1. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Leaving some for the readers' imagination

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by jwatson, Aug 28, 2009.

    I've been told countless times that I should not be very strict with my description. Teachers tell me to leave some for the readers' imagination and I've also heard this around on the web.
    My question is: how do I know how much description to add in some places?

    For example, in my second chapter, my character is on his way home on horseback, and I'm struggling when it comes to the description. Do I have to describe the city in depth? And then he comes across a church, and I describe the church when he walks in it to speak to the priest, then I remember that I should be leaving some freedom for the reader...

    I'd love to get some comments on this...
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Describe only what te POV character would notice at that moment in time. If the horse is galloping through the trees, all the rider will probably notice is the low hanging branches he is trying to duck or brush aside. If he has stopped and is resting at the top of a hill, he might describe the breathtaking view of the valley below in exquisite detail.

    In other words, match the level of detail to the current pace of the story.
     
  3. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Most high school teachers are not very good writing instructors. They know the many of the skills and concepts, but do not really understand how and when to apply them in my experience. Unless they are writers themselves, they are working from the curriculum guidelines and material, not actual knowledge of how to write.

    To add to what Cogito said, think of what the reader absolutely needs to know. If the detail is something the reader won't benefit much from, it probably doesn't need to be there.
     
  4. bluebell80
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    bluebell80 Contributing Member

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    This is one part that I have noticed a lot of writers (published authors included) fail at. They over describe and it gets boring. Under describing can leave the reader lost as to the character's surroundings and what is going on. So there is a delicate balance to it.

    I know from acting, getting into the character's head is very important. Knowing what they would see or notice is important. If you have a character who is always in their own head, thinking about every little detail, they might not notice their surroundings as much as a character who is environmentally detailed oriented. A character who isn't always internalizing their emotions, but that is observant of their surroundings and others might often end up giving descriptions of things in great detail.

    I think these things are pertinent to each individual character, not so much narrative. If you are in TP POV switching between up close and pulled back views, then you're going to have varying descriptions based on where you are in the story. Up close, your only going to get what the character observes, and how much you give your reader says to how observant your character is, it can also create a difference between characters as to their observational levels.

    If we think about it in real life. How many people do you know who are completely oblivious to the world around them? I know I know a few. I also know people who are thoroughly observant to their surroundings and other people. So character's are going to behave in the same way. Some will be detail oriented, other's won't be.

    It's part of knowing your characters and being inside their heads. And to each writer and character it will be different. As such, each reader's experience will also be different depending on their ability of retention and comprehension, or observation of details.
     
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  5. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Thanks for the responses. This is good advice and I need to get to know my character a bit better.
     
  6. Baseloaf
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    Baseloaf New Member

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    Bluebell, you made me remember one scene in one of Mary Stewart´s Merlin books. There was a battle going on, and she spent at least half a page describing the apple trees Merlin stood by. Sure, those books aren´t supposed to focus on battles, but when there´s one going on I doubt the reader cares very much about those trees. :)

    One other case when over-describing is common is when the characters move througha forest. Sometimes they´re chased or otherwise preoccupied, and still the author gives a detailed description of which kinds of undergrowth they pass through. I don´t know about you guys, but if I walked through a forest I´d have no idea what most of the plants were called. Sometimes it feels like all fictiona lcharacters are professional botanists.
     
  7. MacGuffin
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    MacGuffin Member

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    Think about what your reader already knows about the setting.

    If it off the wall sci-fi or fantasy or a historical period or even a different country they will not be familiar with then more description is needed to get that picture built up.

    If it is and everyday setting like a school then you can be more selectiev about what you describe.

    I think this is good advice as I'm pretty sure I read it on another thread a few moons back.
     
  8. Pallas
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    Pallas Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well I suppose you jwatson, have some favorite books that you enjoyed reading, perhaps some in your own writing theme. At these points where you were the reader/audience, how much description did you find right, too much, or just lacking? Analyzing your own threshold for detail can be a valuable learning tool, and adapting, not copying, the style of your favorite books to compliment your own can also be quite beneficial. Just a thought.
     
  9. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Don't leave room for interpretation if you don't want to. Its your novel, and its up to you as the writer to decide what does and does not warrant the reader's attention. If you feel that Joe's shoes deserve three pages of description, write it that way. Don't compromise your artistic vision for the sake of a hypothetical reader who might not like it.

    That said, and as with virtually all the advice on these forums, this comes with the assumption that your writing is actually good. Three pages of description that is rendered unreadable by lack of style is not going to do you any favours.
     

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