How to write descriptively without boring the reader
Eight years ago, when I started to work on Betrovia (which at that time was going to be a novel and not a trilogy), I was also editing a dystopian/sci-fi action/adventure novel for a friend. Actually, he wasn't really a friend: he was a guy I met via a NeverWinterNights public server. He said his name was Dan Brown (no, not THAT Dan Brown). How playing multi-player NWN led to us chatting about our shared hobby, I really can't say. But I do know that slogging through his book, revising and deleting text at-will, gave me a great sense of power. Did I ask him to read/edit/revise Betrovia? Not hardly! The book was still in the outlining stage. Did I at least give him any idea of what Betrovia was about? I'm pretty sure I did.
One thing I remember enjoying about editing/revising his novel was deciding what was "essential" compared to "frivolous." Dan's novel was interesting, for the most part, but quite a few paragraphs of frivolous dialogue and description ended up on the cutting room floor. In about a month, maybe a total of thirty hours of editing/revising, I finally shot "my" version of the novel back to him. A few days later, Dan responded with a polite "Thank you" and that was about all that I heard from him about it. I gave up playing NWN not long after that and so our communication ceased.
Zooming back to May 2013.
Ahank: Edelin's Revelation is one chapter away from being drafted. Right now the novel contains nearly 110K words. In comparison, Betrovia, book one of the trilogy, is around 94K while Lycentia, book two, is around 77K. The plan is to pare Ahnak back to around 100K. So that would mean saying good-bye to 10K words, or -- in paperback terms -- anywhere between 20-25 pages! Whoa! Does Ahnak contain that much "frivilous" stuff?
So, concerning the topic of essential vs. frivolous, what do the fine authors who frequent the Writers' Cafe have to say?
"I don't know. I tend to waffle on a bit when I get really into a scene. I like to use a lot of words when I could use a few words, but I kind of like it that way. I think it's good to, occasionally, cut loose and just really describe something. And, you know, sometimes I go overboard a bit. That's fine. Sometimes I'm kind of like... oh, okay, eww. Yeah, I could do that better. But far more often I find that cutting away this wordiness reduces the story. I know we're supposed to encourage the imagination, but I think that things like describing a sunset should take up a lot of words; it's beautiful, it has the character's attention, it's got ambers and purples and all manner of things. Some of the editing suggestions I'm getting back, in some of my recent work, feels like I'm cutting things down to the bone. "The sun set." Yes, it most certainly did, but that's... hideously boring. If the characters are going to enjoy a romantic evening together watching that sunset, I think the reader should be there with them too, right? I don't know. Maybe there's room for wordiness in books. Is there? Do we have to reduce everything to stage directions? Walk here. Sit. Talk. Sun rise, sun set. Get shot. Bleed. Die. Can't we use some of our words? Is it all just a race for the smallest word count?"
"I have the same issues. My WIP was 180K words fleshed out. I've cut the hell out of it and have it down in the 150K range and now I'm condensing two chapters into 1 to make it a little more phrenetic in that stretch, but it's getting dangerously close to being too much. Yeah, if the sun's gonna set, don't just tell me it's setting, give me some colors. Give me the mood."
"I have the problem of not being "wordy" enough... I tend to get bored when I read books with excessive descriptions of the mundane or a back history of a character I could care less about. Maybe that's why I avoid it."
"I think I am the same. My son is into the role-playing forums online and he wants me to add so much more description then feels comfortable for me. I struggle with who is right?"
"I know that when I'm reading and I hit a spot where the author is delving into needless (at least to me) description, I tend to start scanning the paragraph, searching for the point where he/she's done and the story resumes. So, because I'm like that, I tend to skip over it when I'm writing. One of the worst ones guilty of this is Dean Kootz. In his book, The Husband, he's pulling out the purple prose in the middle of a chase scene."
"I feel that the secret is in choosing what to get wordy about. Set pieces and moments like a sunset at the right moment are great times to break out the loquaciousness. The problem comes when you're describing rugs and drapes that nobody cares about and you do it every time someone goes into a new room. That's the point where you're not adding production values, you're hindering the flow of the story."
"Wordiness isn't defined by a specific number of words used. It's defined by using more words than is needed to convey the emotion you want to convey. Wordiness is that point where you stop invoking emotions and start treating the reader like an idiot who is incapable of getting the point. You may only need 20 words to describe a sunset in practical terms, but need 200 to describe that sunset in emotional terms. Use the 200 words. Wordiness is when it takes you 2000 words to describe a sunset and the reader is sitting there thinking: 'Alright! I get it! It's pretty! Moving on...'"
"I've seen lots of sunsets. This one had better be different if it's going to be worth 200 words. What's important to me as a reader is what this particular sunset means to the characters, and that can be anything from a sentence to a paragraph to a chapter to a novel."
"Waxing on about a sunset or something during an action scene probably isn't the best idea, but there is an audience for precisely detailed action. People love Lee Child and he uses a very detailed and quite detached style for much of his action. Clancy is another example with more mixed results when he veers from the action to spend a couple pages writing a Wiki article on the tech in use--but some readers eat that up too."
"I think it is like the rule 'show, don't tell'. For a novice writer (and I am definitely a novice writer), I think it means something different than what you anticipate at first. Descriptive exposition is not the breaking of the rule "be concise", but is the results of the rule being followed carefully. A example of this was when I went to go see The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater. When the first image of Hobbiton came on the screen, one of my friends whispered 'How did they take the image from my head and put it onto the screen?' The words that Tolkien used to describe Hobbiton were so precise and clear that everyone had a similar idea of what the Hobbit town should look like. He was able to put the image in his mind onto the page in such a way that readers could easily recreate it in their own minds. That is skill. And while some might say that Tolkien broke Strunk's rule of 'Omit needless words', are the words needless if they suit the function? Describing a sunset, for example, can be done in a perfunctory way. But if the intent of the scene is to show the beauty as the character sees it, then words that describe that beauty are not needless.
"Readers are not goldfish; we know that the girl's eyes are green and the guy is blonde. You can stop telling whenever she blinks or he shakes his head."
"Depends on voice how many words to use, but not a one should be wasted."
"There's two things.
1. Is this the right time and place for those words? Don't have big descriptions in a chase scene. Don't have too much purple prose in thriller. Don't have too much exposition at the start. etc.
2. Are all the words doing their job? Can a simpler sentence replace a longer one and give the same description, feeling and tone? Can a word replace a phrase? Are there any sentences that are repeating something already said?"
"Two of my favorite authors are Lucy Maud Montgomery who wrote Anne of Green Gables and (if you were looking for something more . . . robust) Richard Blackmore who wrote Lorna Doone. Taken out of context their descriptions would be the purplest of purple. But the thing is, their main characters would be thinking about their environment in those ways and they would be thinking about them at the time the author is talking about them. Blackmore doesn't interrupt battle to describe the frost on the fields and Anne doesn't muse about Barry's Pond when she's fighting with Gilbert. But the descriptions of the world are what makes these books more than just a schlocky romance and a stock coming of age book for girls. Or look at Jane Eyre- the descriptions of the environment and of the characters' physical appearance are actually integral to the plot. I think it's only when the story comes to a screeching halt that description gets tiresome. If it's part of the flow, not separate from it, I don't think readers have too much of a problem. Of course, there's always Dickens to mess that theory up though. He just alternated chapters, one description, then one action, repeat. But then, he was making money per word, so who can really blame him if he got away with it?"
"I know the voice of the narrator is not the same as the voices of the characters, but I also think they can't be too dissimilar or it seems jarring. If a wordy description is on the same page with a terse character, that might be the problem. Similarly, descriptions work best when the character has some reaction to whatever is being described. If the lovely sunset brings him comfort or makes him feel even worse about his dismal life or if he's the sort that hardly ever notices such things but the scene is showing that he's changing, then it earns more words than if the author thinks Joe should care but he really doesn't (or the author just gets carried away writing descriptions of sunsets)."
"I'm with those who say use as much as the situation calls for - the same sunset needs to be handled differently in a romance than in a thriller, and differently if the POV character is sitting admiring it than if the only importance is that the light faded. Skimming description is a habit of mine too, but books that have none, where characters seem to be interacting with people who are nothing but names against a colorless background don't do it for me either."
"Honor every word. Use them where they count."
"Nothing wrong with wordiness as long as its interesting."
"My personal ideal # of adjectives per sentence: 0 to 1. Sometimes you need to use 2 or 3. Let those sentences be the exceptions. There's an awful rhythm to work that has 2 adjectives in many sentences, but never 1 or 3. The dog was tiny and fiesty. Her bark was sharp and strident. My head felt woozy and foggy. The afternoon was pointless and bleak. Better: The s***flake dog's barking sapped my will to live."
"There are times you can dwell on things, times when you can really indulge. But it has to be something your readers will eat up as well. Asimov can spend a good page or two describing the mechanics of something, or the politics of a world, and I'm good with that because it's that type of thing I 'want' from him, and it's what he excels at. If I grab a book by RA Salvatore, and he spends three pages describing the local vegetation, I'm going to get annoyed and wonder why Drizzt isn't killing anyone yet."