Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Description... How much is too much?

Description and Details... I often need to tell my students before, during, and after a writing assignment to include details... supporting details, sensory details, vivid, colorful, meaningful DETAILS! Of course, you need to understand that writing is like a tooth extraction for my wonderful kids. They want to know exactly how many words they need...right down to the last letter. No more, no less. Yet, for those of us who enjoy the written word, we create our beautiful masterpieces with those many, many words and phrases...maybe too many. I was reading in Stephen King's On Writing -- one of my favorite references on the subject -- where he states, "good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else" and "that it's as easy to overdescribe as to underdescribe. Probably easier." He continues to explain that what comes into your mind first, what you see first... those details are the most genuine and best to use. He's not big on physical description of characters, but rather description of time and place, i.e. the setting. I agree for the most part. Who cares what kind of handbag and shoes someone is wearing? Unless the shoes are going to be an important clue to a murder, for instance, it's unnecessary. I'd much rather hear about the character's character than the color of his or her hair. And as King puts it, "get on with your main job, which is telling the story" and don't bog down your writing with weighty details that bore your readers.

So, what do you think? Do you agree? What "details" do you tend to include in your writing?


Vanessa Rogers said...

In high school I disliked reading Steinbeck because I would get distracted by the amount of description and because of that I did not feel involved in the story. I haven't read him since then, and I am a different reader now than I was then, but there is def. such a thing as writers who are too descriptive. Description is kind of like make-up; it should be used to accentuate ones features, not take it over.

Every Photo Tells A Story said...

I love poetry, for the simple reason that one well written line can say more than an entire page.

Too much description gets in the way of the truth.

Anonymous said...

detailing is the part i'm really poor in. most of the time because i lack the picturesque. also, having a limited vocabulary restricts my writing as i tend to put in only the words i am familiar with. so whenever i would try to do a "detailed" paragraph, it becomes too long, and redundant.

Anonymous said...

detailing is something you don't learn in school, it is a life experience thing - hits differnet people at differnet times.


Anonymous said...

differnet - at least I am consistant.


absolute said...

Same as Ares here. Although as well as that I find it extremely easy to shy away from description, but my motivation behind writing isn't necessarily for anyone reading it to be able to understand it. I like the Stephen King quote. It seems to be true. The majority of my favourite authors rarely go into great detail about main characters and the like.

Michael said...

Oh, I try so hard to be descriptive, but it just comes out as being sleazy metaphors and abusive use of an online thesaurus. Like Ares, I consider myself to be poor at it as well and I'm more comfortable with just telling the story.

And AV, very amusing. Hahaha.


teacherwriter said...

AV....then I guess my job as a language arts teacher to teach effective writing is pointless? Actually I do have some students with wonderful talent in using descriptive detail. Maybe that can be attributed to a "natural" talent that develops early on. But even natural talent must be nurtured. Still, I agree, we all have our own time table. To some it may come early in life, to others...well, maybe it's not their thing. And that said...I now have an idea for my next blog posting! :)

Claudia East said...

The section where you describe what King says about the dangers of "over describing" is wonderful! To over simplify, there are basically two kinds of readers ~ those that "see" pictures in their heads when they read, and those that hear a little tape recorder (or CD...) in their head. I am the kind that hears the sounds of the words, I don't "see" so many pictures. For me, if there is a lot of description (like the color of the handbag, etc.) I just skip over all that stuff! I want to get to the action or the meat of the ideas. My time is to valuable to think about how someone else "sees" things. If I want to "see" I will go outside and look!

Nice blog, by the way!

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