On Being Too Descriptive
Writers often make this mistake: they think that every word they write needs to be described. We’ve all seen it, I call it “overscriptive”. I know that isn’t a word, but since I’m a writer, I can make up words, can’t I?
Example: The silvery white fluorescent moon showed its incandescent glow over the deep purple dark twilight of the majestic craggy bluffs along the seaside cliffs that stood as sentinels among the ragged, rock-lined coast.
Give me a break! 1 comment
I understand completely what the author is doing. He’s trying to make me see the coast the way he wants me to see it, or the way his mind is seeing it. But what about my seeing it my way? I see it as a coast. Period. It has little to do with the character, the plot, nor is it germane to the story line. So why do some authors think that they need to describe it with such flowery language? 1 comment
Readers are interested in what the characters are doing, feeling, seeing, sensing, smelling, touching and understanding, true. But to use adjectives as fertilizer, hoping they will make the story grow in the reader’s mind is probably not the best way to accomplish effective writing. 1 comment
Years ago I took a college course in technical writing. We were taught to be as brief as possible but as direct as possible. Insert screw (a) into hole (b). Place nut (c) on the screw and tighten it with wrench. My instructor would have probably crossed out the word “it” in the previous sentence, and marked my grade down one point. He would have considered “it” superfluous.
That is definitely not the way to write a short story, by any means, unless you are describing how a character is reading the instructions on putting his child’s tricycle together. Whether it is a novel, a short story, a poem, or essay, words are meant to be tools. They should be used to express your thoughts in such a manner as to get your main point across to your reader.
As a young man I was an avid reader. One of my favorite authors was Zane Grey. I loved the way he could describe a canyon or a plateau or a herd of grazing cattle. But he told his story. His books were about people in the old west, full of action, drama, love, mystery, and suspense. He could describe sitting on a horse’s back in such a manner that you would feel the ripple of the horse’s muscles as it walked. But he did not overscribe. (There I go making up words again).
As a journalism major, I was taught to write using the five W’s: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. In journalism, there is little room for descriptions because the reporter’s job is to tell the facts, and descriptions are editorializing. When I started writing novels I realized that the readers want more than just the five W’s. They want the 5 senses. Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste and Touch. The following is a passage from one of my PI novels: 1 comment
(The interior was a small room, not more than 10 feet in depth and the width of the building, about 20 feet. There was a door in the back wall covered with beads. The room was empty, but we could hear noises coming from the next room beyond the beaded door.
I recognized some of the sounds immediately. One was he slap of bare feet hitting a matted floor. Another was the distinct “snap” of the sleeves of many karate uniforms in unison and the undeniable cry of “kiai” shouted by students while doing kata.)
In this small passage I have used two senses, sight and sound. It immediately sets the scene for the reader and the reader can visualize what is going on through the beaded door.
From my first PI novel:
The desk drawers were locked but the edge of my pocketknife opened them. In the bottom right hand drawer of Donna's desk I found one of those little black plastic cases that 35-millimeter film comes in. I popped the lid off and looked inside.
A roll of negatives was coiled like a snake inside the container. I fished it out and walked back down the long hall to the darkroom. No need to attract attention by turning office lights on.
In the darkroom I again turned on the overhead light and closed the door. An automatic switch started a small fan blowing in the room, pulling in air from outside. I could feel moisture in the air.
I held the negatives up to the light. The first few shots on the roll were of people playing volleyball on the beach. Then there was three or four of an automobile accident, paramedics bending over a bloody little boy and a twisted bicycle.
Then I found the ones I expected to find. There was Thad Yates. There was one of several bundles of confiscated marijuana. There was Steve Lang pointing to the corner of one of the bales. I flipped on the viewer light on the table and laid the film flat. By adjusting the focus I could blow up the negatives.
In this passage I have used sight and touch. (I could feel moisture in the air.) At the same time, I am being descriptive. (A roll of negatives was coiled like a snake inside the container.) There is no need for me to describe the surface of Donna’s desk. There’s no need to go into vivid detail to describe the pictures of the automobile accident. I could have said “the white uniformed paramedics bending over the unmoving form of a badly mangled, bloody, twisted little boy and a pile of jumbled painted metal bicycle”. Yes, I could have said that but I didn’t because it isn’t necessary to get my point across to the reader.
The intent of this essay is to get people to think about what they are writing and to write it more effectively. Overscription is deadly to an author. It can make potential readers skip over pages looking for what the writer is really trying to say. It can make people put your book back on the shelf at the bookstore, and pick up the next guy’s. Think of words as you would think of money. If you have 10,000 dollars and you are shopping for entertainment, you wouldn’t spend all ten grand on a Madonna concert would you? Don’t spend all of your 10,000 words in the first two pages of your novel or the first five paragraphs of your short story being oversciptive. (My word!) 1 comment