Thursday, January 19, 2012

6 Signs of Description Misuse

There are many ways to use and abuse description in fiction. There are the obvious ways of simply over doing it, and the less obvious ways. Below I've listed the six signs to keep a look out for. (Please note today's inspiration came from the comments from my previous post regarding character description, particularly those from Carol, Deniz, Tyrean and L'Aussie.)

1. The Shopping Lists. I recently read a novel where every time a new character stepped onto the scene the author would tell the reader every physical attribute of the character in a way that made me think they were checking it off a list: character height, weight, eye colour, hair colour, etc. The reader doesn't have to know every single detail about a character all at once.

2. If the Action Stops. This is the kind of description that stops the flow of the story for the sake of letting the reader know the details of the setting, the characters, or anything else that's not currently relevant. It will grind the pace to a halt, diffuse the tension, and pull the reader from the story.

3. The Tell. This kind of description doesn't show the reader the place, the atmosphere, the characters. It tells them: The forest was spooky. I'd rather the author shows me what the forest was like and I'll decide for myself whether or not it's spooky.

4. The Wall. This is also known as the info dump. It's seen as a wall of text full of nothing but description. It might be acceptable in the classics, but times have changed. It's better to break it up and pepper it through the prose.

5. The Clichés and the Stereotypes. Descriptions are a great opportunity for the writer to get creative. It's tempting to fall back on clichés for the sake of moving along in the story. This is fine for the first draft only. My first drafts are rife with them because I need to keep writing as fast as possible or I'll get snagged on a distraction. However, I'll always go back, hunt them down and dress them up into something more original--or, I try.

6. The Lack of Relevance. One of the many comments made in my previous post was the dislike for countless descriptions of what the characters are wearing. This is because it most often lacks relevance to the story. Descriptions should only be included if they reveal something of importance about a character, adds atmosphere, advances the plot etc. If it's just there because the words are purdy, then it needs to go.

Which of these sins are you guilty of? Which do you least like to see in a novel? Can you think of any others?

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Award: Thanks to Coral Riggs and mshatch for the Great Comments Award. You guys rock!

Announcement: Next week on the 26th January, it's Australia Day and since I'm an Aussie, I'd love to celebrate the date with a virtual BBQ. Thanks to Karen Gowen for the idea. Her BBQs have been wonderfully successful. The idea is to visit my blog on the 26th, bring a virtual plate of food to share, then in the comments tell everyone about yourself and your blog, and come back and visit three other people who have left a comment. Please spread the word!

63 comments:

  1. I wish I could get away with writing "the wall." If Dickens did it, can't I? No, no, I can't, especially not in YA.

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  2. "The Shopping List" is such a good term! As is "The Wall", which exactly how I feel about infodumps.

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  3. I used to do a lot more tell than now. Least I hope I'm better.
    I've seen the lack of relevance even in the books of big name authors. I remember reading one where the author described this character's dress in such detail, it took up over a page. And then we never saw the character again. What was the point?

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  4. I, too, throw in a lot of cliches, mostly overused phrases, then go back and tweek them later.

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  5. I can't stand The Shopping List and The Tell. These are the ones most commonly seen in online writing such as fanfics which is maybe why I can't stand them.

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  6. Oh I'm sure I'm guilty of all of them!! LOL!! Especially during first drafts! LOL! Yikes!!

    Yay for your award and upcoming BBQ!!! Yum!

    Take care
    x

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  7. if u ask me writers should be trialled for crimes against literature if their work has lack of relevance and plausibility, the second one especially. It calls for capital punishment in the form of taking away the computer from the criminal forever.

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  8. I don't like a lot of description,and in fact have been known to simply skim it,on the other hand some is needed,just don't overdo.Blessings Jane

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  9. My earlier writing had the common transgression of wardrobe inventories. You're right - if it isn't relevant, leave it out.

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  10. I know some readers really like a lot of detail, but I'm not one of them. I'm a minimalist when it comes to this stuff. George R.R. Martin drives me crazy with all his clothing descriptions. :P

    That said, I wish I was better at describing the world of my novel. Sigh. :/

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  11. Ive been guilty of everyone of these except the wall. I can write verse and short stories, but could never sustain a novel. Most of the reasons for that are on this list. Moving a character from point A to point B is difficult for me. My least favorite is the wall. Because it often stops me cold and causes me to put down a book.

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  12. Such a great post! I remembering being in elementary school and high school and thinking that over-description was the way to go. Or I opened the thesaurus and found fancy adjectives. (Shudders) Oh, Young Me! University Me discovered that showing was better than telling and that good writing was mostly comprised of just nouns and verbs.

    I think you did a great job explaining why the strategies just don't work.

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  13. Very interesting! I love BBQ and I'll be there...

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  14. My least favourite is "the wall" when I find this in books I skim right over it until it get's back to the story. I hate clothes descriptions in books too, but for a few characters in my novel what they're wearing has relevence so I'm finding it difficult to describe their clothes without turning off the reader.
    Anyway, great post!

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  15. I actually like a mix of showing and telling, but stick more to showing. I think there's a balance that needs to be kept.
    These are some great points. Thanks!

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  16. I'm guilty of the shopping list, the tell, and the wall, most of the time. I'm sure I've used all of them. :P

    Bookmarking this post; I'm sure it will come in handy!

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  17. Writing is tricky. Great list!

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  18. excellent post

    Great summary of the most glaring errors, which fixed, can change a droll read to sharp writing.

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  19. Fantastic and comprehensive list! And speaking of lists, that's what I'm guilty of-- writing lists, like she did this and this and this and this. I always watch for my varied lists when I revise to try and fix them.

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  20. I'm revising one of my novels right now and I'm finding a lot of "That isn't relevant." Surprisingly a lot of it. I'm going to have to find way to add words in later!

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  21. Ugh, the shopping list.
    I don't get the idea of having height, to the inches. How many people are capable of being that accurate at a glance? Saying something along the lines of someone being taller or shorter, through whatever other method is vastly more preferable.
    And weight ... how can you tell other than generic hefty, lean, [insert favoured term here]? I’ve read pieces where (usually first in the chapters) it felt like the MC was running round with a measuring tape and a set of scales. Who needs to know the exact weight of every character?
    As for The Clichés and the Stereotypes. I think they do have their place in a finished novel, though that’s usually in dialogue. I try to stop these before they reach the first draft. Probably failing miserably, but still.
    I'm probably guilty of The Tell, but I'm getting better. I hope. There’s less mention of it in any critique I get, at least. Though I'm still struggling to keep it balanced. Too much show gives me The Wall. On the other hand, I love reading description. Not straight info dumps, I’m talking a paragraph or two of scenery. I like it. So I’m probably guilty of both If the Action Stops and The Lack of Relevance and can’t even see it. ^_^

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  22. Oh, the shopping list. :P I could name a few novels with those. :) I try not to be cliche either. It's hard to come up with completely unique ways to describe a character now. I swear it's all been done! I still try to be semi-creative though. :)

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  23. I'm especially guilty of using cliches. I try to shy away from them but sometimes... /sigh.

    Oh well. They say practice makes perfect! Great blog post, as usual. :D

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  24. I'm still a 'new-born' writer and this kind of simple and concise post really helps me out. My first novel began with all of these and now in its hundreds re-write(ish) it has still to fully reject some. I find description to be the hardest part to truly master of fiction writing. I think I always will. I haven't read one novel which has ever got the balance truly perfect either. There are always parts where I wanted more or skimmed chunks. Its clearly down to personal taste.

    I love the BBQ idea. I do a few linky's but think I prefer this idea of 'linking' via comments instead of a linky list. I won't remember this so will subscribe and hope I get a reminder in the mail. I want to join the party :)

    Shah .X

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  25. I am guilty of all these, except maybe the first. If anything, I tend to under-describe my characters to the point where I get asked for more details. Hopefully everything gets caught in revisions, though. :)

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  26. This is a great list, Lynda. #1 is one of my pet peeves. I read a novel where the author even mentioned the name of the cologne, the pattern of the character's shirt, and how he parted his hair. To me this was irrelevant, so I guess it also falls into #6. When I started writing I was guilty of telling more than showing :(
    I think I've learned my lesson.

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  27. It's funny, because I usually really enjoy finding out what characters are wearing. Maybe it's because I read fantasy more, and the choices the author makes can be fascinating. :)

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  28. The wall is definitely one that I struggle with. I'm working on knocking it down, though, really I am!

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  29. Yeah, wish I could wall it too. Love your GAB idea for next week - as a new Aussie this year (actually, I'm a kiwi) this will be my first Australia day. I'll put a visit to your place on the calendar, and bring over some simple snaggers.

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  30. Emily, I remember being told to read all the classics, but while they have a lot to offer, we write differently today.

    DWei, yep, I think I'm ruined for that type of writing as well. My inner editor just won't shut up.

    Dezzy, ha, if that happened there'd be a whole less writers in the world and for those who don't lose their computers it would be easier to get published... hey! I think you're onto something! ;)

    Luanne, I'm looking forward to reading your work some time, despite what you might think of it.

    Ashley, hehe I think every writer goes through those stages.

    Holly, yep clothing descriptions are fine if they are there for a reason.

    Christine, hehe oddly enough I love the chopping stage of an edit. It's so liberating.

    Aldrea, it's amazing what you can get away with in dialogue. Also, there is nothing wrong with description as such. It's a matter of finding the right way of writing it so it fits seamlessly in the story.

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  31. Shah, it's funny but in some novels I can tolerate more description than in others. I think it might be the way the author uses it. I'll see you at the BBQ :)

    Jennifer, I LOVE revisions!! (never thought I'd say that)

    Claudia, oh my, that's a great example of unimportant detail.

    Trisha, you can borrow my sledge hammer if you'd like.

    Hunter, yay for your first Australia Day! Snags will be perfect for the barbie!

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  32. Those are wonderful ways to describe the things that drive me insane about description. I usually just jump over the wall.

    Be back for your BBQ.

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  33. Great list! I too tend to fill my work with cliches the first time around. hate them and have to work really hard to rid the book of them.

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  34. I think the shopping list is the hardest one for me. You think you need to tell it all up front. But, I don't like everything thrown in my face all at once. So, I shouldn't do that in my writing.

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  35. I hate info dumps. If the author is going to tell me so much info, it had better mean something.

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  36. Excellent post, and aw, thanks for the mention--twice! ;o) Yes, I'd definitely ONLY like the pertinent description, one tied to the plot or that contributes to the mood of the story. As far as #6, I REALLY hate it when they name styles and brand names of purses, shoes, and other items of clothing. Since I'm fashion-inept, I'm left scratching my head sometimes.

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  37. I know I've done most of these at least once! Great post. I especially had "The Wall" in my current WIP near the beginning, but I've already gone back to spread out the information over a few chapters. You're right, relevance is key.

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  38. I've found that the stereotype and cliche can be a great place to start as it allows the read to hook into a character immediately and it also allows the author to easily insert twists by playing with the reader's expectations regarding that stereotype as the narrative progresses.

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  39. Definitely been guilty of the Wall in my first novel, especially in terms of backstory. However, it's amazing how many books you see it in - highly successful ones, too! I'm trying to break it up more, and even reveal some through dialogue. It needs to relate to the action.

    I've nominated you for the Versatile Blogger award! Check it out at my blog.

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  40. Such a great post, especially the shopping list point and letting the reader decide whether a place is spooky or not.

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  41. I'm sure my first drafts had each one in spades, but I think I've managed to pare it all down, though The Wall is the toughest for me to eliminate. I'm not big on description & rarely, if ever, do I describe what someone's wearing. Everything in my book is relevant or it wouldn't be there (right?) and I don't use cliches. Much. *snicker*

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  42. I'm definitely guilty of over description, as that's usually where I begin my stories (as a long descriptive piece rather than a scene). It's a tough habit to break.

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  43. My biggest sins: cliche's and telling in the rough drafts. I have to go back and clean them up afterwards.

    :-D

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  44. The wall, argh! Still, I'm getting better, at least I can tell when I'm doing it now :-)

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  45. My biggest SIN is cliches and telling. Sometimes, I tend to describe things that are better left unsaid, at other times I skip over descriptions which may be important.

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  46. My first drafts tend to be filled with cliches, but like you I don't edit them while I am working on the first draft. I am probably guilty of all of these at some point. The one I dislike the most when reading is the irrelevant description .

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  47. Great post Lynda. I think I've committed all of these *sins* at one time of the other :)

    Love the Australia Day BBQ idea. Will pop back for sure, meet some more of my fellow Australians :)

    Hugs,

    Rach

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  48. Great points on description misuse... so easy to slip back into them sometimes:)

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  49. The BBQ's a great idea!!

    Hmm, I think I do The Tell, if I don't watch it. In drafts it's okay, but I hope I catch them all in edits!

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  50. Thanks for the great post. This will help me when I am editing my story.

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  51. I'm in the midst of editing and definitely needed this list. Bookmarking to keep it as a reminder. Thanks!

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  52. Great tips! I love the phrase 'pepper it through the prose'
    I am guilty of the TELL - in my first... second... and often still third draft...
    ahem.
    x

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  53. I had a painter friend who once suggested the exercise of describing a scene with all five senses and then hacking back all but the best two.

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  54. wow, I have a lot of catching up to do after the weekend! Thanks so much for all your comments. I'll be popping around to everyone's blog shortly :)

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  55. Stacy, great point about not putting everything up front at once simply because it's something you don't like to read in other books.

    Carol, Interesting you say you don't like brand names. A lot of writing advice says it's important to be specific about descriptions. However, I do agree with you--brand names can be too specific. They can also be locationaly limited so someone in a different part of the world may never have heard of a specific brand name.

    Mark, if you mean twisting the cliche into something different and surprising the reader, then yes.

    Nick, Thank you so much for the Versatile Blogger award!

    Michelle, Same here. Sometimes the tell is necessary, but mostly it's not.

    Suze, your friend gave good advice :)

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  56. Fabulous post. I share great links with the creative writing class I teach. I will be adding your link to this week's "read on" resource list.

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  57. What a great post. I love description--writing it and reading it when it is well done. But there are pitfalls. I can succumb to cliches and stereotypes. They seem so original in the first draft. ; )

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  58. This was such a helpful article I recommended it on my blog for beginning writers. http://the-beginning-writer.blogspot.com/2012/03/fridays-link-roundup.html

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  59. Great tips! I'm linking up to it on my novel editing post!

    I also really love your photography. I just recently moved to Sydney - there is so much beauty here!

    New follower =)

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