Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Description - good or bad?

Another one of those rules you see flung around in writers' circles is about description.

"You use too much description. The story gets bogged down. Cut, cut, cut." Is the gist of it.

And I agree, on the whole. You see, I have the attention span of a hyperactive gnat with its arse on fire; I'm not the type who loves to spend days reading about the redness of her hair or the blueness of the sky. I had to wade through enough stodge to get my degree and at my age I'm too old to waste any precious minutes absorbing some pretentious writer's endless wordplay when they get to go for the Booker. GET ON WITH IT is what I'm thinking during long descriptive passages - and if they go on much longer than that I'm chucking the book at the wall and blacklisting the author for all time.

It's something all writers should be paranoid about. Exactly when is Joe Schmoe gonna chuck my book away? If it's on page three you're in trouble because they'll never forgive you, believe me. You get one chance to impress in this game so don't blow it.

But how do I set the scene? You cry.

Well, it's true. You do have to set the scene, but the trick is to tell just enough to get the reader into what's happening. Once they care about your characters you can slip in more description - it's best to drip feed it, much like the dreaded backstory. And always ask yourself, is it really necessary people know he has grey hair sprouting like gorse bushes out of his flaring nostrils? A lot of the time people like to draw their own picture from the sketch you've given them; your version of the picture is like the screen adaptation that everyone hates because it's not how they imagined it.

Writing is a collaboration between writer and reader. Without their imagination in play the reader will never get fully into the story. And you have to trust them by giving just enough description to get them there.

1 comment:

Sophie Playle said...

On the other hand... some writers are AMAZING at detail and description. 'Gormenghast' by Mervyn Peake, for example. Now the action in that book is pretty slow, because of the ammount of attention Peake gives to detail. Not even detail of important characters or scenes, but whole detailed chapters on characters and situations that never really crop up again. But it WORKS. At least, I feel it does. It adds a sense of richness and beauty to the novel. It adds to the enormity and absurdity of the castle's setting. It seems pointless and unnecessary on the surface, but really it is genius.