Descriptions. What's your preference?
My neighbor is a big reader and we had an interesting conversation over the fence this lovely spring weekend. He doesn’t like to read elaborate descriptions. To him, an elaborate description is the gun on the tabletop in scene one that never gets discharged. He gave an example: in the thriller he is currently reading there is a scene where the protagonist walks down a long corridor. The scene is complete with a detailed description of the doors the protagonist passes, what he sees at the other end, etc. In the end, the man gets to the end of the hall and goes into a room. My neighbor read the passage carefully, sure that the careful attention to detail meant that there were important clues in the text – or at a minimum something would happen behind one of those doors. He felt that the description made it difficult to separate important detail from general atmosphere. This is a problem for writers. First of all, no two readers are the same, so you can’t satisfy everyone. Some people like to use their imagination to fill in most of the details of places and people. A long narrow corridor. A tall dark stranger. Good enough. They’ve got the idea and the tall dark stranger gets filled in with their ideal, not the writer’s. Same thing with places. My long narrow corridor may look different from everyone else’s, but does it matter if there is crown molding or not? I believe that there should be enough detail to get close to what the author imagined, but I can sympathize with the notion that too many details are information overload for a reader. This came up in my conversation with my neighbor. Afterwards it struck me that the average reader’s access to information has altered what we want. Think of Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo. These men were literary giants in their day, hugely popular in every sense of the word. They set a scene that was possibly unimaginable to their readers – a glimpse of the darkest side of industrial England’s workhouses and slums and law courts. The vast battle fields of Russia and the gaiety of aristocratic balls. The dark currents of Paris, including those running under the streets. These scenes were so finely wrought that they are useful to historians today. Modern society has access to images on television, at the movie theater and on-line. Take Industrial England. Google it and you are overwhelmed by images and descriptions (not all accurate, but that’s a separate issue). No longer are novels the main form of exposing people to faraway places or ideas. As a result, we have adapted as readers and therefore as writers. Or have we? Description still plays a vital role in a novel. I read to remember places I’ve been, and to dream about places I’ll never go. For me, it remains a balance. I want to see into the mind of the author, all the while knowing I’ll continue to fill in details from my own imagination. That’s also my goal as a writer. I’m curious, though, what do others want? Plenty of description or spare spare spare? There is definitely room for both.