Memories of my early writing days are patchy, but I still remember bits and pieces—and one thing I remember, quite fondly, is how I used to think I had to describe everything.
Imagine this: you are thirteen. You are a reader and a writer. The stories closest to your heart are the ones vivid with colour and meaning, so what do you do when you write? Well, that’s obvious: you try to do the same! Your unsuspecting characters (who have probably been described in excruciating detail) wander the world noting carpet colours and types of trees and what everyone is wearing, and you think you’re doing a good job because your readers will know exactly what to imagine.
It’s cute! It’s really cute. I love growth trajectories. My favourite parts of movies and TV shows and even books are often the training montages. Mulan going from trainwreck recruit to superstar in the Chinese army, the girl in the Grisha series learning how to use her magic at the academy, Kageyama Shigeo working his little heart out in the body improvement club to go from 0 stamina to 0.3 stamina…
You get the gist. That moment before you knew better is just the jumping off point. The twelve year-old girl who thought it was important to mention the carpet colour, dimensions, and smell of a room that was entered once in chapter three then never again is gone, because she learned better. But deciding what descriptions to keep and what to leave out is still a form of art, and I love to hear opinions from people as readers more so than writers. What descriptions are important to create a vibrant world in a reader’s mind, and which ones are duds that just slow the whole thing down to a crawl?
It’s an ongoing question for me. Sometimes I choose not to add environmental details, trusting readers to know their own minds—until I reread my work and realise the characters are floating in a jelly-like mass of nothing. Other times, I won’t shut up about the angle of light slanting in through a window. There’s a balance to be struck, and every day of writing is an effort in finding it.
What do you think as a reader? How much is too much? Can you read Lord of the Rings without skimming? Do you wish Brandon Sanderson novels were longer?
This wonderful post by Patricia C. Wrede (author of the fantastic Enchanted Forest Chronicle series & enchanted chocolate pot fame) is an interesting view of the subject. I don’t totally agree—I have friends who love reading who have read nothing but fanfiction for years because they enjoy the slower pace and the way fanfic can linger on details without caring too much about plot—but there are published novels and saga-length fanfictions that lost me as a reader because they refused to get to the point. There’s beauty in brevity:
Tastes differ. There’s no “right” way—but if you’re in a talky mood today as you read this post, I’d love to hear your opinion on what descriptions catch you. What books strike you as particularly vivid? When have you been annoyed by a lack of description, if ever?
I might know now that rooms entered once but never again should be described sparingly, but there’s plenty left to learn. If I think of authors whose descriptions have enchanted me in the details and phrasing, the first one I think of is Juliet Marillier, who writes lush historical fantasy romances. She cheats by being an author I read as a teen, but that’s not her fault. My quotes page bears the following passage from Child of the Prophecy, and I haven’t stopped loving it since I first read it a decade and a half ago:
It was a night of restless dreams, and I awoke before dawn, shivering under my woollen blanket, hearing the howl of the wind and the roar of the sea as it pounded the rocks of the Honeycomb. Not a good day to be abroad. Perhaps Dan Walker and his folk would decide to stay a little longer. But it never did happen that way. They were as true to their time as birds flying away for the winter, their arrivals and departures as precise as the movement of shadows in a sacred circle. You could count your year by them. The golden times. The gray times. It seemed to me the voice of the wind had words in it. I will sweep you bare… bare… I will take all… all… And the sea responded in kind. I am hungry… give me… give…Child of the prophecy by juliet Marillier
Are you shivering? I’m shivering. I’m transported to beneath a woollen blanket, with the sea and the wind raging. Of course, a science fiction author writing about ship-based life (me) might envy Marillier for getting to harness these powerful natural images while they—poor SF authors that they are—deal with life aboard a dinky spaceship… but that’s all right. Even when I don’t get to play with certain images as a writer, getting to experience someone else’s talent as a reader is pretty awesome. It just makes me excited for other projects, where I will get to play with those things.
SO! I’m ready for homework, if you have homework to give. I refer to the questions above. You’re not required to answer—but I’d love to hear from people reading this. What descriptions have you enjoyed, and what details complete a book for you?
We could all stand to push our limits here and there.