Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How much information is too much? The description dilemma

I recently had a few email exchanges with a budding writer/friend. The topic started out as a question about how much background information is necessary to keep a story feeling “real”, but also not so much that it’s slowing forward plot motion down.

Now there’s a real can of worms to open. I think every fiction writer (and probably many non-fiction writers) struggles with this constantly. Since I don’t consider myself an expert on writing, I’m usually loathe to give out advice. This time I did – but gingerly.

I think we all (writers and readers) would agree that nothing should be in a story that doesn’t a) move the plot forward, or b) inform the reader about something crucial about the characters. The trick is being able to recognize just how much is enough.

In fiction, the writers are relying on their imagination to come up with an attractive and interesting plot. But one thing we often neglect to consider is that our readers have an imagination, too, and by allowing them to use it, we can make our prose much leaner, and quite possibly more rewarding for those reading it.

My friend, like many other beginning writers (and boy, have I been guilty of this on occasion!), had several passages in the four chapters I read that really overdid it in the description department. We’re talking minutiae here, folks. Did we really need to know so much about the paintings on the wall of the room where the murder took place? I suggested the following instead of the 120-word paragraph:

The inspector gave a cursory glance around the elegant room from the doorway. “Judging by the paintings and furniture,” he said to the constable guarding the door, “somebody must have a healthy income.”

Okay, this was just off the top of my head, but it gets the point across since the fact that the hand-carved oak panelling, the oriental carpet, the stone fireplace, comfortable chairs, etc. really don’t have anything to do with the story. It’s all information the reader doesn’t need.

My friend was disappointed because she had really worked her descriptive paragraph, and it was very well-written. I told her that while it had been a worthwhile writing exercise to put the description together, it was more suited to a magazine article about room design than to a murder mystery.

This is precisely the critique I received from a more experienced writer when I was starting out. He said, “The scene you’re painting is really quite lovely, but are you writing a travel book or crime fiction?” That really struck (embarrassingly) home and has stuck with me over the years.

In my toss-off paragraph above, I did two things (I hope): used dialogue to describe what needed to be known by the reader rather than a lengthy descriptive paragraph (I’d probably also toss in a few other descriptive tidbits as the scene went on) but also hinted at biases that the police inspector character possesses.

The end result is that my paragraph will be more likely not to be skipped over by a reader. Readers don’t tend to skip dialogue whereas long descriptive paragraphs are often started and then skipped over after a paragraph of two. At least that’s my tendency when I’m reading crime fiction. Reading E.M. Forster or Herman Melville are other matters. There long descriptions are more welcome…sort of.


Melodie Campbell said...

Great column, Rick; this is something that I regularly point to in my writing classes. Your 'doing it with dialogue' example is first rate.

j welling said...

Wonderful illustration. Great lesson.

Charlotte Hinger said...

How did she take it in the long run? Did she learn or write you off?

Rick Blechta said...


The really tough thing for authors – or anyone for that matter – is to learn to take constructive criticism. That's the reason I really don't enjoy telling people what they should or shouldn't do in their writing. For music, I'm very confident in what I say when asked to comment, for writing, not so much because I'm basically self-taught.

In this particular case, I felt a bit more confident in what I was pointing out because the fault was fairly blatant.

Out of around 14,000 words that I read in my friend's sample, the ratio of dialogue to description was about one third/two thirds, and even though the description was really not bad at all, I had to force myself to read it – and that's not a good sign.

Anyway, my friend seemed grateful, although unhappy. This was recent so I don't know if it ultimately has harmed our relationship, but I gave my critique kindly (always important) and supportively (even moreso), and that's all that she could have asked for, isn't it?

It would not have been good to lie to her. In my opinion, what I read was not publishable because I believe the reaction of any agent or editor would have been the same as mine. It's seldom a good thing for a new writer to write a book that moves along slowly, especially if it's crime fiction.

Or so I've heard...

Thanks everyone for commenting!

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