Descriptions – Writing (and reading) nigthmare #5

When well written and not too extensive they are a good way to bring the reader into the fictional world.

When excessive and too detailed they kill the rhythm and bore the reader to death.

I’m talking about descriptions.

As a reader I don’t really like novels full of descriptions. I still remember being assigned Ivanhoe by Walter Scott at school. I never managed to go beyond the first ten pages or so. Ten pages or so of description of a wood and of the appearance of a man walking in it, with all the minute details about his clothes. This is all I remember of that book (sorry Sir Walter).

Moreover when I read a novel I tend to imagine a character or a setting in a certain way, despite the author’s description. I can’t help it. If an image enters my mind I can’t erase it unless I concentrate a lot (and that usually spoilts the fun of reading a novel).

My dislike or at least indifference towards description is the reason why, as a writer, I try to limit them to the essential. I don’t like to pester my readers with detailed accounts about furniture or clothing, but I understand the some description is needed.

So how to find a balance between too much and too little?

It may come natural for other writers, but for me it is a real problem. Usually, while writing the first draft, I leave out almost every description except for the basic ones. For instance, I describe the look of the main characters the first time they appear, I give a brief account about the main places in which the characters move and I talk about clothes, jewelry and hairstyle only if funcional to convey some information (the particular elegance or shabbiness of a person, his/her social status and tastes, and so on).

Then what?

Some times I am tempted to cut the descriptions entirely, other times I expand them while rewriting and editing. Anyway I am never quite satisfied with my descriptions. I usually have a very clear idea in mind, about how my character looks like and how their world is, but I’m not sure I manage to impart it to the reader.

Moreover the fact that I know more about the characters than what actually reach the pages doesn’t make me the better judge of what to write and what to leave out. In the end, there’s one exercise I find useful in this predicament: I try to put myself in the reader’s shoes to discern what is essential for him to know and what is not.

And you? How do you deal with description?

As readers, do you like them or would you cut them off entirely?


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One thought on “Descriptions – Writing (and reading) nigthmare #5

  1. GAH.
    I have issues with description in my writing as well. I completely agree with you in that it can be distracting when there’s too much of it.
    People’s minds naturally fill in ‘blanks’ (as you said). I’ve been adamant from the get-go that I wouldn’t spend five pages describing a tree. It really is just pointless and distracting.

    Now, on the other hand, I know some people out there enjoy that sort of thing. Just . . . not for me.
    It really is difficult trying to find the proper balance for that when writing!


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