Description in Fiction Revisited

[I want to reexamine a topic I first wrote about here—I’ve given it some more thought, and come up with a few new points.]

When you look for writing advice, sooner or later you see tips like “Avoid lengthy descriptions” and “Cut all unnecessary words.” (These are two of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, but lots of other people have said similar things.)

Well, I’m here to tell you that having fewer words isn’t always better. And sometimes, it’s worthwhile to describe characters and things in detail.

I know this because I once believed these nuggets of advice wholeheartedly. I think I subconsciously always thought wordy descriptions were for pretentious twits who wanted to sound fancy. Reading this advice just validated what I already wanted to believe.

It wasn’t until I started writing fiction and my readers started asking “Why don’t you describe stuff?” that I began to think I was mistaken. (It took embarrassingly long for me to become willing to admit this.)

I started thinking about the work of other writers I regularly read. Did they describe stuff? Well, yes, they did. Did they always use the minimum number of words needed to say what they wanted to say? Not really.

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
H.P. Lovecraft

Here’s the opening paragraph from H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale, The Call of Cthulhu:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

This could be much more simply rendered as:

It’s better not to know some things.”

Same point, fewer and shorter words. Must be better, right?

pgwodehouse
P.G. Wodehouse

Here’s another example, this from P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves:

“Contenting myself, accordingly, with a gesture of loving sympathy, I left the room. Whether she did or did not throw a handsomely bound volume of the Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at me, I am not in a position to say. I had seen it lying on the table beside her, and as I closed the door I remember receiving the impression that some blunt instrument had crashed against the woodwork, but I was feeling too pre-occupied to note and observe.”

He could have just written:

“I left the room, and I think she threw a large book at me, but I was pre-occupied with other matters.”

Much shorter! And yet… that doesn’t seem as good, does it? It’s still funny, but Wodehouse’s more thorough description is more amusing.

As for description: we can argue over how much is too much—it’s true that you don’t want a multi-paragraph description of somebody’s eye color. But few people would even think of writing that in the first place

Readers want to form a coherent picture in their mind’s eye, and reading physical characteristics helps them to remember people and things; just as when you meet someone in real life, you tend to remember them by certain physical attributes. Anyone who has ever read Harry Potter can instantly tell you what color Ron Weasley’s hair is.

Another good example of why it’s sometimes worthwhile to dwell on descriptions is the opening of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces:

“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.”

This is some pretty detailed description, but it does more than just tell us what Reilly looks like. It also gives us an idea of his personality. From this point on, we have an impression of him to file away and call up whenever his name appears on the page. The cap, the moustache, the oddly –colored eyes—all these things paint a vivid picture of the character.

Could you trim this down a bit? Sure. Just say:

“A mustachioed man in a green hunting cap looked around disapprovingly at the crowd.”

But that doesn’t linger long enough to make an impression in the reader’s mind. They’ve passed it before their brains are even fully engaged, and as a result, have formed no mental picture of the character.

To be clear: I’m not saying I favor describing every detail you can think of. In horror especially, there are some things you should leave to the reader’s imagination. But you don’t want to leave too much, or else you don’t have a book. You just have a very sophisticated outline. Many of my early stories fall into this trap.

So, why do legendary writers like Leonard say to avoid lengthy passages and detailed descriptions, when that isn’t what readers want? Even more confusing: why do many authors preach that while not practicing it?

My guess is that a skilled writer becomes so adept at translating their vision to the page that it ceases to feel like description at all. The descriptive passages, the dialogue, and the action scenes are all so woven together it becomes difficult to separate one piece from the whole.

Moreover, this is also the reader’s impression of good writing.  Well-written description doesn’t even register as separate from dialogue or plot—it’s all part of the world that the reader becomes immersed in.

Note the all-important qualifier “well-written”. If your description is badly-written, you’re in trouble. But that’s true of anything in any book.  And if someone asks for advice on writing, saying “write well” seems like a useless thing to tell them. The question is, how do you write well?

The answer is not to minimize description and word counts. I think the real answer is something like “Make the description integral to the overall story”. As in the example from Dunces, you want your descriptive passages to be tied in with the characters and the world.

In other words, don’t just tell the reader that “This jerk had light-brown hair and glasses”. Tell them that “The sandy-haired man peered at him through his spectacles, as though he were some type of revolting insect.”

This tells the reader both how the character looks and how he behaves, allowing them to quickly make a mental note:

Brown-haired glasses guy = jerk

This is what readers want—the ability to quickly and easily understand characters, places and things.

6 Comments

  1. I will always go back to the first writers conference I went to. At one of the sessions I attended, a woman kept asking the speaker about various “rules” she had heard of — like don’t switch voices in the middle of a chapter. The author leading the discussion kept telling her this: “there are no rules in writing except to write a good story.” I see all of these various “rules” like “show, don’t tell.” And then I read a novel that is critically acclaimed, or a best seller, or up for some national book award, and it is filled with telling instead of showing. And then there are books that are filled with massive description and little narrative … or the other way around. And I believe what that writer said all those years ago. Yes, there are things you can do to improve your storytelling ability, but at the end of the day what matters the most is … did you write/tell a good story. That’s what matteres at the end of the day.

  2. “I think the real answer is something like ‘Make the description integral to the overall story’.”—Yes, I think that’s exactly right. The more description becomes part of the story, the less it seems like description. Of course, finding that sweet spot is easier said than done. Just like most everything in life!

    1. I know, right? Just once, couldn’t there be something important that’s easier done than said? Oh well…

  3. To me there needs to be enough description for the reader to get a clear picture or idea without overdoing it. Your Lovecraft quote I felt was more pontificating or philosophy than description. To me this adds substance to the theme of the story instead of just the plot. Too much of anything is not always good. Same with this. A lot of great sounding gobbeldy gook gets pretentious. Concerning description: I used to write one page descriptions of playboy playmates, not always nudes. It didn’t take long, but helped develop my description writing. When I retired I went over those descriptions, many of them repetitious, but recreated them when describing someone in a story I was working on. A number of stories came from those descriptions. Apple of Success was sparked by a description of a belly dancer picture. I know some people say all that needed is the easy Sam Spade description on seeing a woman at his office door: “A woman with big boobs and blonde hair walked in. What a knock out.” Depending on the genre and audience that’s all that’s needed, but others need a better picture than that.

    1. “Too much of anything is not always good.”–I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here.

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