Friday, June 12, 2009

Less. Is. MORE.

In the last couple of weeks, I've had some discussions with a few writers about description, lack thereof, and abuse thereof. After chewing on it for a while, I feel the need to say my piece. So here I go...

In school, when we're learning to write, our English teachers drill the "more details, more details, more details" mantra into our fragile, pliable little brains. We're taught to describe everything down to its most minute detail, while being directed to various classics as examples of "See? This is how it's done."

And for some, yes, that's how it's done. In the eras in which those classics were written, authors were paid by the word. Naturally, you're going to spend a few paragraphs verbally whittling a tree down to its last pine cone if it means a few more cents to buy bread. That does not, however, mean that today's writer should follow suit. I've especially noticed some fantasy writers - probably trying to imitate the endlessly verbose JRR Tolkien - will spend pages describing things that really aren't important. Or, more to the point, aren't relevant.

The fact is, when it comes to details, less is more. Don't describe everything in the room. Make your descriptions count.

For this blog entry, I'll focus mostly on setting, but everything applies to describing characters too.

Let's say we have a scene that takes place on a movie set. Now, as soon as you read that, you had an instant picture in your mind. Maybe you pictured an outdoor set. Maybe a soundstage set up like someone's living room. Whatever the case, "movie set" immediately brings an image to mind.

Now, there's two ways a writer can go into a scene. I can describe every detail: the upholstry on the couch, the color of the director's chair, the cameras, the boom mics, the bright lights, etc. Or, I can simply leave it at "movie set". Maybe mention that it's a soundstage. Now you know we're indoors. You and I may have the cameras arranged a little differently, or the furniture on the set might be different colors. But we're both on the same page. Unless there is a reason for you to know how many cameras are there, what kind of lights are on, and whether or not the eccentric director's dog is lying at his feet, it really doesn't matter if we see things exactly the same way.

So, instead of going on about the movie set, my personal preference is to go right into answering the question that should be on the reader's mind: "Okay, what's going to happen?" Throw in some mention of noise if there is any, the smell of coffee if it's there, something to that effect, but I'm going to get you on the movie set and roll right into the story, because that's why you're with me in the first place.

Let's move onto another scene. Now we're in the home of another character who has been recently introduced. We are again faced with choices, in this case, four of them:
  1. Describe everything down to the last coaster on the coffee table, making absolutely sure the reader knows exactly what the room looks like.
  2. Pick out a few details to give a basic idea of what the room looks like. (Black leather furniture, a few pictures on the wall, etc., and leave it at that)
  3. Describe nothing. Let "cabin" and "living room" cue the reader's mind to fill in the blanks. (I mean, really, does the reader need to know exactly what the room looks like? If not, just walk into the living room and leave it at that. Move on to the relevant information)
  4. Pick out a few details from the room to describe the recently introduced character. (simple but elegant taste, or tables cluttered with papers and such, immaculately clean or beer cans and chip bags all over the coffee table...those give us an idea of what the room looks like, but also tells us about the character)
Personally, I don't think you can go wrong with 2-4 depending on what you're trying to accomplish with the scene. Option 1 is often boring and tedious unless masterfully done, and even then, will leave me as the reader thinking, "Is there a reason I need to know this?" And therein lies the key: Give every detail a reason to be there.

Of course environmental and sensory details are important. I'm not saying they aren't. Quite the contrary, actually: They're so important that they should be used sparingly and judiciously so that each one registers in the reader's mind. If I spend three pages describing an office, then another three pages describing the kitchen, then another three describing the bathroom, when I get to the living room and mention the half-empty bottle of Smirnoff sitting next to a wrinkled stack of tabloid magazines, you might easily go right past the bottle and the magazines. If the descriptions are kept to a minimum, then I zoom in on the vodka and tabloids, you're going to raise an eyebrow and think, "Hmm, there's a reason for those. I will remember them."

Less is more. Much more.

As another example, I'm currently beta reading Libbie's novel, which is a historical set in ancient Egypt. Like me, Libbie tends to be more spartan with description, highlighting just enough to trip your synapses and let your brain fill in the rest. Very effective, in my not-so-humble and somewhat-biased-because-I-do-the-same-thing opinion.

After a few chapters, there comes a scene in which she shifts gears...she describes a setting in great detail, with some very unique and odd imagery. Had she been describing everything all along, the details of this setting might have escaped my notice, but because she'd rationed details from the beginning, it made me pause. "There's a reason she's telling me this." It made me sit up and take notice, because her writing had conditioned me to understand that everything she tells me is relevant, important, and significant. When the scene unfolded, it was very powerful, and the images leading up to it only served to make it moreso.

This practice of making details count is something that Scarlett does exceptionally well, too. When she describes a character's apartment in one chapter, every last detail tells you something about the character himself. How clean the apartment is, the quality of furniture, the style of decor, even the type of bathtub he has. It all boils down to "this is who he is". She again does this on her current book, letting the room drop hints about the character's personality (and neuroses) while simultaneously letting the reader know what the room looks like. It's executed masterfully, using the kind of casual subtlety that makes me want to strangle her for no other reason than I want my writing to be that good.

Bottom line:

Give your readers some credit. Don't spoonfeed them every last detail of the mundane and irrelevant, or you will completely desensitize them so that by the time an important detail comes out, it won't be as dramatic.

Make every detail count. If you're describing someone's living room, give me a reason to care how the furniture is arranged, whether or not it matches, and what knicknacks are on the mantle. For the love of God, if you're going to spend a page and a half telling me about a chair, you'd better be subtly telling me about something besides the damned chair.

Less is more. Subtlety has more impact. Don't insult your reader's intelligence.


  1. It's disturbing how alike we are. ;-)

    I feel that I should give a long reply to match the effort you put into the post, but, like my descriptions, I'll keep it brief.

    Couldn't agree more. Go Sparta!

    *Menny hugz.*

  2. Aw, thanks. Glad you liked the scene.

    and yeah, less is more.

    I need to update my blog.

  3. First of all, if you strangle me, I won't be able to write any more, so you might wanna re-think your murderous intentions.

    Great, now we've got that out of the way...

    As with anything...give only what's needed or you'll end up sounding like you're giving the reader a laundry list of items and who reads lists with any great deal of excitement?

    I'll tell you who was the undisputed MASTER of giving all-that-was-needed-and-no-more: Agatha Christie.

    Every single detail is there for a reason, and when it came time for the 'big reveal', she left you gasping and thinking, "So THAT'S what that was all about!"

  4. Love this! Teaching creative writing at a state college this Fall... Will def. be using this blog as HOMEWORK ref. page!