Good description moves the story along. Remember, you do not want to bore the reader.
Too much or too little? It's all in the eye of the reader. Where do you stand? Do you enjoy detailed description when you read or do you prefer the bare bones minimum, just enough to orient you to the story? Somewhere in between? What about when you write? Do you use a little, a lot or somewhere in between? Do you have any suggestions or tips to offer for writing effective description?