Thursday, June 17, 2010

How Much is Enough?

Re-reading some old favourites lately, I have been struck by the differences in the degree of description. One of the books was so spare that little more than a single line was offered to describe new characters on introduction, and then only a repeat of this key image when they appeared at other times (yes the exact same one, over and over). Balance is everything - but I like a little more than this.


I guess 'less is more' is often a good rule to follow. The problem is things like that can be very hard to judge. This particular author had removed a lot of the casual description and attribution you might find between dialogue. That's fine from the PoV of the author, but what seems alive and accented to the peculiar viewpoint and personality of the character within the author's mind can read very flat indeed to an objective reader. In this case I found that the scenes dominated with dialogue offered me very little. I could not tell from the dialogue whether the character was being sharp, dim, sarcastic, excited or whatever - and there was not enough else to propel the story.


I know that very clever writers can manage to convey all this personality through the dialogue itself in the absence of all but the most minimal attribution.


For myself, I am very tolerant of description. I like to get atmosphere. I like to get a direct line to what the character is feeling. What starts to gripe me is long backstory infills on the geopolitical setting, or scenes that seem to have no point - except the fact that I am supposed to be in so in love with the character I really want to see them walk through the docks for two pages.

So what are your thoughts? How much description is enough? And how do you tell? Is it even possible, or do we all need a savvy test reader?

24 comments:

Synova said...

I usually only notice how much description is used when I'm trying to notice how much description is used. I don't think I have a preference for one or the other and different voices always seems like a good thing.

For a while, though, I was keeping Cherryh's _Merchanter's Luck_ to hand so that every time someone insisted that it was necessary to start with action, jumping right in the middle of it, I could pull that out and say, but look, I love this beginning and it's description for a page and a half before anyone does or says anything.

An acquaintance of mine published a small press romance novel that strikes me as particularly spare. The language that she uses seems starkly simple but I always end up pulled in and emotionally committed and feeling like I'm right there smelling the mud and listening to the insects in the swamp. Even on a re-read. (Bayou Rhapsody, IIRC, written under the name Sarah Storme.)

I haven't run into her for a long time and I haven't sat down and studied the text to see if I could figure how she did it.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, when I read Lord of the Rings to my children I edited great chunks of description and just read the exciting bits.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I love description -- as long as it doesn't bring the story to a screeching stop. When the descriptions begins to impede the pace of the novel or short story, it's too much as far as I'm concerned.

Another pet peeve of mine when it comes to description is when an author insists on creating the world for a hundred pages in every single book. While the length might be a slight exaggeration, the intent is still the same. James Michener is the one who consistently drove me crazy with this.

So I guess the trick for me is I want enough description to give me an idea of where and when as well as who. But don't give so much that it turns a rip-roaring tale into a slog of molasses.

matapam said...

If I stop and notice the descriptions, or alternately, wonder where they are, it's too much or two little.

C Kelsey said...

I like just enough description to get the imagination in sync with the story. Too much description really, really annoys me.

Anonymous said...

My writing description is different from my reading description. I am far more tolerant of description in my reading than I am in my writing.

With reading, especially if description is done well, I enjoy a moderate amount. I'm tolerant of a tad more than moderate if the story is good. I am however perfectly fine with very little description. I can fill in on my own, thank you very much. My imagination handles it.

With writing, I throw in a sentence here and there. I figure that most readers are willing to fill in on their own if given a direction with which to start. Wild, frizzy red hair can actually go several different ways.

I'm getting better at offering more description, but I still keep it rather sparse.

Linda Davis

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Synova. It seems every time someone goes on about a 'rule' of writing I immediately read something that totally debunks that. I know exactly what you mean.

I recently re-read Feist's Magician. Talk about not starting at the action. We meander around with this little kid Pug for about thirty pages before anything happens. Yet somehow, that works. Sometimes I think it has more to do with the intensity of the story - the narrative drive - that the author puts into it, rather than any one particular element.

Chris McMahon said...

Rowena! Shame on you! I had always thought that the setting of LoR was kind of the most powerful character in that book. JRR obviously loved scenery and natural landscapes.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I guess one of the general rules I try to follow is never to put too much description (or internal dialogue for that matter) into the middle of action scenes.

This is all a tricky balance for me. As I am very tolerant of description, and often enjoy reading it (if its nice prose) I often put a fair bit into my material. Too much for some people. So to that extent, I am guilty of bogging the story. Yet some people don't care.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Maybe I can get a software add-on that set off an alarm when I don't put enough in & then when there is too much?

I guess its back to trying to calibrate the old grey matter.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I like to try and set the scene. I probably push the limit a bit early in the story, but I like to try and convey the unique elements of the world to the reader - so they can carry those images for the rest of the story. Then after that I go back to using much more cut back references - just enough to key the other images in. At least I hope it works like that.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. I think its quite amazing how spare fiction can get, and yet it continues to work perfectly fine. As long as you can still tell who is talking in dialogue, and there is a forward momentum in the story.

Even a character's name can evoke something in imagination, in the absence of any description. The human brain - and its 'story' wiring - is truly remarkable!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, imagine 6 children aged from 2 - 12 lying on a king size bed like a pile of puppies while I read to them.

The story has to grab them.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. Depends on the audience I suppose, reading to a wider age group would be harder. There is a LOT of description in that book. I had a friend who read LoR to his kids from the time they were around 3-4ys.

Stephen Simmons said...

I think it depends a lot on the story. Imagine if Heinlein had begun The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by describing the moon's tunnels the way John Ronald described Bag End in the opening paragraphs of The Hobbit ... or vice versa. The narration is itself a character in the process, setting the tone and shaping the reader's frame of mind.

Having said that ... there is still such a thing as "too much" o "too little". But I suspect that it really takes a good beta-reader to help you find where those lines are.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen. That's a good point. You need to sit back and think about what sort of feel you want to create. I guess if you want people to hook more into the characters first you don't want to go distracting them with interesting scenery. Good old JRR.

Kate said...

Personally, I think really good description is invisible.

By which I mean that if you notice the descriptive passages as description when you're reading, it's not done right, unless of course you're specifically reading to analyze how author X handles description.

When it is done right, not only do you the reader not notice it, you don't notice it because you're there. You're seeing this stuff as it happens.

It doesn't matter how much or how little of it you've got, if you don't get that part working, it's not going to work - like, forex, JRRT vs Heinlein. Both of them have it right: for what they are doing. JRRT's descriptions are intended to be grand, epic and sweeping. Heinlein packs so many layers of information into a few lines there's an entire world and culture inside your head.

The part about how they do that is the part that matters, in my opinion. If you get the right feel for the description, it doesn't make any difference whether you have five words or five hundred.

Brendan said...

Talking of JRRT reminded me of his contemporary CS Lewis. In Prince Caspian when the Penvensey's are heading through the forest he breaks into first person narrator to say he could spend pages and pages describing it's wonders but that much would bore his readers no matter how amazing it was.

Brendan said...

Chris, now Rowena's kids can discover the magic of JRRT world for themselves later.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Good point. My problem is I high a pretty high tolerance for it, so I rarely stop to think about it in what I am reading. Might be an interesting exercise though.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brendan. That sort of thing is definitely in the rule breaking category! Only those guys could get away with it:)

Brendan said...

Chris, which version of Magician are you reading, the original or the re-release with all the extra stuff?

I always thought Magician had the perfect start, with Pug escaping from the stormy beach, then the mad boar and witnessing Kulgan's magic. And between all this is snippets of world building as from Pug's perspective as he worries and wonders.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I've noticed that we need more description now than, say, in Jane Austen's time. I have this theory that at the time, they were used to having stories TOLD and the words were the most important thing. That and plot. But we now are used to movies, so we need more visual input. Otherwise the story feels "thin"

matapam said...

I read JRRT to the kids when they were small. Then Lloyd Alexander (Alexander Lloyd??) Yikes! All those Welsh names. I swear I didn't get them the same twice in a row. Should have just cheated and made them something more mainstream.