Recently I’ve been pondering the use of description in my own work, especially as I run through edits to a couple of my books. I can tend to overuse it a bit and so I’m working on whittling it down, to painting a picture for the reader using as few brushstrokes as possible, letting them fill in the blanks.
I’ve decided it’s kind of like adding spice to a recipe – just a sprinkle is enough to enhance the flavours and create a more pleasing whole, whereas if you overdo it, the spices take over, distracting from the original flavours of the dish.
For example, in my first Ambeth book I had my heroine walking through a field to get to where she needed to go. I described the field as she went through it, then added some other details about the hedgerows and how she used to play in them when she was a kid with her friends. Upon editing I removed that bit. Even though I really liked it and it was based on my own experience, I had to let it go. It had no bearing on the plot and was, I felt, distracting to the reader. They don’t need to know she used to play in the field, they just need to get through it with her to the other side, where the story is waiting.
In a recent blog post, Kristen Lamb talks about older styles of writing, where using a great deal of description was considered appropriate as most readers wouldn’t possess the range of knowledge about the world that we have today. She makes the point that today’s readers are so much more well informed that we don’t need to spoon feed them description, that they will already know what we mean. To read more, visit her post here:
Taking that further, you don’t need to make your book so obscure readers are heading to Google every few pages to figure out what the hell you’re on about, but you can cut back on description for the modern reader, leaving them free to move forward within the structure of the story.
It’s a lesson I’m still learning and, going back to my original analogy, figuring out where spice needs to be added, and where it can be left out altogether.
By the way, the above photo is what happens when you have a full container of sprinkles on your kitchen counter top, and you inadvertently knock said container off the counter. Makes a pretty loud bang too!
I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I’m reading a lot of late nineteenth/early twentieth century fiction at the moment and they have, perhaps, more descriptive writing than do many modern novels. They certainly have more exposition. It got me thinking how future readers and historians will characterise early twentieth-first century fiction. By our love of first person, present tense narratives, perhaps – of which I’m as “guilty” as the next writer. Or maybe the rise of e-readers will change how books are meant to be read; maybe they will no longer necessarily proceed in a linear page1 to page end fashion…..
Anyway, to return to description in fiction. I like it. I like, OK! I get that we all have cinematically-induced short attention spans and want snappy, brief scenes ending on a cliff-hanger but I still want the description. Well, some of it anyway 😉
And, when all’s said and done, rules are made to be broken. How else can we fashion new styles of writing?