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2 Points from Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Writing - Description

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by T.Allen.Smith, Feb 9, 2013.

  1. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    First, let's not get bogged down in the discussion of rules vs. guidelines. This is part of a set of rules Leonard used for himself.

    1) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

    2) Don't go into great detail describing places and things.


    Preferring the minimalist approach,I tend to agree, thinking these are the sorts of details that readers can fill in from their own experiences. Unless the character/place/thing's description is of great importance to the story then I avoid any great amount of detail. For example, describing one item in a room, say a four post canopy bed, can set the stage enough on its own to avoid over description about the room. Or, the nasty car across a warrior's face (described well) can paint the image of his rough and violent nature (or at least past).

    Others may prefer more detailed description, covering a lot of detail on character appearances, places, & things.

    Your opinions?

    Steerpike posted the enitre list last summer. As the responses ranged over the entire list of ten, I was hoping for a more focused analysis of description. I've talked a lot about description on the showcase forum lately and wanted to see what others thought on the issue.
     
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2013
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  2. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Main problem is you run the risk of 'blandism' from sea to sea.

    MC hails from a generic, minimally described village on an eastern sea coast. Generic cottages, generic tavern, generic store, all minimally described. Minimally described family and friends in said village.

    Big adventure ensues. MC crosses minimally described mountains, hacks his way through minimally described forest, and eventually reaches an utterly different realm on the far side of the continent - except it doesn't seem that way, because the description is so minimal: generic minimally described buildings and people. Not much commentary on how weird the food is or how strangely everybody dresses or how the language differs so radically. Without adequate description it all falls through the cracks.
     
  3. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I agree with those rules and strive to find that balance where, even with a minimalist approach, you are still able to build great characters and settings. An author that does this best is Steven Erikson.
     
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2013
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  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I agree as well, particularly when it comes to characters. As a reader, I like it when authors limit their character descriptions.
     
  5. Nebuchadnezzar

    Nebuchadnezzar Troubadour

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    Tony Hillerman, author of the New York Times best-selling Navajo Tribal Police mysteries, never physically described his MCs, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee. Tall, short, thin, stout... other than the fact they were Navajo it was entirely up to the reader. Hillerman took this approach because their appearance didn't actually matter -- other than their professional ability to solve crimes, Hillerman's intent was that they were pretty much ordinary guys (physically at any rate). This in no way meant they were bland or lacked characterization. Hillerman just characterized the parts that mattered for his story and left the rest to the reader's imagination.

    I like Hillerman's approach. I'll tend to mention hair color and overall body type but I don't try to describe my characters in detail unless the details matter (sometimes they do, but not often).

    Steven Erikson...sorry, but ugh! I gave up on his Book of the Fallen after the first novel because every one of his characters was basically a cardboard cipher except for the cool superpower Erikson had given each of them. While reading Gardens of the Moon, I basically told the endless numbers of characters apart based on what their cool power was. I still shudder when I think of "Anomander Rake" or whatever his name was -- like a munchkin powergamer's min/max masterpiece brought to life in (stilted) prose.
     
  6. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    Take the stake out of my heart! :)
     
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I agree with Ankari that Erikson is very good. I like his storytelling, and his characters, and the Malazan world. I guess it's not for everyone. I liked Gardens of the Moon quite a lot, and the same holds true for the rest that I've read.
     
  8. Jamber

    Jamber Sage

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    The liveliest writing seems to obey this rule. I was reading The Privilege of the Sword again last night, and was surprised on rereading to note how little time was spent in description. At one point an entire scene is set by half a line telling us it's taking place in a nobleman's house, in 'the red velvet chamber'. No detail at all, just two lovers conversing (between only vaguely hinted actions) on an undescribed bed. Dialogue is all (and it's enough, in that scene).

    However this is a very dialoguey book in general (concerned with manners, relationships, and scenery only insofar as it has a bearing on those matters). It makes sense in such a book that the backgrounds are more like sketches with occasional sharply defined elements where they have specific import (a lace cuff, portraits of the mad Duke's family, imprints in snow). I'm not sure this descriptive economy would suit fantasy novels where much of the scene-setting might be new and of necessity strange. Then again lively writing is lively writing...

    As a sideline thought, I wonder if the fact that Leonard writes with a kind of knowingness about genre (and his readers tend to have a fair degree of genre awareness too) means he can be more economical with description than some other writers? That is, he's clever enough to know his readers are clever enough to do much of the scene-setting and character-visualising themselves, on little more than a wink and a nudge... Well, it's a thought.

    By the way, I think 'blandism' isn't the same thing as being economical with detail. Being bland would mean settling on the most generic descriptions; what we're talking about here (I think) are very sharp and effective details used very sparingly... Is that right, T.Allen.Smith?

    Jennie
     
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2013
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  9. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Yes, in relation to character appearances, setting, and items that aren't important enough to draw the reader's attention closer through greater description. I would call them vivid, concrete details.

    For those that may not know what I mean by saying "concrete details"... details perceived, by a character, through the senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell...also including any internal perceptions that cause physical sensation).
     
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  10. Sparkie

    Sparkie Auror

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    I agree mostly, especially with the point about characters. IMHO, the best characters are defined by action, not description (and yes, I know that's an obvious and probably stupid thing to point out, but I did it anyway.)

    I do, however, believe that there is room for detailed description of places and things when the object or place in question is central to the story. For instance, if a majority of the scenes in a book take place in a single city park, I want to know what the park looks like, feels like, smells like, ect. Is there a playground for children? Is there a walking path? A pond? Are there a few trees or many trees or none at all? Details like these can enhance a story. Overdesciption can bog down an otherwise good read, but that's not always the case.
     
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  11. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    I'll just quote from an article linked in an earlier thread.

    For this thread, the important fact is that Tolkien didn't give much detail--he just gave enough to create an image.
     
  12. Nebuchadnezzar

    Nebuchadnezzar Troubadour

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    Erikson is selling a lot of books so clearly his characters are doing something for someone. But for me... From Tattersail to Whiskeyjack to those cardboard assassin and young male hero characters in whatever that final city was...they all seemed to be the same person except their cool superpower was different. I'm sure there was some characterization going on there somewhere but I could never find it.

    To be fair, Glen Cook, who Erikson shamelessly ripped off/paid tribute to wasn't great at characterization either. Other than Croaker and the Lady, it was hard to tell his characters apart. I've read all the books of the Black Company and still couldn't name any meaningful character trait that differentiates e.g. Goblin and One-Eye.

    The flip of this is, as an example, Robert Jordan. Within the space of 50 pages it was clear that Rand, Mat and Perrin were very different people -- and this was early in Eye of the World before any of them had gotten cool superpowers.
     
  13. Konrad

    Konrad Scribe

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    Ok, my two cents, if my take on this is worth that.

    Leonard is a master of his niche. However, his writing has changed dramatically since, for example, Valdez is Coming, which--even if you don't take westerns seriously--is one helluva book. If I remember correctly, he spends much more time on description in Valdez is coming than he does in something like Killshot or Tishomingo Blues (which I really liked, actually). Moreover, his writing is tighter in his collection of short stories (or at least the one I'm thinking about, When the Women Came Out to Dance).

    In short, he breaks his own rules at will, but this is a guy who has written fiction for a living well and extremely successfully for half a century, I would guess.

    Personally, I do not appreciate descriptions that include every little wrinkle on an old man's face, but minimalism can go too far (that's a statement, ain't it?). Someone early in the thread said you risk "blandism". That's a great point... In other words, the tea's either got to be cold or hot. No one has use for something in between.

    K
     
  14. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I think you're making the mistake of equating that the more descriptors you have the more vibrant the writing is, and that less descriptors you have the more bland it will be.

    It's not about quantity. It's about quality. Some people call it the "Telling" detail. What that is to me is trying to find the detail that encapsulates perfectly the heart of what you're trying to describe. So instead of having to use 6 descriptors, if you can find that telling detail, maybe you only need one or two.
     
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  15. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    My rule of thumb for description is to not include it unless I have a reason to. I like:

    1. A little bit of description to set the scene just to make sure the reader has an understanding of where/when the characters are.
    2. I use setting to reflect mood. If the character is unhappy, he sees the diseased on the leaf of a rose. If he's happy, he sees the beauty.
    3. I use setting for pacing. Sometimes, I need to add a paragraph to put space between important points.
    4. If the character is going to use a shotgun at the end of the scene, I make sure to show it at the beginning of the scene.

    Overall, I'd say I'm pretty minimilistic in my approach.
     
  16. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    Tricky balance. No question there's a lot of value in choosing which details to give; it lets you focus your efforts, and assures the reader each thing he reads has more importance.

    EDIT: And I do like BFFoster's shortlist: initial setting plus needed plants, moments for mood, moments for pacing. Nice indeed.

    But, a couple of other things to think about:

    Describing a character's looks or not, especially an MC's, is an Ongoing Debate of its own. Is it cheating the reader not to give them that picture, or encouraging them to fill it in their way? No one answer there.

    And:

    What I've read of Leonard has always seemed "dialoguey" to me, with a lot of his color in brilliant lines and character thoughts rather than descriptions. If he reduces the space on his descriptions, it makes more room for this side of things. That's a particular style-rebalance that some of us might like to try, but many others wouldn't.

    Plus like Jamber also said, it gets trickier for fantasy. Leonard not only writes from and for genre awareness, it's a genre set firmly in our world; what people like about a lot of fantasy is its sense of place, both being pulled into the mood of how Primievally Deep a forest is and the unique ways this particular forest is hiding dangerous things. Certainly fantasy can have great characters, and many authors lean toward the Leonard side rather than the descriptive, but again, it's a choice.
     
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2013
  17. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

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    Yes, the brilliance of Leonard's writing shines through especially with scenes built around dialogue. He takes two (or more) colorful characters, and thrusts them into a off-beat, captivating discussion that plays on the reader's imagination. Quentin Tarantino considers Elmore Leonard to be one of his biggest influences, and you can see the same technique in Tarantino's films.

    Also, if you want to see the brilliance of Leonard in the hands of first-rate actors, definitely check out his TV show, Justified. It airs on the FX network, and is a modern western in the hills of Kentucky. Leonard produces and writes the show, and it features quirky dialogue and eccentric characters.


     
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2017
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I like heavy description when done very well. Most people can't do it very well. I'm much happier with description of places and settings than of characters. 90% of the time, I'd rather have little to no character description, because I'm going to make up my own image of the character in my head and I don't really give a damn if it jives with the author's vision or description or not. At that point, any time the author describes the character they just create a bit of a jarring effect because the description conflicts with what I'm already envisioning. On the other hand, if you can described characters like Mervyn Peake did...well, that's brilliant and his description of the characters became my vision. Most authors just can't pull that off, in my experience.
     
  19. Jamber

    Jamber Sage

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    Steerpike, I agree about Mervyn Peake -- I came late to Gormenghast but was absolutely captivated by his characterisation, the detail of which often went on for pages. He's an interesting writer to compare when talking about minimalism, since he was so... maximalist?
     
  20. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

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    This is interesting to me because I feel that Tolkien gave a ridiculous amount of detail. As in, you'd go into a town and spend 516456432 pages reading about the history of the town and notable inhabitants and none of it mattered in the slightest. Maybe it's my ADHD, but I skim through most description even when, if I didn't skim, I'd be impressed with it (as I am with what I've read of Tolkien). In fact, I regularly cite Tolkien as an influence in my writing because I don't want to be bogged down the way he was. If I were to write the LotR, it would probably be as the movies handled it.

    Still, I would agree that I probably go too far in the other direction. Maybe I should just screenwrite -_-
     
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