Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Much Description?

Just for something different I decided to start a SF novel last week, this time without much more than the central concept and ideas for the two main characters. This is quite a departure for me as I usually plot things out well in advance and also spend a lot of time on backstory.
The thing I noticed was that what I was writing was quite spare on description. This is probably partly because with this off-the-cuff style I was more focused on dialogue and character, but also because I think I tend to be less focused on description generally when I write SF.
This really got me thinking. So does that mean that I use too much description for my fantasy work? How much description is the right amount? Does my SF need to be shown only on Black & White TVs?:)
There are a couple of competing theories here. One is that you should deliberately use less description and let the reader fill in the blanks. The other is that you should attempt to really draw things out for the reader, make immersion in the world and the scenery a key feature for the story - like how Tolkien used his descriptions of the scenery as a major element of the experience of LoR, even to the extent some argue it is a character in its own right.
I guess as I inevitably go back to redraft these first chapters I will have to decide whether I need to put more description in to match the usual balance of my style, or whether I stick to the purity of the storytelling voice.
How do people decide how much description to use? I don't think I have really ever made a conscious choice about this until now. It is usually just part of what arrives when I imagine the scenes.
I do remember one comment from a reader of my mixed-genre novel Warriors of the Blessed Realms. They said that the fantasy worlds seemed more real than the contemporary sections (set in Brisbane). Maybe I have to work harder to envisage a completely new world? At the time I did not see any problem with this - after all the fantasy world was more real to me than this one:)

20 comments:

Lucius said...

I have to argue that Tolkien was explicitly a proponent of the fill-in-the-blanks model. (His "On Fairy-Stories" is top notch.)

Going back and re-reading his books years later, I was shocked by the sparseness of his descriptions when it came to places. For the most part, little more than very general sketches. I believe it was the brief historical asides that gave them the feeling of such depth.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I bought a book written by an Australian set around 1850. There was almost no description or explanation.

The author assumed that everyone knew the every day things. I didn't get a glimpse of Melbourne in 1850. It was really weird.

And it made me realise that we treat writing historical books differently from writing contemporary. We feel we need to set the world for a historical.

C Kelsey said...

Less is more. Some description is needed, but the fastest way to make me throw a book across the room and never read that author ever again is to have paragraph after paragraph of description using hundreds of words where one paragraphs and 20 words would have been fine.

MataPam said...

It kind of depends on how important the scene is to the action. If they're in the old library with dusty books piled everywhere, it's not jarring when the lady picks up a tome and bashes the gentleman over the head. The objects used need to be there.

There's also setting the mood with scenery descriptions. You need to show the bright cheery room, or the chilly mist drifting through the towering trees. The town's main street can be quaint, with a diner and a couple of antique stores. Or tawdry, with blowsy whores calling down to men in the muddy street from their second floor balconies.

And once you've done that, you need all your descriptions to be somewhat of the same magnitude for a feeling of continuity. Which is my problem, with every third scene taking place in white space.

Kate Paulk said...

Modern readers expect there to be visuals, where older readers had different expectations. The real art is in finding the detail that conjures up the visual without needing more than a sentence or two.

"Every step released soft sweetness from the purple-carpeted lawn as I walked through the hazy shade of jacaranda trees in full blossom." (Okay, not that great, but there's enough there to conjure an image of big trees absolutely covered in purple flowers, and the ground under them equally purple).

Chris L said...

Hi Chris

I suppose every reader has a different perspective.

I read a trilogy a few years back that everyone was raving about. The author had set the story in a version of Japan and used iconic references in place of description.

To me the result was a sketch, rather than a properly fleshed-out story. It worked for me -- sort of. I didn't like it as much as everyone else though.

Jim McCoy said...

I think this becomes a question of familiarity and importance. For instance, if you were doing a novel about the current (or close enough) USA for persons in the US to read and a scene takes place in the Oval Office then I don't think much of a description is in order, since there are really two types of US Citizens: Those that know what the Oval Office looks like and those that THINK they know what the Oval Office looks like. Either way works since it allows a reader to get a picture in their mind.

OTOH, the same scene written for a non-US audience (maybe with the US as a villain?) might require some description. After all, how many people from other countries know that much about the Oval Office? I'd be willing to wager that people in certain markets may not have heard of the thing for the most part.

Then there is the opposite end of the scale...

If you have a character who is about to be abducted in a public bathroom somewhere, you can probably get away with the quick use of the word "grubby" and a reference to writing on the wall. This is especially true if the bathroom itself is unimportant. It's a freaking public bathroom. We all know what it looks like. In this case it actually makes more sense not to because a too attentive character might be able to spoil the abduction attempt.

OTOH, I think there are times when you HAVE to use a lot of description. If you're read the Prince Roger series by David Weber and John Ringo, then you know the throne room HAD to be described. He had spent the WHOLE FREAKING SERIES trying to get there. Likewise, in my own work, when my main character is facing judgment from the Council of Magnates, the Council Hall needs to be described because:

A.) No one knows what it looks like but me. After all, it doesn't actually exist so it's not like we've all seen pictures and

B.) This is a big moment in the book and is really the moment when the Hero's Journey begins.

No description = flat response from readers. But that's just my take.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Lucius. It's been a while since I read Tolkien, but one thing that I really took away from it was the feeling of the places they travelled through. So he certainly managed to convey that.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I've recently read Dark Matter, by Michele Paver - who wrote the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness (YA). It's a Ghost Story set in the 1930s. She had obviously gone to great lengths to emulate the style of the time and the form. It was very different writing. I felt like I was reading with a blindfold on - also very spare on description & it seemed to lack the usual PoV depth of modern novels.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris K. You are right. It's all about balance isn't it. I think I need to trust my own instinct with that and not feel I 'have' to describe things.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. Good point about using the descripions to set mood. I think once you have set up the feel though, you could probably continue this with minor touches as long as they evoke the same feeling, or connect with the same period.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. You have hit another aspect there - the actual effectiveness of the phrase. That's a good point. I've started to get hung up and how much I'm putting in rather than asking myself what I need it to achieve.

Jacaranda tree - so beautiful, yet they still give me a twinge of panic that I haven't started studing yet!! And yet, I still get dreams I really didn't graduate because I forgot to go to the exam for one subject!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris L. That is very much the 'thriller' style of writing. Instead of describing someone as sophisticated, the writer merely say 'they checked the time on their Rolex, then slipped into their Maserati'. Using the power of the 'brands' to create mistique. I have always considered this a lazy sort of cheat. So I think I would have been a little annoyed by that series.

I personally prefer good description - not overlaboured, but effective nonetheless.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. Good point. I guess it also depends on how long the characters will spend in that particular place, in which case they need a landscape to navigate in.

It's also much more fun for the reader if they can place the characters into that setting if that is where the main part of the action is going to be taking place.


Great comment!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris,

I hate it when authors use brands to convey 'mystique'.

I am so clueless I don't know any brands. I do know that rolex is a type of watch and maserati a car. that's about it. But most of the time I have to work out what the object is from the context of the story.

It totally shuts me out. And it makes the character seem really shallow. If you don't want him/her to appear shallow don't stress that they have a wardrobe of $1000 suits.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I agree that it makes the character seem shallow, but the thing is that seems to be what publishers want. I get so frustrated with the shallow characterisation & half-baked recycled concepts of the books that appear on the shelves here.

I have always believed the editors have got it wrong in choosing this stuff - SFF readers are more sophisticated than they believe.

Tell me - is it just me? Do most readers just want this?

Amanda Green said...

Chris, you've just asked the one question that plagues me the most. How much is too much, or not enough? There has to be enough description to put the reader into the scene. Nothing bothers me more than to have a character walk into a room and a long discussion ensues between the character and someone else and there is no description of what is physically or mentally going on or of their surroundings. It's just two talking heads.

Well, there is one thing that gets to me quicker. The creation of the world in the first chapter or prologue when it isn't germane to the story.

However, I will admit that there does seem to be more description in a lot of fantasy than there is in sf. The question I keep asking myself as I write is, "what does the reader need to know to fully get the scene, to get into it?"

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I think we must look for similar things in writing. I also find it very frustrating when you have dialogue, a character name and that is about it. I feel like I am watching a movie blindfolded.

I like to build a scene, but as some of the posters today reminded me - it's not just about how much description, it's how effective you can make it. Then it's a matter of achieving the right balance.

This is a hard one, as a lot of it comes down to taste, but the comments today have really helped me get a grip on it for my latest work, which is great.

Lucius said...

Oh, I agree. He did a great job of making his world come alive. But a large part of his technique was evoking the reader's memories, rather than providing detailed descriptions.

I'm not a fan of detailed descriptions. Keep them short, crisp, and relevant.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Lucius. Damn! Now I have re-read it!