General Writing Tips

The Victor Hugo Folly: What Is Too Much Description?

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When I was about 12 years old, I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time. It was one of those books that I loved so much, that I had multiple versions sitting on my bookshelf, all geared toward various reading levels. Recently, I had a free credit for Audible and decided to download the audiobook for nostalgia. I downloaded the unabridged version, a version I never read before.

I am here to tell you that there is a reason for abridged versions. It had to be 50 pages worth of descriptions of unimportant statues, tangents about French history and descriptions of unimportant rooms before we even got to the room where the action was taking place.

I love description. I love pretty, vivid description that you can immerse yourself in. What I don’t really like is a side story of description that takes a long time to wade through. I think many readers would agree that description in a story follows the Goldilocks formula: there’s too much description, too little description and just the right amount of description.

So how do you save your story from what I now think of as the Victor Hugo folly? This is the discussion of the day.

When I took a creative writing class in college, I did exactly what I’m complaining about. I was working on a short ghost story and felt that the way through horror was to use a lot of description, to make your readers feel the fear of your character. To a point, this is true. When it came time to read the progress of my story outloud for critique and editing advice, many of my classmates had the same point: the description of the bathroom tiles’ patterns in the scene where the protagonist sees the thing in the mirror was really too much.

One classmate gave me some great advice: take your favorite writer and look at how they use every descriptive word in your favorite story. Being that my favorite writer is Edgar Allan Poe and my favorite writing of his is The Black Cat, this became my subject of study. What I found was that Poe didn’t waste time with pointless things that wouldn’t matter to the story. Every instance of description had a purpose. Every word he used was intentional. The writing was still vivid and still delivered the gruesome, horror-filled package he was trying to sell. It took me from age 7, when I first read “The Raven,” to age 19, when I did this little study, to realize why Poe is my favorite author: he knows how to keep a story or poem moving so fluidly that you have no problem following him from madness-filled musing to madness-filled musing. There is no real moment in any of his stories that you feel you hit a lull in progression while you endure page after page of pointless description.

Another great example is another of my favorites since childhood, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Robert Louis Stevenson has plenty of description through the retelling of the night Emerson’s friend saw Hyde trample the little girl. But the description is delivered in such a way that you never slow in your progress. The story reads just as you would imagine somebody telling you about the events that they saw.

Try to give a description as though you’re recounting an event. As the author, it’s not far from the truth. Whether the event is based on one that you experienced or one that is made up, you’re using a playback app in your mind’s eye and are transcribing it for your reader.

Consider the following as an opening to a story, in which a story-centric field is described:

“The winter had been cold and long, with temperatures dropping to below zero on some nights. The air frosted exposed blades of grass and the water of the lake looked like black glass. The tree branches were coated in a sheer layer of ice and the snow covered nearly all of the open field, making it glow white in the moonlight.”

There’s some pretty neat description in there, but there’s also pointless description in there. We can get rid of things that are obvious, like grass being frosted, snow being white, etc.

“The long winter had taken control of the open field, blanketing it in bright snow and turning the lake into a smooth mirror of blackness in the night. The freezing temperatures showed no signs of relenting, offering no reprieve to the ice-coated trees surrounding its edges.”

Just about everything in the first paragraph was said in the second. However, the description in paragraph one focuses on the cold and how it affects the area. It takes your attention away from the area itself. Paragraph two makes all of the descriptions about the field, painting it clearly. The open area, the lake, the edge of the woods…chances are that you had a clearer mental image of the field from the second paragraph.

A clear description of events or settings focuses on the important subject, not the environment around them. It puts the spotlight on them and can be viewed as your story’s support, instead of its central theme. When writing, it’s important to remember and what are central to your story and build it around them.

Less of a problem but still worth watching out for is too little description; it can still create an unenjoyable reading experience if your description is lacking. If you read any sci-fi or fantasy book, you’re probably doing so because you want to get lost in the writing. A bare description of important characters or settings does not lend itself to telling an immersive story. Your reader must feel invested in your characters and settings, and you have to make sure there’s at least enough description to convince them that your novel is real for the few hours that they’re spending with it.

So what makes for the perfect amount of description? Like everything having to do with writing, so many factors enter in–genre, world-building, tone–that it’s hard to say and always up to the writer to find.

I’m currently reading The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. In this book, Jemisin knows exactly where to put all of her descriptive writing to match her sci-fi genre and her unique tone. With world-building and sci-fi themes, it’s easy to get lost in too much description or otherwise suffer from too little. Jemisin, the only writer to have earned three consecutive Hugo Awards (awarded for her Broken Earth Series, including The Fifth Season) knows exactly how to balance this. I would really suggest reading it, not only because it’s a great story, but because it’s such a great example of understanding how to place words that both offer a vivid description of a completely imagined world, and also keep description concise to move the story along.

Until next time!

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