Tuesday, August 02, 2016
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.