“I felt like I was there.” Most writers want their readers to say this. They want the description to be so crisp and clear it transports the reader into the world. They want to participate in the adventure. I just finished reading Morrell’s Lesson from a Lifetime of Writing. In it, he brings up an interesting point about description. Sight is the weakest of all the senses. After thinking about this for a while, I would have to agree. Looking at a friend’s vacation pictures does not make me feel as if I traveled to those places. At best, they bring a smile to my face, making me wish I had gone. It is the feel of the air on my skin and the scents in the air that let me experience a place.
I have to be careful with this. Looking at my writing, most of my descriptions are sight based. I think this is because I see a movie playing in my head when I write. Having the movie creates other issues I won’t discuss here, but it ultimately creates a sight-rich prose. Therefore, I needed to become mentally aware of my other senses. The more senses I encounter, the more I feel connected to the piece, which is fun. Another reward to the change is that, in an attempt to strengthen my descriptions, I have been sensing my surroundings more. What do I hear? What do I feel? What do I taste? How would I describe that? I find myself enjoying life a little more through the process of strengthening my own work.
I do think there is a limit to description. Any avid reader has encountered a book that drones on and on. I read a book for my BA where the author spent two pages describing a bird that had absolutely nothing to do with the plot. In fact, she spent so much time describing, the plot didn’t begin for one hundred pages. Now, this is a published book and I know many people who appreciate the beauty of the language. Yet, I suspect most readers would join me in skimming the paragraphs of prose until the action develops again.
A quote by James Patterson has bombarded many conferences (and books) recently. “Leave out the parts that the readers tend to skip.” I was confused by this saying at first, although it wasn’t the first time the writing industry latched onto a slogan that seemed to contradict their foundation. Over the last few months, I have come to make sense of the trend. Paragraphs of description do nothing to bring readers into the story. Either the information will overwhelm them to the point of not really “seeing” what’s going on or they will just skip it altogether. Yet, leaving out description does nothing to solve the problem. A good compromise is to scatter description throughout the scene. Let the character experience the detail and the reader will as well. As with anything else in life, it’s all about the balance: balance the senses, balance the quantity. But figuring out how it all works is what makes writing fun.