Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The slow death of description

by Rick Blechta

A few days ago while working on a section of my novel, I wrote what I thought was a nifty couple of paragraphs of description, maybe ten lines of text once typeset, that would describe the "stage" of a rather intense action scene. Reading it back the next day which is my usual method of working, I felt compelled to toss out all but one sentence.

Why? Because the writing wasn't any good? Because I'd overdone it?

The answer was, it now seemed over-indulgent.

Some of my favourite reads over the years are older works, novels written in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. One thing I enjoy is the heavy use of description to set the scene. I like that clear mental picture.

I imagine if one were to trace (in general terms) the growth and change in the novel over the past hundred years or so, the diminution of description would be a pretty clear and continuing trend.

In deciding to toss out my deathless prose the other day, I suddenly asked myself why. Why has the use of description in novels (any novels) dropped so drastically? Sure, there are some very successful authors who use a fair bit of description, but there aren't many of them. How many times have we said of a book we're reading, "Come on! Get on with your story," when we're faced with a page or two of description? I know I do it a lot.

Why is this?

Here's my premise and please take issue with it if you like (it's been a long time since we've had a good donnybrook here at Type M: description has fallen out of favour because of movies, television and video clips. We are now used to being shown things visually, not having to conjure them in our imaginations. That's the first part of my theory.

The second is that because we're so immersed in the visual and have seen so much of it, we really don't need to see things so much. We already know what they look like.

Take Michael Connelly's novels as an example. They're generally set in L.A. They are also very sparing with description, basically a sentence here or there and the occasional complete paragraph. The reason he doesn't need it is that we already know what the setting of his book looks like. How many times have we seen that city's freeways? It's downtown area? The desert surrounding it?

So there is my theory. Please take me to task if you wish. I'm spoiling for a fight.


Sybil Johnson said...

I admit I'm not fond of a lot of description in fiction except when it comes to historical fiction. Then I appreciate knowing what a place sounds, smells, and looks like. That would go with your theory about how we're so immersed in the visual we don't need to see that much of it. We see modern stuff all the time on TV, but when it comes to historical stuff we aren't that familiar with it.

Rick Blechta said...

My point exactly, Sybil.

With Connelly (my example), we know Los Angeles looks like so that, basically, if he were to describe it, readers would find it redundant. He's a smart enough writer to realize that. And Michael is just one example.

Anyway, thanks for reinforcing my point.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right. We're also impatient--just get on with it.

Rick Blechta said...

Yes, we certainly are more impatient, Kathy -- for a lot of reasons, and not all of them good. It’s difficult with everything going on in our lives to take time to savour things, like a good book, a good meal, or even a beautiful sunset. Some well-crafted descriptive text can be a lovely thing, but I’m often in the “just get on with it” and it’s only afterwards that I might think that this wasn’t the wisest course.

Thanks for your comment!

Donis Casey said...

I'd love to get into a good brouhaha with you over this, Rick, but I agree with you. People just don't have the attention span any more. It has become a 144 character world.

Rick Blechta said...

More's the pity. It's all about attention span. As a musician, I can't watch music videos (even when the band is playing live) because of all the jump cuts. Excuse me, but I can watch someone for more than 10 seconds without losing focus and becoming bored. Same thing for writing.

That being said, any description in a book has to be very well written or I, too, have a tendency to want to skip it -- or do!