Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Problem of Description

Sometimes I think reading blogs by agents and authors has ruined me as a reader.  I really began to wonder about this as I was reading Nancy Dane's latest book, A Long Way to Go, and I kept being distracted by her use of description.

I've read in numerous agent blogs that novels need to be trimmed so that nothing unnecessary to the plot is included.  For example, agent Mary Kole gives the following things that should be cut from a manuscript:
  • Anything that does not advance our understanding of a character
  • Anything that does not advance the plot or raise tension
  • Anything that doesn't reveal something new
  • Things that are just witty and clever, with no other purpose.
As I was reading Dane's book, I kept finding instances of things Mary Kole would have told her to take out of the manuscript. A lot of what I zeroed in on was description, like this one:
"Hidden in dusty-blue shadows, Elijah sat beneath a fragrant pine, watching a doe drink at the river's lapping edge. Fat-bellied with unborn fawn, she gazed warily around in the twilight and then dipped her muzzle into the water. He stared at the sunset and thought how much Cindy would enjoy the beauty of the sky awash with coral reflected on the rippling water."
Or this:
(this comes when they've broken the news to Granny that her son has been killed by Yankee bushwhackers) "Granny took two steps forward. Her voice shook. 'I kept shut fer Caleb's sake. But he's gone now. And thank God you can't hurt him no more!' Ned took her arm as she turned and sat back down. The bedroom door slammed when Viola rushed from the room. Into the silence came the distant hoot of an owl. (my emphasis) 'I'm fine, Ned,' assured Granny through tight lips."
It seems to me in both of those cases, the description has nothing to do with accomplishing any of those things Mary Kole outlined. In fact, the hoot of the owl is almost comical thrown into such a dramatically tense moment (actually, there's another one I can't find now that made me laugh out loud because it was so incongruous).

That's not to say every piece of description is meaningless. For example, this description helps establish the desperation of the situation when Cindy discovers her baby has been kidnapped:
"Cindy's heart pounded. She called and called. When she stopped to listen, a drumming woodpecker was the only sound echoing from the hills."
So, based on what I've learned by reading the blogs, most description should be left out of a book, unless it is directly contributing to plot or character.  But then I argue back with myself that my husband says he likes books that have a lot of description so he can picture the world where the story is taking place. He gives the example of the Shanara books by Terry Brooks (which I haven't read); he jokingly says the first two pages of the first Shanara book is all description.

I know that's what Nancy Dane is doing, trying to establish for readers the character of the world her characters live in. It's a beautiful part of the world, too, and I understand wanting to capture some of that beauty and work it into the story.  But it doesn't help with character, and it doesn't help with plot. Does "world-building" give enough justification to put so much in there?

That phrase, "world-building," made me think of Harry Potter, in which Rowling definitely built an alternative world to the one we are so familiar with. So I decided to check out what she did with Harry's first introduction to Hogwarts. Here's her first description of the castle:
"And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was a smooth as glass. Everyone was silent, staring up at the great castle overhead. It towered over them as they sailed nearer and nearer to the cliff on which it stood."
That's all. She doesn't tell us if the castle is covered with moss, or if it has ten turrets, or if the stones are gray or brown. In the next chapter, she gives us a little more detail:
"She pulled the door wide. The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursleys' house in it. The stone walls were lit with flaming torches like the ones at Gringotts, the ceiling was too high to make out, and a magnificent marble staircase facing them led to the upper floors."
More detail, but still accomplished in two sentences. Three pages later is the longest descriptive passage:
"Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place. It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles that were floating in midair over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting. These tables were laid with glittering golden plates and goblets. At the top of the hall was another long table where the teachers were sitting....The hundreds of faces staring at them looked like pale lanterns in the flickering candlelight. Dotted here and there among the students, the ghosts shone misty silver. Mainly to avoid all the staring eyes, Harry looked upward and saw a velvety black ceiling dotted with stars...It was hard to believe there was a ceiling there at all, and that the Great Hall didn't simply open on to the heavens."
To me, that feels right. So how's an aspiring writer to know how much description is too much? I like a couple of lines from Kole's post.
"Some things have very little happen in them but they're readable. That's okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. "Readability' is not what we're striving for, though...fill [your manuscript] with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you're writing isn't any of that...those are dead words anyway."
What do you think? How much description should a book have? Do you like description in books?

2 comments:

lil red hen said...

Some description goes overboard. I think, however, it is one reason I like The Yearling so much; she put me right in the scrub with Jody. But then, I'm full of imagination anyway.

Ephemera said...

I love stories with description, but I agree, it is sometimes overdone. Even in some of the later Harry Potter books, Rowling puts in description that is, in a way, distracting. We've talked about that before...how the first books were so well edited and some of the later ones dragged on in places. But at least she doesn't tell when all the characters went to bathroom! LOL