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When it's too much or too little: Descriptions

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Codey Amprim, Aug 20, 2011.

  1. Codey Amprim

    Codey Amprim Staff Article Team

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    There are many problems I encounter when I'm writing, but the one that keeps rearing its ugly head is this:

    When I write, I have that epic scene of the mental movie playing in my head... and when I try to describe and tell every mesmerizing detail, I find myself questioning my work. Sometimes I feel like I'm being too repetitive with my descriptions and I'm just going off depicting the imagery far too much. I just want to make that mental movie or picture as clear and vivid as possible. I just don't want to deter my audience from reading because of it, because, believe me, I've read enough terrible works in high school that have paragraphs of descriptions and only a few lines of action.

    On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I'm robbing my readers of vital imagery when I leave out descriptions of actions, characters, items, etc. just for the sake of not boring them with descriptions. I have read a few books where I actually wanted them to describe things instead of leaving it all up to me to get a false image in my head. I hate that, I'm going to be blunt. I want my readers to be enveloped in the mysticism of the world I've created, but then again I don't want to jam it down their throats.


    Should it be my descretion to go ahead and describe that attack or spell? Or should I leave my character's weapons in the hands of only one bland description? I know there are techniques when you can add on to something later instead of all at once (the infamous info-dump), but is that acceptable in your eyes? What do you think?
    When is it too much? When is it too little? What is the fine line that is "just right"?

    Thanks :)
     
  2. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    Well, honestly it seems most fantasy takes the "maximalist" approach. Lots of description of weapons, armor, people, races, places, magic, dragons, etc. Lots of people like that, because in fantasy you sort of have to "create the world." If you don't give vivid descriptions of your world, then readers may feel like your world is sort of bland. So I think a moderate amount of description is important.

    On the other hand, too much description definitely bogs down an otherwise good book. I like to use George R.R. Martin as an example of a writer that does great descriptions, but sometimes goes overboard. How many times do I have to read about people eating toasted snails, greasy duck, and olives?

    Overall, people want to read stories for stories. Not for endless descriptions of a cool sword or curio cabinet. If these things are important, sure describe it. Just if you read it back to yourself and it seems more like a catalog description more than something that will advance your story or make your world seem unique, then don't do it.

    I personally don't like info-dumps. I prefer for things to be slowly revealed over time. Or just assumed that the reader can fill in the blanks. Since right now I'm reading The Hobbit, I have to admit, I'm really amazed at the pace of the story. The world feels real, but doesn't sag (well, except the intro of the dwarves, which made me hate the story years ago when I first tried to read it).

    Good writing is good writing though. If your descriptions are awesome, then maybe some people won't care if there is too much.
     
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  3. Codey Amprim

    Codey Amprim Staff Article Team

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    Thanks! That already helped trumendously.
    And I'm having the same thing happen with The Hobbit, I've put it down due to the Dwarf intro. I think I'll pick it up again! I almost put down The Fellowship of Ring from the confusing descriptions of the Shire and all of its townships and whatnot.
     
  4. cobrarosa

    cobrarosa Dreamer

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    I think this can actually be one of the largest pitfalls of fantasy writing in particular today, specially for newer writers. As Phill the Drill said, info dumping can be overly generous in this particular genre.

    The important thing is sticking to the core of the story, and always ask yourself: "What is this passage really contributing to the story, if anything at all? Will the story work if this piece of description is omitted?

    True, ample description can sometimes be confused as the trademark of fantasy; but let's not forget that the reason we stick to the books we love is the core of the story, not the amount of superlatives used to describe how the dew drops gathers on the worn armour of the protagonist in the early misty morning.

    One thing that I try to to strive towards is this: "Perfection is achieved not when there isn't anything more to add but when there is nothing more to remove". Try to find the core of your text first, then play around with adding more description, if it's really needed. I think you'll end up with a more concentrated reading experience this way.

    Peace
    /Tomas
     
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  5. UnionJane

    UnionJane Scribe

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    One of the considerations I like to that, whether writing first or third person, are the details that your character notices. Are they paying attention to certain details over another? You have to be careful not to make what your character notices simultaneous to what you as the writer notice. A character's background is pivotal to this, like if they came from workers, fighters, or clergyman. I found this article most helpful for figuring out those intricate details:

    Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds - Day 6
     
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  6. Meka

    Meka Scribe

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    What I tend to do is introduce the story with only a little description, more fast paced and gripping to draw the reader in, then after the first chapter or first few pages, the story slows down a little, gives an explanation to what just happened, describes the character, what he / she is doing.

    That didn't make much sense did it ...

    Basically, I vary the amount of description to keep the reader happy. For example: I usually write travelling across a land very descriptively, describing the scene and emotions and all that ... but in a fight scene I use very few adjectives, basic punctuation and just get straight to the point. It reflects how the characters feeling, if the character is rushed, he or she will notice less and therefore the descriptions they will provide would be less vivid; if the character is relaxed for a period of time, they will notice the finer points and it would become more descriptive.

    I don't really know what I'm talking about, it sounds good in my head and I know what I mean ... sorry if I just confused you more :D
     
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  7. Codey Amprim

    Codey Amprim Staff Article Team

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    Those are some very good ideas and techniques I might have to pick up on! And no you didn't confuse me, I understand completely. I think those are some nice guidelines for going about describing things within a story. Thanks everyone! This helped me get a grip on what to do with describing and how to go about doing it! I hope this thread will help others in the same boat.
     
  8. Description is needed for two basic things. First things the character notices that stand out (usually things with story relevance), and things that the reader can't have any knowledge of prior to. If I bring in an elf, I bet everyone here will have an image in their mind of an elf...every one might be different, but they would all be an elf. Only the things that are important need to be clarified to fix the mental image each of us has. Outside of that, let the reader fill in part of the details with their own concept of what it should be...if it doesn't hurt or help the story, is the detail necessary?
     
  9. Codey Amprim

    Codey Amprim Staff Article Team

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    That is also a great way of looking at it, thanks!
     
  10. Xaiver

    Xaiver Dreamer

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    I'm pretty new here, and actually still trying to get my head back into a place where I can think all of this through, but maybe I can toss in a different side of the conversation I'm seeing.

    One of my favorite authors is David Eddings. I started reading his work with the Elenium and the Tamuli, two trilogies about a fellow named Sparhawk. After reading those about a dozen or so times, I found The Redemption of Althalus, a solo book that was modestly thick.

    The thing that I liked about Eddings was that his descriptions weren't overly wordy. After reading Wheel of Time, moving into a book that was mostly dialogue and less explaining the color of each leaf, I found that quite refreshing. He described things that were relevant to the plot and not much else....save for the reason of humor. If one of the characters was walking through a town, what you would read about was a few things they spotted, maybe something about the smell if it was completely foreign, and then on to what they were looking for.

    While I love and admire the detail overload that's put into some of the books I read, I find that I really enjoy the less detailed books just as much, if not more. Might have something to do with Eddings' sense of humor. :)

    -X
     
  11. Nightbringer

    Nightbringer Acolyte

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    On one hand, thorough description can help a reader form a picture in their head of what you were envisaging when you wrote it.

    On the other hand, a more sparse description allows the reader to form their own ideas of what the character/landscape/spell/whatever looks like, sounds like etc. Sometimes a reader can get bogged down in description. If it's an opening scene to the chapter for example, perhaps more description is necessary, to properly decorate the location, but during a fast paced action scene, then I think less is more. By all means mention the smell of blood and sweat, or the clang of sword on sword etc, but perhaps it's better left as one line of description, so that it doesn't break up the flow of the narrative.
     
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