Friday, January 27, 2012

Description or Distraction?

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend about the book she was reading. Did she like it? Was it a keeper? To which she replied with a “meh” face and shook her head.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, surprised. The book in question shall remain nameless, but suffice it to say it was by a well-known author of popular main-stream fiction, and I had assumed she would enjoy it.

“Not really exciting,” she said. “I keep skipping through it.”

“Really?” I asked. “Why?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s too much description. It just seems to get bogged down. I mean, do I really care what color someone’s pants are or what kind of shirt they’re wearing? What’s the point in that kind of detail?”

What’s the point, indeed.

The problem I think my friend had with the book she was reading, was not with the descriptions the author had written, but their relevance. It’s easy to write on auto-pilot. To think, “inset description here” and add in a few details to describe a room in order to flesh out a scene. What takes a bit more effort, though, is making the description relevant to the point of view of whichever character happens to be hosting the scene, and relevant to the story as a whole.

Take my living room for example. It’s undoubtedly a mess to my eyes. I see the dirt on the carpet that needs vacuuming, the dust that needs Swiffering away, the toys left in a pile on the floor, ready to trip the unwary. So what do you know about me from those few details I have described? I have kids, and my living room needs cleaning. Going a bit deeper, you could wonder if maybe I’m a clean-freak who obsesses about every piece of dirt. Or maybe I’m just too busy to pick up and clean up, and could really use a helpful maid. (Really. I need a maid.) Either way, the point is, description does more than add details to a scene, it builds character.

Someone else would see the same room quite differently than I, of course. Point of view is so important; it really changes everything that is "seen" in a story. A bookworm might ignore the dust and toys in favour of the very large bookcase stacked full of rare books that takes up most of a wall. A kid would see little else except the toys on the floor and the fun they embody. What types of books and kinds of toys those might be, would depend on the scene being written and how it relates to the overall story. Because description does more than build character, it builds a story. And every detail counts.

Every. Detail.

If a detail doesn’t count, then why is it there? Why describe the carpet as chocolate-colored, or plush, or wool, unless it means something to the character "seeing" it and engages the reader to keep reading instead of putting the book down. Description should never serve as a distraction; it should bolster good dialogue and add depth to a scene. It should never be some sort of fluffed-up filler that bridges one line of dialogue to the next. Because, as my friend pointed out, it’s very easy for a reader to become bored and skim through chapters if the description is just not appropriate.

Have you ever read a book where the description in a scene popped you right out of the story? Did you put the book down or give it a second chance?


  1. Ugh. Historicals. I love the stories, hate the descriptions. Fortunately some of the "modern" historical authors do a great job of ONLY giving us what we need/want in description (Lisa Kleypas and Julia Quinn, for example). But I can remember skimming through 2-3 pages at a time which described tapestries, floors, and then of course lengthy lists detailing a woman's attire. Boring with the BOLD, capital B. And I think in large part the problem with those decriptions, as you've pointed out, is that they weren't so much from any character's POV, but from the author's.
    As Stephen King pointed out in On Writing, just because as an author you CAN describe something in great detail, doesn't mean you SHOULD... we've got to give the reader just enough to build their own mind movie with, but not so much that she has to stop and focus on our directives.

    At least, I think. :)

    Fab post, chica!

  2. Thank you, Piper. Stephen King is such an amazing writer and his descriptions certainly don't do anything except create a deliciously creepy shiver of horror, in a good way of course :) So many gems of wisdom in On Writing. Thanks for recommending it to me. And thanks for stopping by with your thoughts!