In P.G. Wodehouse’s 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters, there’s a great character called Roderick Spode. A parody of Sir Oswald Mosley, Spode is the dictatorial leader of a fascistic group called “The Black Shorts”. Bertie Wooster, the protagonist, describes his appearance “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.”
Ultimately, Spode is thwarted when Bertie’s valet Jeeves reveals that he knows about “Eulalie”–which Bertie learns later is a ladies’ lingerie shop called Eulalie Soeurs that Spode operates. Spode fears that he will lose face if this becomes known to the other members of the Black Shorts.
Wodehouse was one of the greatest humorous writers of all-time, but Spode was a rare instance when he satirized a particular public figure. And a clever satire it was too; suggesting that a would-be dictator moonlights as an underwear designer instantly reduces them to figures of fun.
Of course, even in Wodehouse’s comic world, he still assumed that such people could be cowed by such basic things as shame. It was a more genteel universe that Wodehouse imagined, in which even the villains played by the rules.
[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.
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?
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.
I decided to post this after reading this post by Barb Knowles. Like her, I was disturbed to see that most of my favorites are white men. (And all but one of them is dead.) Also like her, I’d love to have suggestions on diverse authors. I plan to do a list of my favorite non-fiction authors–that should be a lot more diverse.
W.S. Gilbert: As long-time readers will know, I’m a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Sullivan was a fine composer, but in all honesty, it’s Gilbert’s words that I love. Moreover, he has a huge number of other plays done by himself or with other composers. So much wit and genius. Truly, he “made his fellow creatures wise” by “gilding the philosophic pill”. He’s the reason I became a writer.
George Orwell: Most people know him for 1984, and it’s a great book. But I think his best fictional work is Animal Farm. These books are more than just political satires on events of the time–they are timeless examinations of human nature.
Charlotte Brontë: True, I’ve only read one book by her: Jane Eyre. And yes, it is in some ways dated with the trappings of Victorian melodrama. But it’s still a very good tale, filled with unexpectedly humorous moments.
Robert W. Chambers: The King in Yellow, and more specifically, The Repairer of Reputations, is the greatest weird tale I’ve ever read. Not even Lovecraft or Poe ever managed to create such a bizarre atmosphere in so few words. I’ve read it countless times, and each time, I have more questions about it.
Robert Bolt: He didn’t write books. He wrote films and plays–most notably Lawrence of Arabia and A Man For All Seasons. If you want to see historical fiction done right, look no further than these. Lawrence is one of my favorite films, partly for its beautifully spare script. Man For All Seasons is a fascinating take on questions of morality and pragmatism vs. idealism.
P.G. Wodehouse: As somebody once said: it is impossible to be unhappy while reading one of his books.
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most widely-read and beloved books in America. And yet I still think it’s underrated. Mostly, this is because so much of the talk about it focuses on Atticus Finch. He’s a good character, but it means other characters like Heck Tate, Miss Maudie, Calpurnia, and even Boo Radley himself don’t get their due. Go Set a Watchman, meanwhile, is not bad once you understand it’s a draft–which many people don’t.
Thomas Hardy: In some ways the anti-Wodehouse, as his stories are usually very grim. But he was a master at creating an atmosphere, and there are parts of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure that are shocking even now–I can’t imagine how they would have struck Victorian audiences.
John Kennedy Toole: I’ve only ever read one book by him. (For a long time, it was thought to be the only one he wrote.) A Confederacy of Dunces is a strange, strange beast. If I tried to describe it, you probably would think it totally crazy. And it is. But it is also brilliant–I’ve never seen such an intricate plot that fit together so neatly.
Chris Avellone: I did it. I put a video game writer in the same company as Brontë, Orwell and Hardy. And it’s justified. The script for Knights of the Old Republic II is a meditation on the spiritual and psychological effects of war that ranks as great literature. And the iconic Kreia is one of the all-time great female characters. I rank KotOR II slightly ahead of Avellone’s legendary Planescape: Torment, which explores many of the same themes, but both are absolute masterpieces.
I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)
I’m not sure how many people will get this, but here goes. So, I was riding the bus the other day, and the fellow who stepped on in front of me was a massive, mustachioed fellow, and I instantly thought “My God, he looks exactly like Ignatius J. Reilly!” He really did–I mean he was dressed better than the protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s strange comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, but he had the look and manner to a “T”.
What makes this extra funny is that a bus ride figures prominently in Reilly’s backstory. So not only did he look like Reilly, he was even in a situation like Reilly himself might be found in.
“A strange coincidence”, you say. So I thought too. But in itself, not the sort of thing worth posting about. Odd, but not really that odd–there are lots of heavy-set, mustachioed guys in the world.
But then, dear readers, we reached the realm of the truly uncanny.
It was about a 20 minute ride, and I was standing directly behind the Reilly doppelganger. During the 20 minutes, the bus stopped a few times, and two different passengers sat next to him. He conversed with both of them; though I got the sense he didn’t know either of them.
With the first passenger, he talked about theology. After that one left, he talked with the next one about geometry.
I swear I am not kidding. For those who haven’t read the book–and make no mistake, you haveto read the book to truly understand this–Ignatius J. Reilly is always talking about how modern society needs “theology and geometry”. It’s like a running joke in the book, mostly because it seems like such an odd combination. And here was someone actually talking about these things.
I was waiting for the Twilight Zone music to start. It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.