Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Weekend Writer: Be Careful When Writing Descriptions

I am reading a tedious book and want to vent. So we're going to take a break from hunting for our stories, so I can use this teachable moment to warn new writers about the risks involved with writing description. Description, you see, is part of what is making the book I'm reading tedious.

I suspect that there is a school of thought that argues that descriptions in books should be "evocative," causing readers to feel something, and that descriptions should be beautiful in and of themselves. They should be beautiful for beautiful's sake. However, what they really ought to do is support your story, once you know what your story is. Readers shouldn't notice descriptions. Not everyone can write description well enough to be evocative and make a reader shed a tear over great-aunt Bet's bracelet that was given to her by the only guy she ever loved before he went off to war and never came back because he deserted, went over to the other side, assumed another identity, married, and lived happily ever after without her. And those who can write well enough to make a reader shed a tear over a description of a bracelet in its box under the stack of crap Aunt Bet has been hoarding, shouldn't do so if it means stopping the forward movement of the story and making readers literally wait to get through all this verbiage before they get going again.

I can recall reading a well-known novel set in France that shall remain nameless. A character is going down a street in Paris, and we all had to stop while the author described a building. Then a while later, we all stopped while he described another. And, you guessed it, we made another stop and waited for him to do another description. I know he was trying to create atmosphere and prove that he'd been to Paris. But those individual buildings, and particularly their appearance, really didn't have anything to do with the story.  I became impatient and started skimming.

What I'm talking about here hits two of Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing: "9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things" and "10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."  Readers tend to skip detailed description of places and things.

Okay, I am now going to give a couple of suggestions to help new writers avoid taking readers on lengthy, detailed tours of parking lots and offices.

1. When you're describing a place, try to show a character moving through it or interacting with it instead of doing a straight narrative description. If a character is involved in some way with this place, there's a greater chance that the place has some significance to the story.

2. I think these long, drawn out descriptions of places occur more frequently in books written in the third person. If you're writing in the third person, as a first draft of a description try writing it from a first-person point of view. You might get a more natural sounding description that way, since a speaker describing something is less likely to go on and on about it than omniscient narrators seem to. When you switch back to the third person, leave out everything the first-person narrator didn't say.

There. I'm feeling better about that book I'm determined to get through.

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