Do You Have Description Depression?
Are you a writer who uses rich, lush descriptions for their settings and characters? Or one who just wants “the facts, Ma’am, just the facts”? Is it an effort to decide how much description to use, where, and exactly what?
If you struggle with Description Depression in your writing, you’re not alone. There isn’t a “correct” way to use description in fiction, although, in my humble opinion, you’re better off using too little than too much.
In over describing, a writer runs the risk of annoying their readers. Many readers admit to skipping over large amounts of description. It didn’t used to be that way. Before the age of movies, television, the Internet, and smartphones, people read for entertainment. They enjoyed long, full descriptions of scenes and characters. But today’s fast-paced world is different. Some readers still enjoy settling into such a book, but others just want to get to the action.
The following is only the first paragraph of a five-paragraph scene description of an exterior location (Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Chapter 1). Remember, this is just outside the inn!
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Dickens is well known for his lengthy descriptive style…and the level of difficulty in reading it. Yes, it’s visual, imaginative, and expressive. But it’s not easy to read, and modern readers may refuse to wade through it. How would you rewrite this for a contemporary reader? I’d love to see your examples in the comments.
As for character description, some writers introduce a character along with their physical fact sheet:
Fred stood, his six-foot-two-inch frame seeming to tower over petite Jenny. His blond hair, greying beard, blue eyes, flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots contrasted with her preppy attire.
At first glance, this may seem acceptable. But if the same style of descriptive paragraph repeats each time a new character appears, it will lose its appeal. Trust me on this one! Little tidbits of description that continue along throughout the story, rather than a massive information dump at a character or scene’s initial occurrence, is the best way to handle description.
We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!
Owner, Adirondack Editing