Sunday, August 23, 2009

When Is Enough, Enough

On one of my favorite writing groups, I asked the question: Description—When is enough, enough? I received some very informative answers that varied somewhat from writer to writer. When it comes to using description in a novel, we quickly learn that there is no definitive answer. There were a few things that my fellow writers mentioned that got me to thinking about the following:

(1) Know what your readers want. This is the concept of throwing pearls before the swine, as opposed to allowing someone to leave the table hungry. Who is your audience and what will they want to know before they finish the passage? Above all, make it interesting. If you like to read it, you can’t get enough, but if you don’t, it will be a chore to wade through a lot of excessive verbiage.

(2) Don’t create an information dump for an unsuspecting reader. There is an urge in every writer to just get all of the necessary background information out there where we can get on with the story. Rather than getting the job done in an expedient fashion, our efforts are likely to resemble meal time with a colicky baby.

(3) Let the description match the situation. Short and evocative is better than long and boring, but each passage should give the reader a feeling of been there and done that—or even better—now that I know how it is done, I want to try it too.

(4) Make sure it fits into the passage. We should never, ever, drag the reader out of the story by giving excessive explanations.

Is there a correct way to do all of the above? Probably not, but simply discussing the problem can cause us to steer a truer course. The next paragraph is a short passage I ripped from the first draft of a work in progress. It is raw and unedited, just as my muse whispered it into my ear. What is right about it at this point, and what is wrong? I don’t know the answer to that—for I am still working on it. Too short? Too long? Uninteresting? Pretentious? Dumping too much information? Read through the short passage and tell yourself how you would do it differently. I don’t need to know your conclusions. By the time you are through with it, I will have transformed it into something else—hopefully for the better.

Radford was on the phone when Sanders entered his workshop. It was a long, prefab building that looked as if someone from his television studio had a hand in its design. Three antique cars took up most of the space in the center of the room. The paint gleamed brightly underneath a row of florescent bulbs suspended from a vaulted ceiling. Radford lifted a finger to let him know he would be with him in a minute. He was a short man in his early fifties with a large head, deep set eyes, and loose clothing. He carried himself in a hesitant manner, but in a way that evidently impressed the members of the governing board of his network. He would have looked at home in one of his epic productions, seated on the front of a swaying oxcart with a crossbow across his knees. The workbench behind him was littered with greasy wrenches and an assortment of automotive tools that Sanders could not identify. The only thing that seemed out of place was the silver mounted picture of his family. The frame and the glass had been buffed to the same flawless sheen as the paint on three antique automobiles . . .


Peg said...

LOL, Joe. Now that last paragraph is what I call an information dump! Book would hit wall, I'm afraid. Great exaple, though.


JanW said...

Interesting para, Joe.
1. Can't determine whose POV. Is it Radford or Sanders? That would help the reader know if the description is something the narrator would notice. I'm going to guess it's Sanders.

2. Lots of ambiguous pronouns. 'His' can refer to either of the two males present. Confusing.

3. Carried himself: assuming this is Sanders commenting on a man who is presumably seated while talking on the phone, 'carried' is probably not the right word.

4. As for the description, I like it IF this is Sanders' first encounter with this person in this place. Is Sanders such an observant person normally so this level fits him? Why is he looking? Is there something about Radford that is out of place given his involvement with studios?

Not a bad job for a first pass. Fix up those ambiguous hims and hes, and I think it will work.

donna said...

Joe, Depending on where this falls in the book, the information could be just right. The imagery is great and the care of his tools and the frames of his family tells you a bit about his personailty. I wouldn't call it an information dump. I'm sure you've altered it, as we all do - many times, but I don't think it's too far of the mark for a first draft. I didn't stop reading, so it didn't overload me.