Monday, October 1, 2012

Description: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Today I want to discuss description. Description is an idiosyncrasy peculiar to each writer; there are great books that include little description, and there are great books that overwhelm the reader with description. This is proof that description is a balancing act—you can err on both sides of the spectrum. Luckily you can also write fantastic books that fall somewhere within this spectrum.

Why is Description Important?
I think we can all answer this question. Description is important because, for fiction, it gives the reader a window into the world of your characters, and, for nonfiction, it contextualizes your topic. Without description there is no story. Period.

Common Problems Writers Run into When Utilizing Description

Too Much
This is the most common problem I see with description. Writers will spend a page or more describing a beautiful sunset or the particular hue of a flower. While authors are patting themselves on the back for such an eloquent display of literary prowess, readers are falling asleep. In fact, readers do not care too much about whether the room’s molding was in the Italian Baroque style unless this description is directly linked to moving the story forward. They want to read about description that is necessary for the plot to move forward, but that’s it. Any more and they may start to get glassy-eyed.

Why is Too Much Description Such a Common Mistake?
While I cannot know each individual’s motivation for writing long descriptive scenes, generally speaking, American and English literature have a long precedent of lauding descriptive texts. Crack open almost any book we consider a classic. The book will—more likely than not—contain a couple long, descriptive passages. In addition, many literature courses dissect description, searching for the veiled meaning behind seemingly straightforward observations. So it should come as no great surprise that we want to emulate these great authors.

The problem is that we live in a different world than our literary forefathers. We get upset if a webpage does not load within ten seconds; we expect to know friends’ and family’s every movement through social media; news gets released within hours—if not minutes—of the news-worthy incident; and now we have smartphones to always be connected to our global village. In a world like ours, writers are competing for the under-developed attention spans of their audience. Thus description should not be an end in-and-of itself, but a tool utilized to forward the story.

Too Little
My personal editing preference is that less is more. However, including too little description runs the risk of confusing readers. Take this example:

Henry went inside and threw it down on the man’s desk.

My immediate questions are: Inside where? Threw what down? Who is the man? If the surrounding text does not answer these questions, this entire interaction is meaningless, and—to tie into our previous discussion—you fail to answer the “Why?”. Description and explanations go hand-in-hand. And if you confuse your reader, you’ll potentially lose your reader

Cliches are overused descriptive phrases. These little critters appear everywhere, and almost every writer has to consciously avoid them. To prove my point, look at the previous paragraph. “Hand-in-hand” is a cliche. It’s so overused that we don’t even stop to consider it’s literal meaning. In fact, they are everywhere in this post and in my other posts. Worse, you’re doing it. All the time.

“[I] jumped out of bed.”
“[I] gasped.”
“Good versus evil.”
“[This secret will] tear [them apart].”

I could keep going. Are you shocked to hear that even seemingly normal phrases are cliches? Technically, any overused word or phrase can be considered a cliche. The problem with cliches is that they are so often used they can make the text sound amateurish or unnatural.

In addition, many cliches add no meaningful description to the text. I’m guessing a good number of you are thinking that I’m dead wrong (<—another cliche right there), but really think about many of these statements. Is it anatomically possible to jump out of bed when your feet are not underneath you? When a person gasps for the thirteenth time in a novel, did all of those gasps truly mean the same thing? The first two examples actually say nothing specific about the action or emotion of these characters.

As for my last two examples, when do these statements not hold true? Almost all stories are playing tug-of-war with good and evil, and most important secrets can potentially tear two people apart. As a reader and as an editor, I want you to give me a refreshingly new description that is, yes, more difficult to write, but much more pleasing to read.

I’m going to come right out and say that I am not a huge fan of asides. In fact, I’ve likely pissed off a writer or two who’s received an edit such as, “This is an aside, and it slows down the momentum of your book. I’d suggest removing it.”

My main reason for disliking asides is that they interrupt the beautiful flow of the surrounding writing. When two characters are breaking into a house, or a nonfiction author is discussing crime in Italy, readers are naturally interested—this, after all, is the book’s promised excitement. Plopping in a paragraph that discusses light fixtures or your thoughts on religion will throw off this great flow. And while most asides are more related to the surrounding text than the examples I gave, they nonetheless detract from reader excitement.

Description at the Beginning of Your Book
This is the death knell for a book. The beginning of your book is the most difficult place to acquire reader interest. As a writer, you have to get your book moving forward from nothing. Inserting large portions of description, while not the best idea anywhere in the book, is the most lethal at the beginning. Think of how many books were “too slow,” so you put them down. That’s what tends to happen when the writers insert too much description and not enough action. Meanwhile, many readers are much less likely to put down a book they are halfway through because they’ve committed so much time to it already.

How Do I Fix This?
Being aware of your own idiosyncratic writing style is a great start to fixing any problems you may encounter with description. If you know you rely on cliches, or love detail, then you can begin to counter-balance your own weaknesses. Consciously go back through your work and fix these as best you can. If you find that still doesn’t solve your problem, get an extra pair of reliable eyes to look through your writing for you and get their feedback.

Intersperse Description Rather than Clumping it
A great way to dissolve clumps of description is to massage it into your book’s thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Here’s an example using the scenario of two characters breaking into a house:

       Jose slammed the door behind us, the sound echoing throughout the cavernous house.
       “Good going. Now everyone within a five-mile radius will know we’re here.”
       “Relax Max,” Jose said. “No one’s lived here in ages, or can’t you tell?” He pointed to what was once a kitchen. The roof had collapsed inward, and the floor was scattered with debris.
       “Phew,” Jose said, waving his hand across his nose. “It smells like dead animal.”

In these few lines the reader now knows a great deal about this house and Max and Jose’s relationship. This is much more concise and fast-paced than setting aside a paragraph or two of description.

In conclusion, description is a vital aspect of any book, but it is a balancing act. Too much description and you’ll bore your audience. Too little and you’ll confuse your audience. If you have to insert large chunks of description, make sure that they appear far into the book, rather than at the beginning. Instead of setting the description apart from your action or discussion, try interspersing it throughout. This will not interrupt the flow, and it will keep the momentum of your book faster than it otherwise would be.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

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