Writing Description: Then and Now

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Hemingway is famous for his short, straightforward sentences that get rid of unnecessary descriptive words for a more concise, minimalistic style of writing.August Wainright

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

This was a grand departure from the great literature that preceded it, like that of Dickens, Hugo or other romantic novelists. While Hemingway was a pioneer in this more terse, modern style, his opinions are by no means universally accepted. I have done some research and given some thought to the divergence of opinion on the uses and styles of description in modern writing and what brought about the changes.

In “days gone by”, the only people with the opportunity and inclination to travel beyond their immediate neighbourhood were those of financial means. After the industrial revolution, illiteracy became less common. Most people knew how to read and one reason for reading was to escape beyond the limits of their reality. For them, much of the enjoyment from reading came through the detailed descriptions of worlds beyond their ken – even if those worlds were part of their society. The poor farmer’s wife never saw the opulence the aristocracy enjoyed, nay, could not even imagine it. The man who had never seen a tall ship reveled in the details of every sail, rope and pulley. For these readers, the descriptions of the surroundings characters acted in were often more intriguing than the stories. Because they had no way to experience these first-hand, every detail became food for their imaginations.

Enter the modern era, with Hemingway, et al.  More people traveled, immigrated, emigrated, had greater access to information through media, magazines, cinema, radio. School curricula covered more than the three “R’s”. The mystique associated with things outside readers’ immediate experiences diminished. As the sense of “otherness” decreased, so did the need for details about how “others” lived.

At the same time, many people developed a taste for faster pace in plot, character development and shorter novels. Those who taught creative writing embraced Hemingway’s opinion. Adverbs and adjectives had to be pared. Less is more, they taught.

But, nothing is constant, and never more so than in the arts. So where that does that leave us?

It depends. As usual.

On what? On many factors, not the least of which is the skill of the writer.

A few years ago I read a book which I enjoyed. The story was great, the characters engaging, and the world this fantasy author created, plausible. But one scene near the beginning almost made me give up on it. The author described, in detail, all twenty-plus weapons the protagonist had on her body, with details about how and where each one was placed or hidden. I, as the reader, could not possibly remember all of this, nor did I care. I trusted that, when needed, she would have the appropriate weapon at hand and be able to use it. That, to me, would be the time to introduce it. The detailed explanation added nothing to the story (indeed most of the weapons were never used, as I recall).  In this case, in my opinion, the author did his work a disservice. Even in Fantasy, it seems, there are limits to how much description is needed.

Certainly genre is a factor in deciding how much description is advisable. Two that I believe would generally benefit from more than usual are Fantasy and Science Fiction, since both of these take place in worlds that do not, nor have ever existed. When building alien worlds, it is often necessary to illuminate them with more details than a modern mystery or romance would require.

Personally, even though I write fantasy, I prefer to keep descriptive passages to a minimum, adding details as they become pertinent to the story or the situation. But that’s only my preference.

On the other side is my spouse. He’s a poet. Perhaps that is why he tends to appreciate a beautifully crafted descriptive passage more than I do.

But there’s the rub. It must be beautifully crafted and well connected to the rest of the book. He hates purple prose as much as I do, and decries superfluous repetition and rambling description that seems to go nowhere.

Both of us have given up on books that contain purple prose and rambling detailed descriptions that add nothing to the book and only demonstrate the author’s lack of finesse with the English language.

So what’s the bottom line? We must respect our readers and be able to offer them what they seek. Is it fast-paced modern action? Then keep your sentences short and your descriptions minimal. Is it poetic language? Then make certain that we craft our descriptive passages with skill and beauty. Descriptions that serve no real purpose have, in my opinion, no place in modern writing. If you can’t do it well, perhaps it’s best to pare it down.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

20 thoughts on “Writing Description: Then and Now”

  1. I’ve found that my writing has gotten more concise (with less filler) over the years, and it does work well. It feels to me that I am leaving it more up to the reader to imagine, rather than hitting them over the head. I will rarely take more than a paragraph to describe anything, unless, as you say, I feather it into the story here and there as I go.
    Years ago, my husband read Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey, and he told me that Grey would often take multiple pages to describe the area. My husband got so annoyed, he’d just skip those pages until Grey returned to the actual story. Read the book in record time!

    1. Exactly. That’s the way it works for me. And I do what your hubby did. Yet, if it’s beautifully, poetically done, some readers, like my hubby, still love those descriptions.

  2. Personal preference, gotta be primary for a creative person. And yes, preferably well done 🙂

    But that’s the challenge from the beginning I think, getting preference and proficiency in enjoyable sync.

    And that’s about all I’d add to a really well done article, Yvonne – that it be enjoyable – whether tears or smiles or a whirl of both! 🙂

  3. Great post, Yvonne. I’m currently reading a very well written fantasy but…I find I’m skimming the descriptions.
    Like you, I’d rather have the visual images and important facts of the world ‘feathered in’ [thanks Melissa!] when they have an immediate impact and and are crucial to the some aspect of the story. For example, I don’t mind if a character looks out over a landscape, trying to impress it upon her mind because she may never see it again. But the same description used as the intro to a new chapter doesn’t have the same emotional impact. It’s just a description of a bucolic landscape. I’m with Hemminway. 🙂

  4. If a word should be there, put it in. If it should not be there, take it out. The art of the writer is knowing which rule applies.
    And all of what Yvonne said, too 🙂

  5. Thank you for reminding us to pay attention to what we write. All to often I find passages in books or stories I am reading, where the writer goes off on a long winded diatribe or description of something important to the writer, but is not important to the reader, and does not move the story along. To sum it up, perhaps we need ten commandments for writing. If so the first should be, “Thou shalt not bore the reader.”

  6. I guess I’m out of step. I love a description that puts me in the scene. I write ’em, too. If I have a mulberry tree, I want the reader to see those long purple fruit and chickens scratching in the dirt to peck them up. I want the reader to know the shade the tree provides under a blistering sun and the old owl that’s made the high branches its home and nest. Some may call that over writing, but I name it ambiance. Ambiance can serve an author well later in a story, especially if birds in the mulberry tree go quiet and the chickens fly up to roost in low branches to hint at danger. Or a character harvests the mulberries to make wine. A description can also be a brief pause in a story to lessen a tension that is building. I call that layering, because when the tension begins again, the reader has had time to catch his or her breath. I say author choice how one composes a tale and reader choice how one reads a book.

      1. I think what’s interesting in all this is how description is another tool for story, which as Yvonne points out, must be done well & fit – and it sounds like Jackie’s examples of her intent do all that + must obviously be entertaining her readers at the same time 🙂

        It’s all a challenge, and it’s all part of our creative drive.

        For me, it’s always been about putting it all together.

        Call me a sputter-in-progress, lol! 🙂

        So, very glad we have all these great ideas we can mix and match and re-serve as our own – that’s a real creative community I think.

  7. Great post, Yvonne. Less is more. For me. Another writer friend of mine who loves thrillers likes hers with much more description. As a writer I can’t be all things to all readers (OMG, the pressure 🙂 ), so I write what I like to read.

  8. Very well said, I hate books that bore me with detailed descriptions. I have actually skipped a whole chapter because of description overload. If it’s not needed please please leave it out. My books have minimal descriptions, I like to leave the rest to the readers imagination.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. It’s your word “overload” that defines the argument, I think. Personally, I’m with you, but I also understand, as Jackie says, that there is a place for good description.

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