Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (02 Description Depression)

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 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’!

Susan

Susan Uttendorfsky

Owner, Adirondack Editing

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22 thoughts on “Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (02 Description Depression)

  1. I’ve just been re-reading A Christmas Carol and I was blown away by his description of Scrooge in the first page. The rest of it reads like the movies and tv adaptations we know and love, but that first page really was an eye-opener! Having said that, I skipped most of your Bleak House quote!

    I absolutely hate characters introduced with description like your example. But they are all too common :sigh:

    Thanks for this series: it’s great revision before I go into final edit of my next book.

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  2. Please don’t forget that Dickens, one of the great authors in the English language, wrote in different times. Also, he was initially paid by the word, hence his wordy writing. I think it is impertinent of anyone to criticise Dickens. I only wish I could be a shadow of the shadow of Dickens in writing prowess.

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    • Hi Henry, thanks for commenting! No, I didn’t forget the time period. 🙂 I specifically said, regarding it: “…They enjoyed long, full descriptions of scenes and characters. But today’s fast-paced world is different.”

      I didn’t know Dickens was paid by the word! That might account for some of his lengthy descriptions. And I apologize for being impertinent; that wasn’t my intent. 🙂

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  3. Here ya go!

    On the heels of Michaelmas, Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall and London’s weather being typically dreary. The rainy season in full swing, dirt roads turned into muddy marshes with soot filled skies a dismal grey. There seemed to be no escape from the misery. Even the horses legs looked more like muddy boots and the dogs so coated they seemed unrecognizable. Impatient patrons, rushing to get to their destinations, finding themselves tumbling off balance, sliding through slick intersections – now a mixture of horse muck and mud, seethed with anger.

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    • I like it, Mrs. P. I think it describes the scene well, and contemporary readers would get the sense of it while not considering it overly long. Because I’m a left-brained editor, I wondered how much shorter yours was. I copied both passages into Word and got the word count for each. Dickens’ original was 169 words, yours is 91 words. So you cut out 78 words!

      Thanks for your public attempt. And I agree with your comment above that writers need to develop a thick skin, because not everybody is going to like everything you write. 🙂

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    • Just post it in the comments, Mrs. P.

      To all the readers, remember what your mother used to say. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” 🙂 Kindness counts.

      I’m not at all implying your rewrite will be poor or have problems, Mrs. P! I’m just trying to head off any problems. 🙂

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  4. Well, I wasn’t shy and I left a reply that disagreed with the observation of the sample of Dickens masterful description which had the reality of a setting where the smell and feel and look of mud was actually interesting.

    So much for the other side of the literary fence. Not all writing has to spoon-feed readers hooked on texting and formula stories with > ‘it was a muddy day’

    A book is not a movie; it is a moving story. A director would show the chaos mud and the dogs and horses, and sounds of carriage wheels and the whinny and barks of mired animals. The written word has to reveal these things in compelling descriptions.

    Writers should be so lucky to have Dickens’ talent for transporting a reader to a time and place.

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    • I’m glad you weren’t shy about leaving a reply, Veronica! I don’t know where your original one went…

      Anyway, while Dickens’ style of description does not appeal to me, it does appeal to some people. And before the modern interruption of imagination by electronic gadgets, books were the *only* entertainment. Obviously at Dickens’ time of writing, that style of description was, if not favored, at least acceptable.

      While some contemporary readers would relish digging into a Dickens-like book, they may be–I don’t know for sure!–few and far between.

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  5. I have to say I struggle with this. I keep remembering ‘show not tell’ but it’s a fine line between too much (like Dickens. I didn’t get past the fifth sentence!) and too little. I admire those who strike the right balance. Thank you for this Susan.

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    • You’re welcome, Di. Yes, Dickens is the only classic author I can’t read. However, I love the movies! Ha ha. 🙂 I’m going to attempt listening to _Bleak House_, because I really like that one. But I’m not sure listening to it will be any better than reading…

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