Monday, April 5, 2010

Description Muck

"Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium."
~ Stephen King



As I work to complete my latest round of revisions, I'm living in the muck of description. How much is too much? In my effort to avoid wordiness and too much detail, I wasn't detailed enough (thank God for crit. partners, huh?).


Stephen King tells us that "Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant...[it] begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy." That, Mr. King, is an understatement.


The key is figuring out what to describe, how much description is needed, and what is not needed at all. Because the Naughty Boy Factory is not a place we've ever been to, I need to provide more description (thanks, Valerie) as well as more specific description. Ugh! I feel like I'm a tightrope walker - too much I fall to one side, too little I fall to the other.


How do you balance your details?

66 comments:

Valerie Geary said...

*evil laugh muahahahahaa* And just so you know... you're not alone!! :D My opinion: it's best to start out with WAAAAAY too much detail. And then go back through and start cutting. I think it makes it easier to pick and choose which details are important if I know everything about the room/house/piece of clothing/etc.

For my latest WIP, after I get done with draft 1, I'm going to open a new word doc on which I will describe the town my characters live in with great detail. So when I start revising I can make sure the action is orientated correctly and the details I have are the important ones... I'll admit I haven't done this before, so I'll let you know how it goes, but for me, it sounded like a good idea!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

It is so perfect that you would be the first one here, Valerie! Ha ha ha. You know I'd be lost without you, partner. :-)

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

I think part of it is knowing what your character would notice. If they are more visual, they would "see" the details. If they are more auditory, they would "hear" things more. Etc. Every one has something they notice more than other things. For me, it's how things smell.

Focusing on what the character notices brings the character to life as well as the scene. ;)

Jamie D. said...

Ugh - I have the same problem you do. I write sparsely...and I'm constantly second guessing myself where description is concerned. Does the position of the table really matter here? If so, why? Are the windows important? If not, why mention them? It's crazy how difficult it can be to set a scene using only the necessary descriptors, but still give people enough to sort of build the world in their own mind as they read...

So I'm no help - but I feel your pain. :-)

Summer said...

I'm an over-describer, but like Valerie said, it's easier for me to throw it all out there in the 1st draft and pare it down later. Of course, I like reading books with lots of description, so that's part of my problem! :-)

Jen said...

I love to describe things and when I'm writing you can tell what my favorite parts were because I over describe everything. I figure I can always cut later but for the time being go full force! Which is nice because in other parts where there is hardly any description I can fill in the blanks!!!

Kimberly Franklin said...

Balancing details is no easy task. I tend to describe too much, then I catch myself and start describing too little. But thats what editing is for, right? :)

Bethany Mattingly said...

I'm sending you your critique after my next class! Sorry its later that I thought it would be, family stuff came up :( I find it hard to balance details in my writing. I think I often do too much detailing and the reader gets bored.

Matthew Delman said...

I hear ya, Shannon! In my previous novel I described too much; now in CaN there are sections where I describe too little.

Bah I say. Freaking happy mediums.

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

Ha, it looks like you and Mary MacDonanld are on the same wave length today! It's funny actually because detail has been on my mind lately too.

Well, striking a balance, let's see. I think, as I commented on Mary's blog, the best way to go about detail it to make sure it is significant regarding the action, or the way your characters are feeling. There's not much sense in adding description just for the sake of it. Mary has posted a fantastic example on her blog. You should check it out :)

Lisa and Laura said...

This is SO hard! We just received the opposite feedback--that we have too much description. Our reader asked to break it up with some dialogue. We're working on this as we speak...

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Kayeleen - excellent points! Thanks.

Jamie - Thanks for understanding!!

Summer - I wish I had that problem! :)

Jen - Lucky girl!

Kimberly - Right!! :-)

Bethany - You know I understand all about late critiques! No worries. :-)

Matt - Ditto! Freaking happy nediums...

Allomorph - Thanks! I'll definitely head over to Mary's. :-)

Heather said...

Great post. I wrote about descriptions just last week! For me I try to remember that the description cannot take away from the flow of the story. It must help it along, not stall it out. At the same time, I try to describe things well enough that the reader feels like they're there.

Sheri Larsen said...

Detail...augh!! For sure, I'm an overachiever in that department. Slowly, I'm learning to take myself out of the *picture* and see it as if I was living it. What would I notice? What would I miss? And of course, what is most pertinent to the reader to push the storyline along?

Not a science, but I'm getting there. Thanks for the post, Shannon.
Sher~

Helen Ginger said...

You also have to make it almost glide through the reader's mind. Not a travelogue or listing of what the character is seeing.

Helen
Straight From Hel

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia Kang said...

I tend to write too much description and boring the pants off the reader. So these days I'm cutting down and letting reader imagination fill in the blanks more.
Great post!

Lydia Kang said...

I tend to write too much description and boring the pants off the reader. So these days I'm cutting down and letting reader imagination fill in the blanks more.
Great post!

Mary Campbell said...

Great quote from King - I was looking for a good quote. Glad to know I'm not the only one who struggles.

K. Harrington said...

I think there's something else to consider in description. As a reader, I like a lot in the beginning so that I can picture everything. But too much at the end of the book blocks the pacing. I tend to get frustrated when we're nearing the end of a story and someone takes the time to describe a chandelier. So, I'm always in favor of using the choice descriptors in the beginning. My fave writing prof always said (and maybe he read it somewhere) that the writer's job is to carry a mirror down the road, presenting all he sees there to the reader. :)

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...

oh goodness! we are in the same muck!

there are points that really I just think "Can I just show my readers what's inside my head rather than write it down?" lol Sometimes I am overly descriptive and others I am just too plain. It is a battle and I plan to come out on top, how much mud will be caked on my body has yet to be determined....


Visit My Kingdom Anytime

Kasie West said...

So true. Description is my killer too. I always want to skimp on it. It's because when I read I like to skim over description. But, like Mr. King said, finding a happy medium is the key. Good luck to all of us on that. :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

I frontload myself with description, at least in early drafts. Part of that is because I'll research a setting and put in everything about it. I've had pages I've chopped into two sentences. But I know those sentences are historically accurate.

So I spend a fair bit of time paring down description.

Janna Qualman said...

He is a genius, no?

I'm in edits and revisions right now, too, so I understand the muck. I have my crits and betas lined up, and hopefully they'll be able to tell me how my details are. :)

Good luck!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Heather - Well put! Thanks.

Heather - At least we know we're in it together!

Sheri - "See it as if I was living it" I like that!

Helen - Yep! Another tricksy point.

Lydia - That's more of the BALANCE thing, huh?!

Mary - Great minds struggle alike?! Ha ha.

Karen - Oh, those are some good points!

Princess Courtney - Ha ha ha. So does your hubby know you've taken up mud wrestling?

Kasie - Yep! We all need it.

Stephanie - Your job is a tough one. We can decide how much to make up or not, but you're stuck with what's real! :)

Janna - Good luck getting them done! :)

T. Anne said...

I'm guilty of the latter! I'm still working on this though. Love the wisdom of Stephen. ;)

Bane of Anubis said...

I tend to go spare, but I'm working on it.

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Hi Shannon! First, I see your beautiful face (and that little angel with you) on so many blogs I read, and I just realized I don't follow yours. I thought I did! I'm fixing that little problem right now :))

Next, I wrote a post today about descriptions, too. I don't have an answer to how much is too much. I think you have to write a scene the way you'd like to read it, if that makes any sense :P. Then let your beta readers weigh in their opinions. I don't think there's any other way than that kind of trial and error approach.

Best of luck with your revisions!

Danyelle said...

Beta readers are gold. :) I'm more spare, but am getting better at fleshing scenes out. :D

Patti Lacy said...

GREAT post!

Balance them CAREFULLY! I always pile on too much (dare I admit I do the same with eyeliner) and then have critique partners scrape it off!!

Blessings,
Patti

Southpaw said...

Oh, balance indeed. This is such an important point. This post hits home today as I throw out and add to scenes!

Shelley Sly said...

Terrific post! I've been thinking about detail a lot lately. I don't use enough detail, mostly because I think I'm eager to jump into the dialogue and action. But as I revise, I realize that my readers might want to know what kind of setting my characters are in. :)

Jackee said...

I feel your pain because I'm this way too--fat is sections and lean in others. The only way I know to fix this is to look at my pacing. Where I can risk slowing down a bit, I lay the detail on thicker and where it needs to be faster, I pay attention to every word and make things specific and necessary. If not, they're gone.

Anyway, that's not very helpful. But if you find something that is, I'd love to hear about it! :o)

Susan Fields said...

I couldn't agree more - knowing how much to include is so hard. If I had my way, I wouldn't include any at all, but obviously that's not going to fly. I read a book once that recommended Girl With a Pearl Earring as a good model for doing description, and it really is (plus a fabulous read!)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

T. Anne - Isn't he brilliant?!

Nicole - Thanks for finding me and for alerting me to your post - which was excellent, btw.

Bane - You and me both, Bane!

Danyelle - I'd be lost without my readers.

Patti - Great visual! Ha ha ha.

Southpaw - That's what I'm doing, too! :)

Shelley - Exactly! You understand me. :-)

Jackee - Actually, that makes a lot of sense, Jackee - thanks.

Susan - I'll have to read it. :)

PJ Hoover said...

I look for that perfect thumbnail that creates just the right image in a reader's mind. And most of the time this never comes in the first draft stage.

Mary McDonald said...

I think you did a great job with this post. Love the King quotes. I wish I could say how to strike a balance, but I'm right there with ya, wondering if I have too much or not enough.

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Shannon, I'm back! And wow, this place continues to grow by leaps and bounds. You have an amazing draw here. That Mr. King, he makes it sound so easy, doesn't he? *sigh* Sounds like you've got awesome support, though. Not to mention all of the advice you receive here. Thanks for bringing us into your angst...and joys. Hope you have an extra special week and some unexpected "Aha!" moments.

Elana Johnson said...

Wow, this is a great post. I have this exact same problem. I can see things clearly in my head, but I suck at describing it. "It is far from easy." really resonates with me.

And I had a CP point out to me once that I tend to say the same thing in three different ways, using different senses. She suggested cutting it to two (my word count was a problem) and going with the best ones. So that's what I did.

I still tend to skimp on physical details, but at least I know I suck at it. I think that's step one. Admitting you have a problem.

Jennie Englund said...

All of these brilliant blogsters have thrilling ideas!

I don't let myself use any adjectives. And adverbs are super sparse. Instead, I try to use strong verbs and specific nouns to crank up description and detail.

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

It's so damn hard sometimes, isn't it?

CMOM Productions said...

I love your description of being "a tightrope walker." Nothing in life is ever easy! lol I hope you master your balancing act! :)

Kristin said...

Shannon, I'm right there with you! I'm hoping my second or third pass is where I'll be able to polish and tighten so it shines! (I'm indecisive by nature, so this is really hard for me. Decide what to cut/ change/ or leave as is. LOL.)

Angela said...

This is so hard to get right, isn't it? I think the trick it to make all description pull double or triple duty so that you can get more bang out of less, and not mess up the pacing. It's all about what we choose the describe and WHY.

Carolyn V. said...

Shannon, why are you always asking the hard questions? =)

My critique group tells me I don't add in enough description. I guess in the long run, it's a good thing, because then I don't have to take it out. =)

Niki said...

Great post! :o) I love describing animals but humans are so hard! hehe

Rosslyn Elliott said...

So cool that we both used the tightrope simile today!

You're right, tightrope-walking applies to everything about a rewrite.

The good news is that you know you've come a long way when you can even get out there on that rope and know the difference between up and down. :-)

Lorel Clayton said...

I feel your pain. I'm always under-describing. I need a beta reader to tell me they're confused and can't picture the scene, so then I go back and add more detail. I always *hope* it's the right detail.

storyqueen said...

That's one of the great things about having someone else read your work.

In my case, I get too close to my stories and it helps to have advice from someone who is just reading it cold.

Shelley

VR Barkowski said...

Love Stephen King's book!

For me it's not so much the amount of the description, but the quality. You can go on for pages describing a character's fear, adding adjective upon adjective, but a simple simile like 'fear welled up in him like silk on water' creates an image that is much more powerful and evocative.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm an under-describer too. I'll have to do a specific round of editing just to see where I should add stuff so people 'see' it. I don't like too much description when I read, so I'll probably not add much :)

KM said...

Oh, how I love good description. It can really make or break a scene. (Of course, a LOT of things can do that...) I tend to over-describe things and have to take some out during revisions. But then I'll get paranoid about having too much and take out a lot so it becomes too little. (I totally get you there!) I always try to think about what's necessary to the scene. Does a reader HAVE to know this to understand what's goin on, or does it aid the setting? If not, cut it.

Sandy Shin said...

I definitely feel your pain! Walking the tight rope between describing too much and describing too little is difficult. I used to overwrite and overdescribe, until I realized that all of my favorite authors, my favorite novels, use words very sparingly to write such beautiful sentences.

Since then, in an attempt to emulate them, I've become an under-describer. TOO MUCH of an under-describer: Sometimes when I reread my works, even I had troubles following my characters' trains of thoughts for some of the things they did. I'm still trying to find the balance.

Good luck!

Cheree said...

I have a problem that I often over describe. It's knowing how to put just the right amount of description into the story that's the key.

beth said...

Oh, I am seriously bad at description. I have to work so hard at it. I just forget to put it in! It's something I always have to correct in revisions.

Tamika: said...

I think my problem is too much description. I need to pull back some from the imagery.

My critique partners are helping me find a balance.

Christina Farley said...

I don't like to write description. Give me an action scene, fast and furious and I'm happy as a lark. Great quote by the way!

Helen Ginger said...

I have to go back and fill in the description since it's usually not there in the first draft.

On another note, today I gave you the Silver Lining Award.

Helen
Straight From Hel

Heidi Willis said...

I tend to put in way too few detail - at least visual details. I don't tend to describe how things look so much as how the characters feel about them, or how they interpret them.

ie Instead of "the room was painted bright, sunny yellow" I'd write, "Joanne hated the yellow her mom chose for the walls. It was too bright and cheery for her usually dark mood."

Still, I find it easier to put in less and then let my crit partners tell me what they need more of. I'm like valerie's dopelganger! :)

Theresa Milstein said...

Great description on the balance of description!

I'm in the middle of Stephen King's On Writing. I like his example of the person walking into the restaurant, where the description is part of the action. I hope to be able to achieve that in my manuscripts.

Theresa Milstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Not enough hours! said...

Personally, what I like more is to have a rough sketch, so I can paint in the details myself.
But, of course, when the setting or the time is exotic, I crave for descriptions- descriptions of people places, and customs.

Tracy said...

Really great point ... and I trust most things that Stephen King says. Obviously the man must know what he's talking about!

I've found my problem isn't describing things. I have a tendency to describe the same thing several different ways. For most things you only have to describe a touch, taste, sound, smell or feeling. You don't have to explain ALL of them to the reader for a single object or place.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great post. It's so hard to strike that balance between the two. Everyone has given some fantastic comments :)
I tend to focus on my character and try to see things the way she does and then go from there. I find by focusing on one specific area/emotion I don't overdescribe as much.

Terresa said...

I balance my details but letting it all out in the first draft, then editing it back, paring my words down until they shine. (Btw, I'm still working on this art!)

Not enough hours! said...

Finding that median is so difficult, isn't it?

Personally, I like books where the outlines are sketched out and I get to fill up the details. But sometimes, specially in a period piece or one about a culture I don't know a lot about, I like descriptions. But even there, I would prefer the descriptions to be incorporated rather than the writer just go off at a tangent.

~ Rayna

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