Like all things in life, I’ve come to realize there is more than one way to
skin a cat read a book. Not that I ever…okay, yeah I have, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
I tend to read from first page to last page. I skip description and passages of serious character introspection. Don’t shoot me, but it’s true. I think I read this way because my imagination is quite stubborn and requires very little outside direction.
Tell me there’s a garden and I immediately picture the entire thing, laid out and ready for use. If the ornamental, miniature, purple-flowering hedge bush is integral to the story, drop it in there. And nothing more. When you do this, my brain files away the item that was special enough to be mentioned.
When you fill in the garden with every single plant, every scent, every color and every texture, I’m guaranteed to skip over your words. Then if there’s something important in the midst of all that detail, I’ll miss it and won’t be happy at the end of the book when the ornamental, miniature, purple-flowering hedge bush was the source of the poison.
Why? Because, in my mind, it got lost. My attention, that is, not the bush. That was always there waiting to be used during the “ah ha” moment.
Ironically, Eldest just informed me he likes when authors fill in the voids of his imagination. “I love when everything is described so I can see what people look like and what, exactly, is happening.”
He would hate me as a writer. I don’t describe much at all. Case in point, in my YA (that I just finished editing last night, go me!) I barely describe my MC at all. She has blonde hair–unlike her parents–and her eyes are the color of the sky just before it snows. That’s it.
Pretty ambiguous. Yet, I visualize her perfectly. Likewise, none of my critters have complained that they don’t know what she looks like. Because of this, I assume they, too, have also visualized her based on her actions, emotions and carefully placed commentary along the way.
For instance, she pulls her hair back into a pony tail when she doesn’t have time to shower in chapter 2. Her hair can be anywhere from a sleek, chin-length bob to a butt-brushing cascade of curls. I never say.
Personally, I don’t care–at least until they cast her for a movie. My readers can see my MC any way they want to envision her. She can have wide, child-bearing hips or be super slim. Her skin can be pale as cream that rises to the top of the milk, mahogany brown or any shade in between. It really doesn’t matter to me.
Except the eyes and hair. Those two details come into play waaaaaay at the end of the book. Which is why I took the time to describe them.
Why do I hate long passages of inner musing? Because I like to read between the lines. I like to feel so connected to a character that I intuitively “get” them and why they do things. When I am told, again and again, what the MC is thinking, deciding or feeling, I get bored with him. He becomes less three-dimensional and morphs into a teacher.
It’s as if the author is telling me to pay attention. “Now, get ready, here comes something important.” and “Oh yeah, in case you didn’t get it the last time around, here’s what is really happening now.”
And the villainous explanation at the end, when the MC is tied to the railroad tracks with a 9mm gun pointed at her head? Those I skip on principle. If a writer didn’t show me motives and opportunities along the way, I have no interest in getting them in dialogue just to wrap up the ending.
Because of my cosmic dislikes when I read, I’m uber careful not to pen them into my own novels.
How about you? How do your reading likes and dislikes affect the way you write? Can writers become too stubborn in this mindset? If so, how?
Curious minds want to know.
I do love descriptions in books, but not overly involved ones. Just enough that I can visualize. Not that I don’t have the imagination to do so without the descriptions, but I like it when the author sets the scene a bit.
In my writing I have veered from lots of descriptions to fewer word visuals…some readers enjoyed my descriptions while others did not. I’m trying to meet in the middle somewhere.
I noticed that when I write in the first person voice for my MC, which I have done in my two WIPs, I find a balance better. We see what the character sees.
You raise a good point and one I’ve never assessed before with my writing–or reading for that matter. Is my tolerance of description higher when the novel is written first or third person? Interesting. I’ll have to keep this in mind when I read/write over the next weeks.
Thanks for the comment and a new perspective. I always love having my eyes opened to new possibilities.
Best luck in balancing your description!
I love descriptors if there’s an emotional resonance within the description or if the description allows me into a new world – for instance, Harry Potter. However, if the author tells me that the character has yellow hair, brown beady eyes and a bodice of yadayayada that’s what I start doing. It’s the AUTHOR telling me these things and not allowing me to move forward and read the darn story. So yes, there’s a time and place for description, but you have to pick your times and places with care. ;D
Perfect example, Victoria, of the difference between showing and telling. The same information can be slipped in with a much greater success when a writer takes care to only do so with a good reason rather than as a tool to puff up a word count.
Unlike you, I only read and never write. At least I don’t write things that most people would to read (research paper on the use of ratios in understanding a company balance sheet anyone? fully edited and hot off the press!). My sense is this really is one of the more tricky parts of being an author. What is the balance? Does it change by demographic or generation? First person or Third? What about genre?
I’m with you, Cat. Less is generally more. I do skip big long discriptions. Its why I am passionate in my dislike for a certain highly celebrated, American author that we were forced to read too many times in High School. The endless discriptions were mind-numbing. I could fall asleep right now just remembering!
I’m with you on that!
I’m with you – I’m very sparse on description. I need to go back in and add details. In fact for my female mc, all I show is she’s short, and her eyes are the same colour as a musical instrument in the story. I hope my (eventual) readers read the same way you do!
I’ll read and be happy as a clam!
I usually have to go back and plug in some detail to keep my readers on track. I guess it’s not always a bad thing…
I like description that evokes the MOOD of the story, rather than just the way someone or something LOOKS. The best description uses words that have the right kind of feeling. Like this bit from the book I’m (re)reading right now:
“The cracks in the pavement that Mae hardly noticed by day had turned into shadowy scars along the cement, tracing jagged paths that led into the dark of yet another dead-end alley.”
One sentence. But it gives you shadows, darkness, broken-ness, a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of mystery . .. without having to carry on and on. It’s EVOCATIVE.
I’m trying to learn how to do that.
Love your example. This is the perfect kind of description. It’s not an info dump, but rather part of the story.
you say: I tend to read from first page to last page. I skip description and passages of serious character introspection. Don’t shoot me, but it’s true. I think I read this way because my imagination is quite stubborn and requires very little outside direction.
That’s me! And my beta-readers keep asking me to describe more and tell more and… I just don’t do it because it bores me to death! 🙂 I have a very visual imagination, and I don’t need long descriptions to have an idea of what I’m reading. And I forget the other senses in descriptions as well… because I don’t notice smells or sounds very often in reality either… ops! 😉
Bad writer or simply a style? I like to think it’s my voice. Like it or hate it, I can’t change it…
LOL! We’re twins. I’m likely the least observant person I know in regards to physical detail. Give me somebody to watch and I’ll have personality down in seconds. What they wore? How they smelled? Sheesh, they could be naked for all I’d notice!
We’ll call our descriptively-sparse writing a style.