1. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    skipping description

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by madhoca, Apr 13, 2010.

    Sometimes a beautifully-captured scene or emotion really grabs me in a novel, but I have a terrible confession to make: as often as not I skip the descriptive passages to get on with the story. I really squirm when writing gets too intense as well--except on the rare occasions when it does speak to me.

    For example, I'm just reading 'The Historian' by Elizabeth Kostova, and although sometimes the description adds something, often it just serves to pad the book (which is long enough anyway).

    Am I just a really dull and unemotional person--and writer--or does anyone else here feel that an awful lot of exposition and description is a boring, unnecessary self-indulgence on the part of the writer which can be skimmed through, or even jumped over? Do I run the risk of not pleasing the crowd if I don't feed them plenty of...well, flowery words basically?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I have this trouble as well.

    In the attempt to avoid the infodump or waxing rhapsodic and prosaic about the texture of a fine Victorian table cloth, I skip it.

    What happens?

    I end up with really short chapters that I have to go back and flesh out.
     
  3. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    I personally don't like long descriptions. I don't care how beautiful it is, if it goes on for more than two paragraphs, I will totally zone out and forget everything I just read the second some sort of action takes place.

    But I don't like zero description, either. I want to have some idea of what I'm supposed to be imagining. It's hard finding books that don't go too far one way or the other for me.

    There are plenty of people who like flowery wording, and plenty of people who don't. You can't please everyone, so don't even try. Write the way you feel it should be. Whether anyone else likes it is everyone else's business.
     
  4. NewBee
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    NewBee Senior Member

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    I can't stand the long descriptions either - both in reading and writing. I'm all about action. I've put a lot of books down just because they have too much description right at the beginning, or because they are too wordy and I feel like an idiot reading, because I don't know what they mean.
     
  5. Snail
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    Snail New Member

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    I also get quite tired of long descriptions, especially when they are written so 'creatively' that you have to read each sentence a few times to work out what they are even talking about.

    I have the same problem as Wreybies and have to go back over all my writing at the end to add it in. It's a balancing act.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It's not only a matter of how much description. It also matters when you provide it.

    Lengthy descriptive passages need to be broken up in any case. Too much detail cannot be absorbed by the reader at one stroke. The reader needs time to let a collection of details sink in.

    But also, details should be presented when the flow of the story permits it. If your characters are running for their lives, dodging bullets or lethal flying predators, they won't be paying attention to the amazing colors of the rocky canyon they are scrambling through, or the stunning topography of the female lead's chest.
     
  7. TracyCul
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    TracyCul New Member

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    Gosh I thought I was the only one. It was my secret shame! :(

    It's so good to be able to 'come out' so to speak!

    I think the best description is that which is woven in with the action, so the reader absorbs the scene almost subliminally.

    Tracy
     
  8. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    Description (whether it comes in blocks or snippets) serves two primary functions: 1) To set a certain mood/tone for a scene and provide details that draw the reader into that scene, and 2) To slow down the pace of the story.

    As Cogito said, you aren't going to launch into poetic scene descriptions while characters are dodging bullets and running for their lives. However, such a description might be just what the story needs after they've escaped and finally have a chance to catch their breath and process everything that just happened to them, perhaps while watching a breathtaking sunrise or something equally worthy of a nice, long, story-slowing description.

    In the game of story pacing, description is one of your invaluable tools. Learn when and how to use it well. You'll be glad you did.
     
  9. TeabagSalad
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    TeabagSalad Member

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    Too much description is a dangerous thing in my view. Overly flowery descriptions are what make the likes of some Dickens so difficult to read (one has to remember that he was being paid per word so long descriptive passages served his bank balance).

    In my view the point of a fiction book is to read a story. A story is effectively a description of a series of events and scenes. Some scenes will require more descriptions will require more description and mood setting than others.

    I recently discovered a neat little trick; well it was a neat trick for me, other people probably already know this. I recently completed the first draft of the first chapter of a story I am working on and as I was editing it I discovered that in my attempt to cover a fair amount of ground in my first chapter I had completely failed to describe my main character's physical appearance. Rather than ruin the flow of the chapter I have tried to add descriptions of her to the descriptions of the actions she takes.

    For example:

    "Laura pulled her hair back into a pony tale, secured it with a hair band then made her way out on to the landing."

    This is all well and good but it only tells the reader that Laura has hair...wow! I then changed it to something like (sorry I don't have the exact text with me today):

    "Laura pulled her light brown hair back into a pony tale; she pushed her fringe back over her ears and then made her way out onto the landing."

    The second sentence isn't that much longer but it gives the read a better idea of what Laura looks like. I think sneaking description into actions is quite a handy technique as it gives the reader subtle clues as to a character's description without detracting too much from the story.

    Describing an environment on the other hand is a completely different kettle of fish.

    All in my humble opinion.

    Regards,

    Ian
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Be sure to stay within your POV's character, though.
    How obsessed is your POV character with Laura's appearance? It doesn't sound like someone seeing Laura for the first time, but it doesn't sound like someone who knows her and sees her on a daily basis either. The light brown sounds and is forced.

    Wait until you have occasion to see Laura through eyes that would be appropriate to notice her hair color and style -- maybe a guy who has a crush on her.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I also tend to skip long descriptive passages. I like short ones that just offer an outline for one's own image. For example, to write my own not-so-great examples:

    - Description of brown-haired Laura: "Laura grimaced into the hall mirror. Mousy hair. Mousy clothes. And John's date would no doubt be yet another Grace Kelly lookalike. She shook her head, scraped her hair back into the usual pony tail, and snatched her keys. Time to go."

    - Description of the restaurant: "It was her favorite space in the city, all polished wooden floors, tall windows, and white tablecloths. If only it didn't make her feel quite so shabby in comparison."

    - Description of John's date, later at the restaurant: "And there was John, sweeping through the double doors with, yes, yet another Grace Kelly on his arm. Grace Kelly in overalls, admittedly. A little odd, that. But she was still the perfect Hitchcock blonde. Laura reached up to check that her pony tail was still largely intact, then folded her hands on the table, trying not to look at her chipped nails."

    Of course, I may hate all of those in four hours. :)

    ChickenFreak
     
  12. Nobeler Than Lettuce
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    Nobeler Than Lettuce Contributing Member

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    I prefer minimalist descriptive passages that are only delivered when the intent of the description is to further the narrative, and not simply, right away, or the first time we meet them.

    I think the general audience here has shown they prefer to adhere at least to the latter part of my preferences.

    To each his own, as always, and forever.

    Diamonds.
     
  13. TeabagSalad
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    TeabagSalad Member

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    I take your points. However, the example I gave is from the start of my story where Laura (who is the main character) is by herself. I do not really want to leave the reader without any impression of the way the main characters looks in the first few pages of a book given she has no interaction with anyone else for some time.

    I agree that my example (and that is all that it was) is a little forced but I was trying to make a point using example text rather than looking for comment on my work. The example that I gave certainly isn't in my story.

    This might not be the correct thing to do on this site, but I did find your post to be more than a little condescending. I am new to the site and to offering and receiving public comment on people's work, but I would have thought that a moderator would try to be more polite. Maybe I did not make it clear that all I was attempting to do was make a point about style. It really is more than a little off putting when someone jumps all over your work (even when they are only examples) without you asking when all you are trying to do is to make comment on descriptive style. If I wanted someone to comment on my work then I would post to the relevant section.

    Regards,

    Ian
     
  14. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    TeabagSalad: It's hard to introduce a character's physical appearance in a graceful, unobtrusive kind of way. Many authors don't even try. If you feel it's really necessary, however, there are a few tricks you can use. Give the character a reason to ponder their appearance for a moment. (Avoid mirrors, though. It screams amateur.) For example: Laura noticed the way the man was looking at her from across the bar. Typical. Either men have a special radar that tells them whenever a tall blonde enters the room, or she was just unlucky.

    Best of luck to you!
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Ever read Sue Grafton's mystery novels? There are very few descriptions of the main character. You pick up a few hints from time to time that she has brown hair that she usually cuts herself (badly), that she's average height, in decent physical shape but not exactly athletic. The first description of her in one of the more recent novels is also one of the most comprehensive, and shows up 3/4 of the way into the novel. We get that description from the antagonist's point of view, with a certain amount of resentment toward the nosy upstart who's complicaqting her plans.

    It isn't really all that necessary to describe a character right away. So what if your reader has to revise his or her image of the character somewhat later on?

    Of course, a really major physical characteristic, like bright orange hair, can be easily shown in a reaction from even a minor character.

    But give serious thought to delaying description, or even leaving it vague.
     
  16. TeabagSalad
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    TeabagSalad Member

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    I can't say that I have ever read them. Might try and pick one up on the way home tonight - although I might not want to risk the wrath of the missus...I read too much apparantly ;)

    My main concern came out of a couple of comments my proof readers have made with regards to the character. Because I lack any description of the character's physical appearance the reader is in danger of forming their own opinion of what the character looks like based on cultural stereotypes the reader associates with. If you then later inform the reader of the character's appearance and it contradicts the ideas the reader has already formed they are likely to lose connection with the character because they don't live up to the readers ideas. Hence I think it is a good idea to give the reader little prompts along the way to direct the basic idea of what the character looks like before giving a fuller description later on. Sort of like subtle sign posts along the way. Difficult I know but I think that it is worth the effort.

    Indeed.

    I think both have their dangers - people like to know what a character looks like - the way someone looks is often the way people make their initial judgements of people so I think it is important to give people that image or help them to form it as soon as possible.

    Regards,

    Ian
     
  17. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    Please don't assume everyone likes physical descriptions. I personally despise being force-fed physical characteristics, and those minor descriptions that are scattered around here and there fade from my head the second I move on to the next sentence. I generally don't care what the character looks like, unless his/her appearance is important in some way.

    I might remember something like hair or eye color, or if the person is described as attractive or ugly, or if the person has any facial hair. I mention such things in my own writing as well. But beyond that, I couldn't care less. I have my own way of visualizing the characters, and any attempt by the author to replace the image I have is invariably ignored. Maybe I'm alone in that, but that's the way I am.
     
  18. rainy
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    rainy Senior Member

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    Like FMK, I prefer just glimpses at the chars. Actually, I prefer just the highlights with any description. Blueprints. I can fill in the rest on my own. I often skip over long descriptive passages during quick reads.

    But if the description is too far into the book, I've already formed my own and will forever be scarred if the dark-featured stranger is really a blond haired, blue eyed Scandanavian. ;)

    I also like if it's done with some tact and not just an exposition, usually through dialogue.

    It's a balancing act, IMO. Give enough to keep going, but don't bog down the narrative. Much like handeling back story. One exception I see is when introducing something entirely new, such in fantasy. A new machine, a new beast, something we have no reference for, could probably handle a little more description as long as it's not overboard.

    But I agree with Cogito in that, if the char has no reason to see it, then neither should the reader. I hate when chars are sizing themself up in the mirror while making a mad dash out the door. Wait, what?

    That applies to scenery description too. Unless it fits the char and the moment, it shouldn't happen.

    Best luck,

    //R
     
  19. Mila
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    Mila Member

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    I hate the mirror thing, and would only use it if the MC is normally a careless dresser but on this occasion its her/his faffing about with appearance that causes her to be late and therefore fall headlong into the plot, for example. If it's just used as a cheap and lazy way to get their looks into the reader's head then NOOOO don't do it !
    That said, that's exactly what I've done in the opening paragraph to my current piece, but then again I am re-writing Snow White. You only get a vague idea of hair and eyes though, to emphasise the character's feeling of frailty - the rest gets fed in as you go through the story.
    As for scenery, I like it as long as it's not littered with adjectives, and any more than two sentences at a time and my attention's lost. I like unusual metaphors - fiery sunsets ? Please do something different ! Mix it in with action, unless your MC is a photographer or artist and goes about assessing every damn thing they see in terms of paintings etc...
     

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