EDITING 101: 02 – Description Depression…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

 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.

Next week we’ll discuss THAT’s the Problem in Revising’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.

Susan

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57 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 02 – Description Depression…

    • Yeah, Adele, Dickens is the only author that I can just not get through. In high school, I eagerly devoured every assigned book…except when I got to him. He was the first and only time I had to buy Cliff’s Notes! 🙂

      As for an excellent example of showing description, please see Bob Nailor’s example waaay down at the bottom of the post (he was the very first commenter).

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Excellent series! I do agree that in today’s world people are more in a hurry with everything, including reading. I’m a writer, and I know as a reader, I too will skip over too much description, hence, I try to keep my own writing descriptions to what is necessary. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on COW PASTURE CHRONICLES and commented:
    Descriptions, like backstory can be difficult for writers. When and how to introduce a character, setting, or movtivation if not done well comes across like a glob of information dumped onto the page. When this happens, the readers often skips ahead or stops reading. Chris does a great job discussing descriptions in the post below. Be sure to let him know you like it.
    Also, for additonal help with descriptions, check out the Physical Feature Thesaurus and The Urban/Rural Settings Thesaurus at http://writershelping writers.net.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is so relevant to all writers. I think that getting this fine balance of weaving in a little of the ‘information dump’ with the ‘get to the point’ narrative is a skill that has to be tailored for every piece of writing. I am constantly sharpening my pencil on this one. Hemingway got it right. But as ever, the simplest instructions are always the hardest to do. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. That explains my confusion over the amount of description I see in the books I’m reading at present – far more than I would expect of trad published authors in genre. That was something else I learnt the other day – litfic allows description, genre doesn’t. So maybe I’ll stop worrying about the lack of description in some of my books, and put a bit more back in when I want to create atmosphere and a sense of place as a character.
    Thanks

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, every writer (and every reader) is different. Some writers insert a lot of description, and they’ll have readers who love it and will eagerly read everything they put out, and others will hate it and will avoid their books and/or leave bad reviews. 😦 Some writers insert hardly any description and again, some will love it and some will hate it. So, as a writer, you’re treading a fine line—trying to satisfy everybody. And it really can’t be done!

      The best you can do is be sure you’re adding description that fits the story and is needed. For instance, a reader may not care that you haven’t described the main character at all (besides “stunning”) and are happy to create the visual in their mind. But if on page 100 you suddenly inform them the character has raven black hair when they’ve pictured her as a blonde, that’s a problem.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Haven’t seen the post about water reflection, which mirrors the… mirror trick. Let characters reveal themselves to the reader only when needed, and little by little. If you serve your opinion of the character or the full description in one go with a trick, you keep readers at a distance. Besides, that’s lots of information in one place to be retained, moreover not attached to any particular tension in a scene; tension glues the vision. Once you’ve told all of it once, all in one go, chances are those details are all forgotten chapters later and you’ll be force to tell that again.

    Every word, every description, every piece of information has to answer one simple question: “So what?” If not needed, don’t put it there, if not used or referenced, it’s place is not there. Think of the Chekhov’s gun, if you show a rifle at one point in a scene, it needs to shoot sooner or later.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Editing 101 continues with Susan Uttendorfsky – are you are writer that describes your characters down to their birthmark on the back of their neck or elsewhere… you may be over selling it.. Head over to the Story Reading Ape… read a little Dickens… and don’t hesitate to ask if you would like to know more…

    Liked by 2 people

  7. It can’t be denied that descriptions put readers into the story when they are engaged with all their senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, feel. If dialogues move the plot forward, descriptions flesh out scenes.

    Victorian writers over described scenes and gave credence to the statement “That’s more than I need to know.”
    I now tend give hints and leave the rest to the readers’ imagination.

    New writers often break into the story creating author intrusion, especially when describing people. The reader is subjected to a litany of details about height, weight, hair color, etc, that give no chance to the reader’s own vision.

    Slightly more experienced writers use the overworked mirror trick, letting the character provide the description: She watched herself in the mirror as she brushed her “long black shiny hair and put a touch of pink lipstick to her full lips, etc.” Ouch!

    Dickens never heard of Hemingway’s iceberg. For Hemingway, the secret to effective writing was to forget about the flowery prose of the literati and keep the writing simple, short, and clear. He worked with these guidelines in mind:

    1. Use short sentences.
    2. Use short first paragraphs.
    3. Use vigorous English.
    4. Be positive, not negative.

    If you add to these suggestion the “Elements of Style”‘s mantra, “cull the unnecessary words,” you’re bound to write in a more effective, more gripping English.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love to find ways to describe a character without doing an “info dump” at the reader. Sometimes I’ll use another character’s view to describe a character or use the environment to do it, such as the following (main character has swam to a rusting hulk of a ship) – Leo sat there in the partially flooded room of the abandoned ship, his muscular and hairy legs dangling in the water. He hunched over and saw his reflection smiling back: dark, curly hair; midnight blue eyes and a well chiseled Italian face under a slightly unshaven beard. The scar running from mid-forehead to left eyebrow was barely visible in the water’s reflection. Dimples deepened as he smiled. Leo shook his head as he noticed the red plaid bathing trunks he’d been forced to buy for this excursion to the ship but still felt his toned and tanned muscles could cover for the nerdy image they projected.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like the description of the character, Bob, and you’ve done an excellent job of showing us, not telling us. It’s still pretty much a description dump, though… If you could spread out those sentences over a page or two, in the same scene, that would be helpful. 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, Susan. I must admit, spreading that information over pages and/or chapters would have been much easier if it hadn’t been a short story. When you only have 1000 words or less to tell a story and need to describe your character, a brief ‘info dump’ seems the only way, therefore I try to make it interesting.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Oh, yes, a short story is much harder to spread it out in, that’s for sure. But—to play devil’s advocate—in a short story, how much of that description is/was necessary to the story? I assume his being in the abandoned ship is necessary, surrounded by water, and the nerdy bit… I copied and pasted the description into Word to get a word count and it came out at 106 words. That constitutes a tenth of your available word count.

          It could very well be that this passage is truly important and appropriate for your particular story! I’m just pointing out that perhaps it isn’t. 😀

          Liked by 1 person

          • I probably could have shortened it a tad but it was important to let the reader know this was basically a very fit, young-ish man who had been around the block, hence the muscles and scar. Plus, I wanted to allow the reader to realize he was somewhat sexy… and we’ve all seen those horrendous red plaid bathing trunks that should of been left in the 50s. The story is a ship’s love call to death with our hero.

            Liked by 2 people

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