The Case for Little Description

My DH doesn’t read fiction.  Since we’ve been together, he’s read four novels.  All to appease me.  While on vacation, he started another book.  So, you may be thinking, almost five books in 24 years doesn’t exactly make him a literary expert.  However, his incredible insight the other day makes him the perfect voice of reason for less is more in description.

On our way up north he, at the wheel and me riding shotgun with my nose in a book, says, “You know the crazy thing about reading?”

“Hmmmmmm.”

“When I started reading Insert Last Novel Title Here, I could picture the house perfectly.”

My ears perked up and I set aside my Latest Novel.  “How so?”

DH went on to explain that as he read, he saw the inside of the living room right down to the color on the walls.  The Dear Author had not given him this information in paragraphs of detail.  Instead, he had simply written that the bodies were found in the living room next to the couch and in front of the fireplace.  He also walked DH up the stairs to the little girls’ room.  Not through ornate words and adjective cluttered sentence, but rather one step at a time via emotions and actions. 

DA allowed DH to fill in the blanks.  In his mind, DH was there, in the house with the characters.  He was invested in the atmosphere because of the LACK of description.

I prodded him to continue.  “A bar, for example, should be a bar.  With a certain kind of music.  Smokey or not, light or dim.  That’s enough information for me to know exactly what kind of place it is.”

Dim and smokey.  Immediately I was transported into every Legion bar that I’ve ever seen.  Admittedly that’s not a lot, but I knew that DH and I would end up in the same bar.

Bon Jovi blaring through the juke box elicits a whole different atmosphere.  A place with ceramic floors, a younger crowd and plastic glasses filled with cheap beer tapped from the keg.  Oh yeah, and a few older, haven’t-left-the-80’s, mulletted men sitting alone in corner booths oggling the Gen Xer’s in their tight jeans and tighter tank tops.

Country music wafting through the air along with thin streams of smoke puts me in a place with wooden floors and the stale scent of beer, surrounded by scruffy men and poofy-haired, cleavaged women. 

I don’t know where you would end up with those simple descriptions, but the point is, it would be your bar.  You would be there, smelling the smoke, feeling the sticky counter, gazing out of a blue haze at the characters. 

If the bar was described ad nauseum, we would all end up in the same exact place.  However, we would feel like spectators, not participants. 

When I write, I seldom describe anything with more than a sentence or two.  And most of what I write is slipped in during conversation or action.  I do this because reading long passages that don’t allow me to create my own setting is boring.  I have been known to skip pages at a time to avoid being told every little detail.

How do you feel about description in novels?  Are you in favor of detailed passages that put your readers exactly where you want them, or do you prefer to let them wander through the story in a place slightly different than you envisioned?  Does it matter?

When you read, do you enjoy making the story your own or do you crave to see exactly what the author saw when writing?

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18 responses to “The Case for Little Description

  1. In my MS, I do a fair bit of initial description of the house, because it is a specific house that most people would not already have in their heads, and the architectural detail is important to the story line. I don’t describe the people very much, though, other than hair color or age. Although I must say that whenever I visualize the main character, Nick Jonas makes an appearance! (YA novel.)

    • Layinda,

      I don’t think it’s unusual to visualize characters as real live people. If you’ve ever read a Patterson book and watched the movie KISS THE GIRLS, you will immediately fall into that trap. Alex Cross is forever Morgan Freeman.

      It sounds like you know when to go into detail and when to hold off. Sometimes specifics need to be given when they are essential to the plot line. That can be a nice change of pace from the sparse description throughout the rest of the book. It’s all about pacing and flow–of which description can interrupt easily.

  2. I’m running an experiment on my blog right now comparing two versions of the exact same scene, and the one with less description is the consensus winner so far.
    This is what I tell people who go overboard with description:
    Trust the reader.
    Their imagination is much more powerful than yours. You are just their guide through their journey, not their taskmaster.
    🙂

    • Andrew,

      Your experiement is interesting, and I think the outcome is telling. I think our world is so fast paced now-a-days that we have little time to absorb long passages when we can just as effectively create vivid pictures in our minds with far fewer words.

      This validates your quote: Trust the reader. Their imagination is more powerful than yours. You are just their guide through their journey, not their taskmaster.

      I think I shall print this in fancy font and hang it over my computer. It’s a great reminder of our purpose as writers.

  3. As a reader, I prefer the bare bones in descriptions so I can use my imagination and see places and people the way I want to see them. As a writer, I agree with the advice of Iapetus999, “Trust the reader.”

  4. I am on the same bandwagon as Patricia. Less is best.

  5. I think there needs to be some mystery. If you give every little detail, as the author, then it leaves nothing to the imagination. I also tend to find myself losing interest and saying “C’mon, c’mon already” when an author over describes a scene and I’m waiting for the next important detail or event.

    That said, there still needs to be something of a description. As a reader, I don’t spend my hard earned money to read someone say “a big round room.” My 7 year old could come up with something better than that.

    • Void,

      You bring up a powerful point for us to remember. Sparse description does not equal lazy, immature writing. Instead, we should strive to tell a better story with fewer words.

  6. I struggle with this. I tend to give one liner vivid descriptions, but they’re sometimes so poetic or “writerly” they pop the reader out of the story. How the heck do you tell your muse not to do something beautiful when she wants to! LOL

    • Victoria,

      That is an interesting self-assessment. Have you been told your poetic passages pull readers away, or do you instinctively feel this on rereads? I would think with your genre, you can get away with a little more poetry than most. Your locale is exotic and your stories have a poetic feel to them just based on subject matter. To me, this gives a little more leeway in the less is more.

  7. You pose an interesting question to start my Friday. I guess I like descriptions that take me somewhere else, a place I can see without phsically being there, as I now realize I will never make to all the places I wish to visit. Though I tend to fill in my own mental details (especially with character). Maybe part of the reason movies always disappoint (he doesn’t look like that!). I recently read the most amazing short story of my life in the current issue of The New Yorker. FOSTER. Beautifully written and descriptions that took my breath away. No exaggeration.

    • Yvonne,

      Thanks for pointing out the cons to sparse description. Not everyone gets to experience the world beyond their own backyard and there are many amazing places we would like to visit. Reading about them can be a great substitute and a nice reprieve from our daily lives.

      And I’m not just talking the Caribbean Islands. Something as simple as a desert can be exotic and enticing to someone living on a wooded mountain their whole life. Likewise, portaging a canoe in the Boundary Waters is unimaginable to an inner city resident. For these people, details can be what makes the story go from okay to great. Because, they are transported to a foreign place.

      Interesting.

  8. I just finished a novel (by a very popular #1 best selling author, ugh) where she repeatedly used “obvious” and “obviously” in her descriptions – where it was obviously not needed. I found it to be distracting and by the end of the novel, quite irritating.

    Better story; fewer – or at least the right- words, will always keep me engaged. I have been known to get out my pen and start editting right in the book…makes me feel like I can gain back some of the precious moments of my life wasted on poorly written books.

    • LOL, Becca!

      I still find writing in a book to be blasphemy, but I do edit in my head. Ruthlessly and with red pen. It does make you feel better about spending time and money on something.

      Obviously, we are all side-line editors, whether we are readers or writers! Thanks for the reading perspective on description. It’s nice to hear that point of view.

  9. I’m afraid it’s both, sometimes, Cat. If I’m able to tear myself away from my ms long enough – I’ve read your recent post and I absolutely agree with you, but I don’t seem to be ABLE to tear myself away – when I return I can feel myself occasionally “popped” away by one of my metaphors. Mostly it has been others’ comments and in those situations, I at least know I’ve done it again and I can tone my language down on revision.

    • Victoria,

      At least you have an ear for it on an edit. Sometimes we can be so deaf to our writing that we fail to catch the passages that sound off. While knowing doesn’t make cutting or tweaking any easier, just being aware of it puts you light years ahead of other writers who can’t separate what they want to say and what they actually said.

      Keep up the good work.

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