Those of us who wish to be called “author” are charged with the task of using words to describe things both vividly and concisely. It is beginning to dawn on me how much of an undertaking this really is.
Now, in fairness, there are plenty of good books out there that are vivid enough. The action/plot/point of the book or story isn’t lost in the detail, but there’s enough detail left out that readers either fill in the blanks on their own, or aren’t fully seeped in the imagery.
I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with this. For instance, in a fast-paced action-type story, the characters or narrator won’t have time to wax poetic about the leaves on the trees during a chase scene. It would kill the pace. Moreover, being overly specific can drown out the story and bore your readers to death for very little gain. After all, in most cases it doesn’t make a difference if your character is pictured with blue eyes or green. Similarly, most people probably won’t picture an oak tree any differently from a maple tree, so if it’s not important to the story, it probably doesn’t need to be specified.
I’m going to cite my favorite example of “details gone wild.” In “The Last of the Mohicans,” there are a bunch of long passages that, at least for me, killed the story. I often refer to that book as, “fifty pages on how a bear walks.” If I hadn’t needed to write an essay on it, I would never have finished (or, I would have skimmed ahead until the bear was done walking).
So, now that I’ve illustrated the problems with using too much description (which I might be prone to doing, given that my introductory thought to this post took four paragraphs), I’m going to tell you what brought this all on.
Earlier this week my family and I went to Georgia (the state, not the country) for the first time. We were near the ocean. I was expecting the sand-for-dirt with houses on stilts type of environment that I’d experienced in the Outer Banks area. Boy that was NOT what I got.
Parts of it were marshy (the word “bayou” comes to mind). There were long stretches on either side of the road with reed-like things and, according to the maps, a river meandering through it. In my opinion, none of it qualified as land. Then, there were parts that were downright lush with shrubs and trees and various plants I can’t identify.
The part I liked best was where the enormous old trees were. I’m told they are called “live oak.” They have rough bark and huge trunks, but branch out down low. The big branches look knobbly and twisty as they reach out and often down. Some hit the ground before turning up. The old ones have huge spans. There was one near the beach that had about twenty picnic benches under it.
Except for the ones along the beach, these trees’ branches are covered with Spanish moss. It hangs like clumps of brown tinsel and sways in the wind. These thick-branched trees don’t rustle in the wind, but the moss sways. They provide dense shade over large areas and, in the light of dusk or dawn, the moss swaying in the breeze is a bit creepy.
Areas with several of these big old trees invariably made the word “cemetery” pop into my head, but they were also majestic and in places provided a historically charming feel. I especially liked how some of them branched out over the roads providing shade from above. You can see from the picture that these trees can have very long horizontal branches.
I regret that I didn’t take a camera with me (although, with two kids and two cats in a car for a 11 hour drive, I think you’ll forgive the omission).
So, what the heck do these trees have to do with writing? Well, when I started regretting my lack of a camera, I started thinking.
Could I (or anyone) write a good enough description of them? Is it possible to capture the feel of these trees in sentences and paragraphs? I think it could be done in poetry, but what about in a novel?
I tend toward almost scientific descriptions. If I’m not careful, my descriptions can be about as dry as a grocery list:
- long hair (check)
- brown eyes (check)
- average height (check)
With my recent evaluation of The Hunger Games books and movie, I started thinking. Is a picture really worth a thousand words? Are there some places authors should not try to describe things in detail? When is it important to get the feel for a place? Is it sometimes better to have a picture (or hire an illustrator)?
Perhaps you all have thought about this before. For me, a suburbanite, this is a rather new concept. Sure, I’ve traveled a bit, but I’m only starting to really get into places that have a totally different feel. Frankly, the suburbs of most cities feel the same to me. Sure, there might be different architecture or types of trees, but I can probably find a Walmart in any of them.
So, dear readers, what do you think? How much description is enough? Does it vary by genre? location? audience? something else?