Friday, February 26, 2010

How much description? The Writer’s Perspective.

Last time I asked for your opinion of description in books from a reader’s perspective, but how do you feel about it as a writer?
I’ll confess, description is one of my writing demons. Action and dialogue usually flow from my brain to my fingers without much problem, but when it comes to description I’ll sit, stare at the screen, and go over the sequence line by line.
Have you noticed that some writers can describe six different sunsets in a book and it never becomes tiresome? I consider that talent!
When facing a place I know I need some description I start by asking what my character sees. I try to envision those sunsets and then try to come up with words that don’t sounds so cliché they make me want to gag. But visual description is only one part of the experience.
We have to ask ourselves what our character physically feels. Is he hot or cold? Are her clothes comfortable or so formal they’re making life hard? Is there a cold hard floor beneath her or soft carpet?
Then there’s the sense of smell. Is there fresh clean air or the sour scent of traffic?
How about sounds? Is the room deathly silent or so loud he can’t think?
When it finally comes down to actually constructing the novel, there are two main things I try to keep in mind. The first is “where to describe.” At what points do I decide to stop the progression of the story and let the reader know what my characters are physically experiencing? The next is deciding how much description do I need before I pick the action back up.
It’s a balance. A story feels bare without description, but I still think there should be more action than description. I.E. if the chapters are primary description, there’s something wrong. The story must progress! I try to stick to description that really means something to the story.
For example, describing how cramped a character’s living space is can help the reader understand her current lacking financial situation. However, a wall by wall description of everything in the room distracts everyone from the point!
So, what about you? I’ve described my writing style and methods. What about yours?
One huge point that a commenter brought up on the last post was that the particular genre you are writing in makes a difference. For instance, mystery is generally expected to be a little faster paced, whereas more literary work can have more description without feeling too slow. Do you agree?

Btw, if you haven’t voted in my poll yet, be sure you do! Yes, I’m having way too much fun with this. ;)

16 comments:

lbdiamond said...

Yeah, description gets me too. I try to keep it to a couple of sentences. Maybe four at the most if it's a 'new' location or character. I try to keep it simple too and have the sentences seem varied in length. Oh, and I try to limit adjectives, but I have to be mindful of that during edits. I had one sentence with like 6 of 'em! Yikes! LOL! :)

Now, if I had an appreciable talent at description, I'd probably feel more comfortable using it. But I'm at the stage of: Avoid Purple Prose. Probably as I get better at writing, description will come more naturally.

My two very long cents! :)

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Agreed, I'm sure practice will improve the feel of describing. Adjectives sure can stack themselves up. (frustrated) LOL.
Thanks for you two cents. Glad someone else understands. :)

Joanna Marie said...

I don't generally think about it much...when I'm writing, I mean. Though now that I am thinking about it realize...I love description, actually. Well, writing it, that is. I have read books with entirely too much description, but I try to stay away from that...

I love to randomly write short things of just description, like a page or two... :-D Great fun.

Stina Rose said...

Description doesn't come naturally to me. I usually have to add it in during the revision process. The descriptions that usually make it into the first draft are full of adjectives and very cliche. I don't like spending a lot of time describing characters. I try to focus on some define characteristic, and leave a lot of the rest to the reader's imagination. This is an area that I am working on improving. Writing has a large learning curve!

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Joanna: After reading your novel, I can honestly say you're good at description!

Christina: Editing is a good phase to put description in becuase we can stand back and look at the story as a whole and see what needs to be added too it.
And yes, writing is a learning experience! :)

kimberlyloomis said...

My style is more literary so description of physical as well as emotional/psychological landscape are my forte. That dialogue and not getting too verbose with tags, etc, are really more my Achilles' heel.

When I started my first manuscript it was exactly the opposite. Go figure.

And, yes, I completely agree with your assessment about genres and the varying requirements of writing it necessitated by the readers' preferences.

Good post!

destrella said...

If description paragraphs are too long, I just glaze over them to head for the good stuff. I'd rather have good dialogue or action going on.

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Your Favorite Neighbour said...

dearest, we should compile our brains. Description is so my thing ^_^ sometimes I get a lil too carried away with it though LOL the rest... not so much. If we conglomerated our brains it'd be one madd writin' machine B-) xD

Robyn Campbell said...

Emily, wonderful post. I always try to include sensory descriptions. We want to grab our reader's interest and draw him/her into our story. Our world.

Readers aren't interested in setting or detail as such. They are always interested in characters. I don't throw in a bunch of description. Especially at the start. I usually add a little here and there during the action. Isn't it better to put the description in the characters point of view using the details to add to the mood?

James Scott Bell says it's not a matter of piling on details, but choosing the telling details, that matters most.

And the genre does matter too. How much and where and all of that.

Great discussion here Emily. =)

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Yes, if a description passage gets too long I tend to just skip right over it as well. The point of a book is the story!

Agreed, Robin, the details we chose really have to relate to the character's experience and POV. Sometimes authors think the have to tell us everything there is to know about a character, but we need to remember we're writing a story, not a character profile. :P

Nisa said...

I write description light. Or maybe it's just the book I'm working on now. It's pretty fast-paced. The second book in the series features someone who notices the world around her more and I'm wondering if I'll be able to describe it and keep up the pace. Ugh... I do think it has a lot to do with genre. I love the classics and they can be very wordy.

Brianna said...

This is quite a popular topic going by all the responses you're getting, Emily! ;-) Now I shall give you my [very long] 2 cents... Description is so my forte! It probably sounds odd, but I don't like to leave hardly anything up to the reader's imagination unless it's something I am being intentionally vague about for the purpose of unveiling it later. I don't want people taking liberties with things I've written and characters I have created (unless it's about something obscure and not essential to the story), even if it's just in their minds! LOL! I know how easy it is for people to conjure up images of things and I don't want them seeing anything other than what I intended! ;-) I want my readers to be able to see, hear, feel, etc. what my characters are (without over-doing the adjectives of course). For the most part, I picture all the scenes that take place in the story/novel/etc. that I'm currently working on in my head like a movie and write everything out as I see it. I don't usually describe things in succession (like introducing a character and immediately saying they have brown hair, hazel eyes, blah-blah, etc.), but rather slip in the details unobtrusively here and there as appropriate. I like to use the old technique of showing and not telling. Of course you also know how I like to come up with creative substitutes for the over-used word "said" in dialogue as well. ;-)
Okay, so I had better shut up before I ramble on and on! LOL! I definately have a lot to say on this topic! ;-)

Kristin Rae said...

I usually have to REMOVE description from my writing. I tend to overdo it. I have to remind myself that every word has to add to the story--keep the pace moving. But I always have all these details in my head that I think are important! Often, they're not as important as I thought. That's why read-throughs are SO important for me. If I'm worried about losing length by cutting out my descriptions, I try to replace it with something telling about the MC. The big revision I'm in the midst of now has been a HUGE step in the right direction... my character is showing LOADS more personality than before, which makes her more relatable and likable, and I'm learning to balance descriptions. My critique group has helped me tons with this--they can see better than I can what's necessary and not--and having it pointed out will help me in future first drafts so I can avoid such harsh revisions later!

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Yes, this does seem to be a popular topic, but I think that's because all authors deal with this issue even if description is their strength.

Nisa: Keeping the pace up is the biggest issue! We can be great with prose, but if that's all there is we're sunk. (I'm all for face paced. ;)

Brianna: Your point is perfect! We shouldn't "front load" the story by telling the reader EVERYTHING about the character the moment they meet them. Let it come out as the story goes on.

Kristin: Outside opinions are so important! We all need them to identify our stengths and weakness.

Great comments everyone! I love learning how other writers work!

Joanne said...

Great question to consider. I think so much depends on the author's style, and the genre. I do use description, more so in the beginning of the story. And I do enjoy using it in a way tied in to what's happening, not just to paint a picture. It is usually somehow tied in, or necessary, to the action at hand, so that the action almost carries the description, in a way.

Karen Lange said...

I can be all over the place when I write descriptions, and I guess it depends a lot on what it's for. I should probably give some more thought to how I approach it. Thanks for sharing!
Blessings,
Karen