July 8, 2011 / 2 Comments

Can You Describe the Problem?

First off, a bit of shameless self-promotion (because I haven’t done any in weeks now)…

Ex-Patriots, my third novel and the sequel to Ex-Heroes got a slightly early release this week from Audible.com. It’s coming out in paper/e-book format in September, but if any of you are impatient you can go grab it now. There’s also a bunch of videos for their ZombieFest promotion where a bunch of folks wrote in with questions for the authors of all the featured books. So if you’ve ever wondered just how goofy I sound in real life (or look, or act, or dress…) , here’s your big chance to find out.
And now, back to our previously scheduled pontification…
So, if you’ve been reading this pile of rants for a while, you know there was a point a few years back when I helped to run an online fantasy MUD. If you’re not familiar with the term, a MUD is a multi-user dungeon. Because the game is entirely text-dependent, it was a lot like writing or reading a story. In fact, it was a great tool for polishing your writing, because if you got too long-winded with your words people wouldn’t be able to read them—the description would just scroll up the screen and vanish as other things continued to happen. You had to describe things, but you couldn’t get bogged down in useless details. People would either ignore it or lose their forward momentum as they went back to read it.
One of the things staff members had to monitor was the descriptions players wrote up for their characters. We checked for basic spelling and grammar (“His dark hair compliments his thin lips” was a common phrase). We also checked to make sure the style and wording, by way of the game’s narrative nature, wasn’t forcing actions or reactions on other players (“This scarred man may be the most terrifying person you have ever seen, and the mere sight of him makes your stomach churn with fear.”)
Now, I told you all that so I could tell you this little story…
One day, a staffer called attention to the description of a new female character. Y’see, when the game was originally built the coders left some stuff at default settings, and one of those things was the range for the description string. It was ridiculously high, but no one had ever bothered to set it because… well, there were more important things to do. And, really, who would ever fill it, right?
Well, this player had figured out the high-end range and written a description that was yards and yards and yards of purple prose. On a rough guess, their character description was around five or six hundred words. Maybe more. When you accessed it, the first dozen or so lines automatically scrolled up and off the page because it was so long.
I’m sure some of you are already thinking of character sketches you’ve done that are far longer, but keep in mind, this is all just physical description. It isn’t personality quirks or dietary preferences or anything like that. By nature of the game, it’s not clothes or weapons or equipment, either.
Needless to say, we pointed out that it was excessively long and asked her to trim it. She refused. By her reasoning, since the buffer allowed such a long description, it had to be game-legal. And if people didn’t want to see it, they didn’t need to scroll back.
We pointed out that those first dozen lines contained all the gender and age information for the character. This wasn’t “optional” material, it was stuff other players needed to know.
Still, she refused.
Now, stepping away from my tale, let’s think about this for a moment. A writer is refusing to edit a description, while at the same time admitting most people are going to skim over it or ignore it altogether. Even when authorities on the topic are explaining why it doesn’t work, said author is steadfastly refusing to change.
Does this sound remotely like a writer who’s interested in having an audience?
A common problem for all writers is when description gets too excessive. We get caught up in giving all the details and nuances of this character or those rooms or that magnificent sword which seems to be stuck in a stone… a jagged, raw stone, although one could see hints of granite and shale and flecks of white quartz that gleamed like the teeth of ancient dragons, the likes of which the world had not seen in long millennia. So perhaps calling it “a” stone was a misnomer, for it seemed to have a rich ancestry and heritage written through its structure. This was, perhaps, several stones that had come together untold eons ago, perhaps even then sensing the greater purpose they would serve and the rough bed they would form for the sleeping blade. Or perhaps it was just a coincidence that the gleaming sword had found itself in this particular malformed mound of misshapen rock, and in truth any of the many stones scattered around this subterranean chamber could have been oh dear God I think I’m making myself sick.
As I was saying…
We go one and on and sometimes lose track of the fact that somebody’s going to have to read all this. And since most readers are more interested in the story, that active element of your writing, odds are they’re going to start skimming after the fourth or fifth flowery description which they’ve come to realize has no bearing on the story. At which point, any decent storyteller should question why they’re including stuff that people are just going to skim over.

Elmore Leonard famously said that when he writes he leaves out all the parts people would skip anyway. Alfred Hitchcock said drama is life with all the boring parts taken out. And I’ll tell you that a six hundred word description of how a character’s hair hangs over her ears is either wasting time or is going to bring things to a crashing halt.
As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this kind of overwriting is a deadly mistake in screenplays. Screenwriting is a very concise, minimal form of storytelling. One of the most common complaints I hear from professional readers is when the writer puts in piles of description that just doesn’t need to be there.
That, of course, leads to another issue with massive over-description. We all tend to form our own mental pictures of people and objects in stories. My lovely lady and I were chatting the other day about Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher and realized we both had very different ideas about what he looked like. That’s part of the joy of books. We can all have our own view of different characters like Taran Wanderer or Harry Bosch or St. George or Stu Redman. And nothing’s more distracting or disruptive than to be constantly reminded of all the many details the author’s putting in that don’t match up with that mental picture we’ve already formed.
Now, there’s another side to description, and that’s when writers never actually describe anything. Sometimes this is an attempt to invoke mystery or suspense (check out that dark figure across the street watching our main character). Other times it’s a way to evoke an emotional response with a clever metaphor or simile (when the knife sinks into your back and it’s like every painful sensation you’ve ever had in your life got balled up, hammered flat, and slipped beneath your shoulder blade).
And sometimes… well, sometimes it’s just a cheat. I can try to avoid the monster for as long as possible, which helps build suspense and dread, but eventually I need to say what it is. It’s not uncommon for a writer to try to find a way around an actual description at this point. After all, I’ve been hyping X for three-quarters of the manuscript now, and an honest description may not live up to all that hype.
I got to interview David Goyer (screenwriter of Blade, Batman Begins, and many others) a few years back. He’d just taken a turn in the director’s chair and I asked him if doing so had affected how he approached writing scripts. He laughed, admitted it had, and then told me a very funny story about working on a script with Guillermo del Toro. At one point, it seems, Goyer had “cheated” in the script and just described something as “a complete nightmare.” As they went through, del Toro pointed out this bit, shook his head, and said “What does that even mean? That’s boollshit.”
Which, Goyer admitted, it was. He’d dodged writing any sort of description because he knew it was something the director and art department guys would deal with. But he’d given them nothing to work with. Which was fine… until he was the director and under the gun to figure out what the hell it was that writer-Goyer couldn’t be bothered to put down on paper.
So, here’s an easy tip. It’s so easy I bet half of you will shake your head and ignore it. And some of you are probably already doing it without thinking about it.
If you’re going to describe something, have a reason to describe it. Thats’ it. Not only that, have a reason for the level of detail you’re using. A soldier in a war zone, a housewife, and a forensic examiner can all see a bullet hole in a person’s head, but they’re all going to treat it differently. And if it takes three or four paragraphs to explain what the housewife sees, where does that put the forensic examiner?
If you’re going to describe a person, have a reason for doing it. I’m betting nobody here can list off all the people they crossed paths with the last time they were pushing a cart through the grocery store. Oh, one or two might stand out in some small way, but let’s face it… there were probably close to a hundred. They just weren’t important in the long run. You can’t describe the police officer who gave you your last ticket, but you can probably give a lot of details about the last person you went out to dinner with.
Give descriptions the same weight you’d give characters or dialogue. Y’see, Timmy, if you waste them on the little things, they won’t have any strength when you get to the big things.
And then… well, then you’ve got nothing.
Next time, I’d like to ramble on about cooking school.
Until then, go write.