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09:01 am: Wright's Writing Corner: Putting In the Stuff People Skip.




Today, I am going to tackle another of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing:

 

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.


A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue
.

 

Before I continue, I want to emphasize that I am not criticizing Mr. Leonard’s writing style. He does what he does very well. I am just touching on why not all of us may want to write like him.

 

What is the number one thing that people skip? (Come on, admit it, you probably skip stuff, too…unless the “you” in question happens to be my husband, who probably never skips anything.)


The answer, of course, is description.


 

Some modern authors respond to this by leaving it out. They have almost no description. I read one recently, it practically seemed indecent, as if the story was not wearing enough garments.

 

These stories read like a screenplays. Only most of us do not read screenplays. We watch movies full of rich backgrounds and imagery.

 

Sure the descriptionless books read quickly, but, to me anyway, they fell empty, like cotton candy—easy to eat, but gone in a moment leaving either nothing or a stomach ache.

This is not so bad if they have something else to offer, a hairraising plot, edge of your seat action, and— and this is the important thing—if they take place in a familiar landscape, such as modern day America, where the reader has no trouble filling in what is being left out.

But this minimum description method breaks down if the story either takes place in an exotic location (real or imaginary) or requires a delicately painted mood.
 

Most of my favorite books are loaded with description, even top-heavy with it. Description that fills in the details of what is around you and helps anchor you to the story and surroundings. Detail that makes the book much more like a steak dinner with potatoes, corn smothered in butter and garlic, and a crisp salad.

 

Books like that stick with you. Years later, I still remember then and reread them.

 

Do I read these descriptions, savoring every word?

 

Well, often no. Even I do not. But I SKIM them.

 

Skimming is different from skipping. When you skip, you miss it all. When you skim, you get some of it, a taste. The mood and gist of it settles into your thinking, helps color the experience. When you skim, the fact that the description is there matters…it improves the story.

 

Let me tell you a story that explains why I feel description is important.

 

As most of you know, John and I are roleplayers. If you do not know what that means, picture your favorite book, imagine that there was someone who could portray the characters as if they were real people, so that you could talk to them and interact with them.

That is what it is like.

 

John, when he is moderating (running the game, being the storyteller) often pauses to describe things—sometimes at length. Often, these periods of description come at the beginning, before we get to engage in the action. Often, very often, they are boring. I remember one time that a friend and I were groaning out loud, begging him to please move past the description to the part where we got to talk and act.


But, do you know what? I still remember that description. It made a big difference to the game, to the way the scenes felt, to my memory of the occasion.

 

In retrospect, I really appreciated the description, even though at the time, I did not want to do the work of having to listen to it and picture it.

 

Books are like this, too. Good description enhances the experience, even if it is hard.

 

Which brings us to a question: Are descriptions harder to read than quick dialogue?


Yes.


Is hard bad?

 

No. It is harder. Some readers are too lazy, but it is not bad. In fact, good readers occasionally enjoy the books that make them work a little harder more. But it is not bad. Often it is good.

 

Believe it or not, some people actually like descriptions. Real people. Not just statistics out there some where in a national poll. I even know a few myself.

 

Now, that being said, are there things we can do to both have description and make it easier for the reader?


Sure…polish our description to make it easier to read, for one thing. Also, keeping one’s paragraphs shorter can help…I mean here both that short bits of description can be added sometimes instead of long ones, but also that long descriptions can be broken up more, to make it easier for the eye to follow.

 

(You can probably tell by looking at this that I like the short paragraph thing. Only use that if it works for you. ;-)

 

So, yes, description may be harder to read, it may slow us down, the reader may skim it, or even skip it. But that does not mean that the writer should leave it out!

 

And, by the way, Mr. Leonard, I do not necessarily know what the character is thinking and, I do care!

 

For next week: In Defense of the Heming Way: A Look At Some Viritues Of The Other Side.

 



Comments

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From:saintjoi
Date:March 3rd, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
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I have to admit, I love description! I think it has to do with my family tradition of reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol out loud every year: we were always enthralled with his long descriptive passages. To this date, one of my favorite things to read aloud is his description of the stores on Christmas Day. Purple prose? Sure. But really fun. :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
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John read A Christmas Carol to our kids, too. I've made a definite point of having older books read to the children, so that they will be able to follow better storytelling, rather than just snarky modern prose. (Not that I mind snarky modern prose. I love the Lightning Thief, for instance.)
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From:marycatelli
Date:March 3rd, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
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I read the description.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
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See! Living proof! ;-)
From:geeklady
Date:March 3rd, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
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Depends entirely on the description.

On one hand, I could happily drown myself in Tolkien. On the other, I'll skip right over the repetitive description AND dialogue that Robert Jordan tended towards. My husband actually gave up in the middle of book seven because the relentless, repetitive battle of the sexes was driving him mad, and my dad swears his retirement project will be to edit the entire Wheel of Time series down to a trilogy by removing the excessive amounts of sniffing, braid pulling, and descriptions of women's clothing.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
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;-)

Exactly. One of the reason that Mr. Leonard's rules can work is that if you are not an espeically good writer, you'll probably produce a better story if you follow them.

My point is only that there are also good books that don't follow them. Tolkien is a perfect example.
From:punman
Date:March 3rd, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
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I skipped all the way down to the comments. :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
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LOL
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From:jordan179
Date:March 3rd, 2010 05:41 pm (UTC)
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This is not so bad if they have something else to offer, a hairraising plot, edge of your seat action, and— and this is the important thing—if they take place in a familiar landscape, such as modern day America, where the reader has no trouble filling in what is being left out.

But this minimum description method breaks down if the story either takes place in an exotic location (real or imaginary) or requires a delicately painted mood.


Right. Imagine one of Jack Vance's stories with most of the description edited out. Would it be interesting? Would it even be comprehensible?

The prejudice against description assumes mainstream fiction, and what's worse it assumes mainstream fiction with certain things assumed between author and reader, including things that are matters for debate in reality. Heck, it assumes mainstream fiction set in modern urban or suburban America -- how would you do a story set in, say, modern India with the description left out?

In other words, not just Only America Is Real, but worse still, Only America is Interesting, which is tunnel vision so narrow that one is likely to crash into the sides if one has an even slightly broad mental scope!
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC)
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Exactly.

I think you could put things in many modern cities, with only a smattering of description and still have a story...but if you want the reader to be aware of how Beijing is different from New York, for instance, you need more.
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From:cdenmier
Date:March 3rd, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)

A Skipper

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I'm a big time description-skipper...well, I guess by your wording, more of a skimmer...but I agree that the description oftentimes HAS to be there. Things just aren't right without it.

As a reader, a lack of description makes the story jump out to me as "just a story" in the same way that bad acting makes you realize the movie you're watching is "just a movie." Weak description fails to make the setting come alive. Weak description makes you think that the author never lived in his fictional world before writing it into being.

The Lord of the Rings drove me nuts in places ("Oh come on, it's just a forest...get on with the story already!") but those key descriptions HAD to be there. If Tolkien hadn't so ingeniously and laboriously created the world of Middle Earth and her languages and her cultures and her peoples, the crown jewel of the story would have no place to sit. The story of Frodo and the Ring is very compelling, but the setting--even when you skip lots of it--makes the story feel immortal.

I'm terrible at description, though getting better in large part to the realization that I simply have to put it in there. If I can't see the world I'm making in enough detail to write about it convincingly, then I have to spend more time in that world and work harder.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:March 3rd, 2010 07:16 pm (UTC)
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Very interesting, yes, yes, SKIM! That's what we do with landscape in real life: we skim the background, however rich and beautiful, focusing on the roads and the people in movement. If something in the landscape is especially interesting, we can choose to focus on it -- like choosing to slow down and savor a particular sentence of description. Having a lot of descriptive (and poetic) details there TO skim over is wonderful, rich, shimmery, realistic. Eg L.M. Montgomery.

I like description and introspection etc to be in big blocky dense paragraphs, the sort that Elmore dislikes. For one thing it makes it more skimmable. As Steven King says in ON WRITING, the shape of the paragraphs and white space on the page is a 'map of intent'.

Short chopped paragraphs to me are a signal to read slowly and closely, don't dare miss a word. I don't like to do that and find the sentence is landscape instead of action or whatever -- unless it's VERY important and the character is noticing it (or should be).
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
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Very interesting! I'll keep that in mind for big descriptions. ;-)
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From:mr_feathertop
Date:March 3rd, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)

Leonard’s Analysis

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Leonard’s analysis is interesting to me because I never skip or even skim when reading for pleasure. If I am at the point that I want to skip, I find a new book. Of course, when I was in college I never skipped class because, darned it, I had paid a whole lot of money for the education.

When reading, I appreciate a good description, but it can be overdone. The best descriptions tend to give just enough to envision the person or landscape and a few telling details, such as the lion's tale swishing, the frown, the hole in the ceiling, etc.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 07:54 pm (UTC)

Re: Leonard’s Analysis

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The subject of how to write good description is a different subject than from whether to include it. I'm thinking of doing an entry on that, though I am nothing of an expert. Still, I could do one on what little I know about it.
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From:cjmr
Date:March 3rd, 2010 07:37 pm (UTC)
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I'm currently reading Wind in the Willows to my kids. If you took all the description out of that, you wouldn't have much book left...
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
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We should read that with our kids.
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From:bojojoti
Date:March 3rd, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
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I don't skip or skim, except for Terry Goodkind's long-winded speeches that have been given in prior books of his. An author needs to respect that his readers do retain something of previous books written and not bash them over the head repeatedly with the same arguments.

I like descriptions, and I want a rich reading experience. Otherwise, I may as well pick up Reader's Digest issues of bestsellers.
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From:superversive
Date:March 3rd, 2010 10:37 pm (UTC)
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I must strongly object to your complaint about Terry Goodkind. The man never gets repetitive with his long-winded speeches: each one is a masterpiece, delivered by a genius. I am sure he will tell you so.

In fact, so strongly do I feel about this that blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blahblah blah blahblahblahblah blah blahblah blahblah, as you know, Kahlan.
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From:johncwright
Date:March 3rd, 2010 09:01 pm (UTC)
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a national pole should read a national poll
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 3rd, 2010 09:15 pm (UTC)
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Done.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 4th, 2010 12:01 pm (UTC)
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I think the sprinkle method really works well. Large descriptions are necessary at times, but often you can keep the mood flowing with shorter ones...or make part of the description part of action and dialogue.

"Gee, Thomas, I've never seen such a tall and narrow steeple!"

"That's because you don't get out into the country enough, bonehead."

Or whatever. ;-)

But, yeah...writing longer descriptions requires one to try and do it well...which is hard, but can be worth it. ;-)
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From:ccr1138
Date:March 4th, 2010 06:05 am (UTC)
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My rule of thumb with description is to include only what the POV character cares about. Describe things as colored by his/her emotions. Rather than tell the reader all about each thing in the room, pick one or more things that strike your viewpoint character as important. The second part of this is that the description has to be in his/her voice, rather than a bland third-person style.

Boring: The lawyer's office was cluttered with leather-bound books that spilled off the floor-to-ceiling shelves and teetered in piles on an ornate, antique desk.

Better: Fatima peered around at the cluttered office and boggled at the sheer number of leather-bound books spilling out of the floor-to-ceiling shelves and teetering in piles on an expensive-looking antique desk. This lawyer must be either very cavalier with his treasures or simply too rich to care. Either way, perhaps she'd made a mistake coming here.

Note the second example is longer, but it seems more alive because you're getting characterization and not just detail. (And I'm not claiming either paragraph is deathless prose. I just tossed them off quickly to give you an idea of what I mean.)

John D. MacDonald was one of the best at this. His Travis McGee novels are a treasure-trove of writing techniques that work.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 4th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
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Huh. I wrote an answer to this. Lost it somehow.

My favorite book is actually in omniscient voice, not the close-up third person that is so popular now. But it definitely helps to make the descriptions topical or important to the reader or the character.
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From:kmai
Date:March 9th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
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I must admit, I'm a skimmer and speed-reader. I am also the kind of person that rereads books seventy times. I don't want books to leave the stuff I skim out! Otherwise, I'd have to read each word! ;) Well, to be less flippant, there are too many books out there for me to waste time with the ones that don't appeal to me, so the first time I read a book, I read it quickly. If the plot is exciting, gripping, and amusing, I will want to know what happens next *now*, with only a vague glimpse at the surroundings. But if I truly enjoyed what the book had to say, I'll read it again, and cherish every word, knowing that I will be amused and that the princess is safe in bed at the end.

A book that is to the point in every word... If you are writing hundreds of pages worth of pure action, you *better* be extremely entertaining to pull that off. And if you are that entertaining, I'll be left wondering why you would put such an interesting story in such an empty world. What a cheat!
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 9th, 2010 07:21 pm (UTC)
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Your experience is much like mine. I often speed through, but if the story is worthwhile, I go back...and like you, I want that stuff there for me to discover later.

In some of my favorite books, I find new things every time.
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