Thursday, August 5, 2010

Writing Exposition and Description

I don't claim to possess expertise when it comes to writing. I follow numerous bloggers who excel in that role and can direct you to their sites. However, I do know what I like to read. (And I'm sure that reflects in my writing.)

I'm not a fan of lengthy exposition or description. A basic account is all I require. I have a good imagination and can fill in the details. (Must be all those movies I watch - I've a lot of images upon which to draw!)

Some authors are masters of descriptions, using eloquent words and phrases. It's an art form I admire. However, without action or character interaction, long expositions bore me. I appreciate what the author is trying to convey, but it's dull reading.

What really gets me is when an author describes an item or scene in detail that has no relevance to the story. An entire page devoted to a character that just flits in and out and is never seen again I can do without. I recall one book where the author spent a whole page describing a character's dress - and then she was gone. Like a UFO sighting, except less interesting. (Okay, not interesting at all!)

Heavy description will never be my style. I know there's areas in need of improvement, like world-building, but I don't intend to become the next Dan Simmons with my writing. (Unless someone wants me to write a book about the lovely Kate Beckinsale, and then I will do my best!)

What about my blogger friends? How much exposition do you like in your reading or writing?

53 comments:

Will Burke said...

Very little. I'm all about characters and dialogue, and long descriptions read like filler! I'll occasionally read a literary work to stay acquanted with such stylings, but usually stick to my forte's.

Jayne said...

Only if it is relevant, and even then only to sketch a picture - I want to be the one to fill in the details. :)

Piedmont Writer said...

I found that when writing a certain genre, a certain amount of description was necessary, it's what the readers expect. But now, in this women's fiction, I'm finding one or two sentences to describe the house, or the room is perfectly adequate.

I don't like reading it all that much either unless it's extremely well written. Like Hem. (I love Hem.)

Gail said...

First, I hesitate to call myself a writer but I do write so...

I tend to be short and to the point, I like leaving ideas to be thought out and drawn on. I think that is the fun of reading, there are no limits to the imagination, if the writer leaves me a loop hole, my mind can go wild.

Ted Cross said...

I don't do much. I keep telling myself I should go back through the book and add some pretty description in places, but then again it is already considered long (130,000 words) without much description!

Journaling Woman said...

Short and sweet--as a writer and reader that's what I like in description. This may be the reason I am having a difficult time transitioning from short stories to a book.

Teresa

Mason Canyon said...

I like some descriptions, but it doesn't have to go on for a page or two, especially if that character is just in and out. Sometimes setting need description to put you in that place.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

Old Kitty said...

Oh one of my many writer-ly sins was a tendency for lengthy exposition! LOL! Oh my sentences could go on for weeks! :-)

I think getting used to the discipline and the concentration in slash and burning this sin was the hardest for me!

But I do enjoy the expositions of the classics - George Elliot, Dickens, Hardy. Oh they could go on but the language is just so sublime they merit languid and relaxed reading!

Which kind of makes me think that's why I'm a VERY SLOOOOW reader. When I'm enjoying the flow of words I take my time to wallow in them.

Take care
x

Palindrome said...

As long as you are describing relevant things, go for it. But going into extreme detail about the life of a tree *cough* Tom Clancy *cough* though clever, not really necessary.

J.L. Stratton said...

I must agree with you on limiting descriptive narrative. I try to write as much detailed description into a draft that I possibly can, but then remove words and scale it down during re-write.

Now that I'm starting to get better at utilizing a simple outline, I've been paring down the description during the draft phase.

The good thing about writing expansive description (smells colors, tactile sensations) is that it sometimes brings out wonderful little snippets of words and phrases I can later use for a shorter, and more precise description.

I do occasionally enjoy good, well placed descriptive narrative but I too am a slow reader and it sometimes bogs me down. I've also been told throughout my later years, that I suffer from ADD. Whether true or not, I am easily distracted.

Great post, by the way.

DEZMOND said...

i think I'm quite the opposite. Being a visual guy I love great descriptions, because they help readers to better paint the whole picture in their heads. Those little visual images that you get from good descriptions are exactly what readers remember a novel or character for - the way they look, dress, the way the settings look like, the images of weather, surroundings ... those are the things that get carved into your hidden memory and help you put the scenes and stories in right folders in your brain.

Off course, having just a lot of descriptions and digressions without any real action, isn't good. A balance is needed as always.

aspiring_x said...

descriptions can be beautiful, and i love gorgeous language... but there is the danger of dragging and losing interest. i like a balance between the two, but while writing i find it extremely difficult to find the balance. first draft is chock-full of long, draggy description- second is a machete-d, naked of description, sad looking thing... balance is hard.

Matthew Rush said...

Well I love detailed beautiful descriptions when I read, and I am pretty decent at writing them myself, but I have found that you can really only get away with them once a chapter - if that. Otherwise the flow of plot is interrupted too often and the reader will get bored (or my word count will soar).

It also helps if you save these detailed descriptions for things that totally kick ass. Like a newly forged Katana for example.

Kelly said...

I sometimes skim over overdescriptive paragraphs while reading, so I tend to be less descriptive while writing. But right now I am rereading my ms paragraph by paragraph because I tend not to use enough. So I am actually adding description (without overdoing it).

Jules said...

Just enough to get a mental picture and then move on. But this is coming from a wordy woman. LOL
Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Falen (Sarah) said...

yep i'm with you. i can use my own imagination, thankyouverymuch

Mesmerix said...

Short, punchy, to the point, and let me fill in the blanks. If you're going to describe, do so in a unique or interesting way. Say she has brown hair in a way I've never heard before. Or, better yet, only describe those bits that stand out. Skip the brown hair, tell me about her deformed nose.

Alan Orloff said...

I'm a minimalist, too. (See?)

Renae said...

I love a good description when it's relevant. If an intricate description is used for everything then they tend to lose thier impact. I like to be able to create a few visual images on my own while reading. That's all part of the fun.
Great post!

Clarissa Draper said...

I write mysteries and I write the way I like to read it. No more exposition than needed. I don't like to read paragraphs of description and so I don't write it.
CD

Eric said...

I'm a page turner. This means if I encounter paragraphs that have too much detail or description, I'm more apt to gloss over it than enjoy the turn of phrase. That's not to say I don't enjoy good description, but when it starts to drag on, I'll skip ahead. This reflects in my writing as well, which is probably why I have to revise so much. My writing is TOO sparse LOL. Nice post.

Glynis said...

I like to leave a little for the reader to create their own image of what I am portraying.
I do not use big words either.

Talli Roland said...

I'm so with you. Lots of description is a big turn-off for me - probably why I love Hemingway.

B. Miller said...

I like a good balance. I try to give that to my readers, too, but sometimes I go a little overboard with the descriptions. That's what edits are for!

Jemi Fraser said...

I don't use a lot of description either. Mostly for the same reasons - too much of it drives me batty. I usually have to go back in and add some description so people have an idea what the characters look like :)

rogue evolent said...

I would have to agree with you Alex. Exposition, though it "looks pretty" can pretty much take the reader out of the story. Let the characters interact with one another, verbally and non-verbally and let the story drive the story, not a lot of rococo palette description.
r/e

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Will, good for you!

Gail, I think just like you.

Ted, you're probably good.

Kitty, I usually have to add rather than slash.

DL, easily distracted can be a problem.

Dez, that's why I love movies - all my description in one bang.

Noted, Matthew!

Eric, I tend to skip descriptive chapters, too. Glad to know I'm not the only one.

N. R. Williams said...

It can be difficult to decide how much is too much. One of the things I do is visualize...OK I'm giving an example here. I love the book, 'The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.' But I saw the movie first. By accident I realized that the wonderful scene in the movie where the camera pans an old historic house and it's interior to reveal all kinds of beautiful glassware is only one or two sentences in the book.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Nithin R S said...

You touched upon a relevant point, how much is too much, when it comes to description. Finding a right balance is a tough act for any-writer.Some times, short description looks as if it didn't show anything.Taking a middlepath will keep the writers interested.

Helen Ginger said...

I tend to keep it short, adding bits and pieces as needed. In the end, hopefully, the readers will have a picture in their minds.

Helen

ediFanoB said...

Every time when someone is talking/writing about descriptions I think of LORD OF THE RINGS.
I know that a lot of people don't like all the descriptions in the books. I love it.
I like to get descriptions as long as they do not disturb the flow of the story.

In the end it is always a question of taste.

Amanda Sablan said...

I like exposition and I write a lot as well (to an extent), but I agree with you that that is not enough. You've got to have action and character interaction; you've got to have things HAPPEN apart from someone pondering their life situation or descriptions of whatever.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to like quite a lot of exposition, if it's well written, although I don't like 'needless' description, like describing the clothes of that one character as you mentioned. What I don't like is a lot of boring dialogue. Unless the dialogue does something I don't want to see it.

Nippy The Penguin said...

I enjoy lots of exposition when it comes to character development no matter how minor or inconsequential the character may be , gives you a feeling you may see said character later on in a series of books and I also love when an author goes into great detail about settings and locations nothing beats a great visual of a sunset on a foreign world or even something more mundane like a waterfall clearing where a character has stopped to rest. That is all I have rambled on long enough I think.

Karen Lange said...

I like enough description to complement the dialogue and action, but not too much that it overpowers the enjoyment of the story.
Have a great weekend,
Karen

Holly Ruggiero, Southpaw said...

I like description to a point. I like to get the feel of the environment but I don’t need to know what each character is wearing in detail.

RosieC said...

I definitely prefer action and dialogue. Sometimes the description can be helpful, but when it's long and bulky I also tend to skim it. I tend to write the same way, and one my critical readers got easily confused since I forgot to put a description of the image in my head into a particular chapter. Oops.

RaShelle said...

I agree with you 100% Alex. A little is great. Give me the basics. But I don't need to know the lengh of every blade of grass and where each cloud in the sky is lingering.
The MC is in the mountains. It's a sunny day and there's a slight breeze. That's all I need. More than that and I'll start skipping through to the dialogue. Great post.=D

Stephen Tremp said...

I agree. I just need the basic essentials. Anything else is pretty much data dump. During my reedit I took out so much data dump. Glad my editor pointed it out to me.

Stephen Tremp

Hart Johnson said...

Totally with you on description-I want what is pertinent. In fantasy I like a MAP because I don't like to be LOST, but I REALLY only want basics on either scenery or physical description of characters. What annoys ME is anything that (and you might be different here) feels too much like we are 'watching it'. I want to be in somebody's head... I want to have the thoughts and feelings of at least one character to bind me to the work. In a MOVIE the facial expressions or nuances of a great actor can provide this. In a BOOK THAT is the description I need. I prefer it though, from PoV narrative, than from description of facial description... that would be the beauty of the difference of the media.

Cheeseboy said...

Hm, this made me think about MY style. Not sure...

I think I fall somewhere in between. But I will say this: I only enjoy reading long, fragrant descriptions IF the author is good at, which most are definitely NOT.

Ellie said...

I like the basics, too much and it doesn't give me the chance to explore the details, I imagine. I love when you imagine the character a certain way and you are surprised.
It rarely happens to me. If the fiction is a certain genre, sometimes it warrants the fragrant prose...sometimes~Only a rare few can do this well! IMHO

Lynda Young said...

I try to keep it to a minimum and just drop in impressions more than anything. No huge chunks of description. I too get bored ;)

Ellie said...

I with you on too much description, Alex. I prefer the plot to keep moving, using dialogue and some decription.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Nancy, that's rather ironic.

Edi, first time through, I read every word of LOTR, but subsequent readings, I've skipped the extensive descriptions.

Nippy, I know many enjoy it. I didn't use a lot in my book, so hope those readers aren't too disappointed.

Rosie, one of my test readers caught a similar scenario in my book, and I fixed it.

Hart, maps are great!

Lydia Kang said...

I like a balance. I want some description, but not like what you said--a page on an item or person who ends up not being important. It has to be relevant!

Carol Kilgore said...

I just see Lydia's comment and she wrote what I would've said. Was it Elmore Leonard who said to leave out what readers skip over?

arlee bird said...

The amount of exposition and description that appeals to me depends on the pacing and what it is I want to learn about a character. In intense action or extended dialogue I think it is better to use minimal explanation. However, in a sketch or revelation of who a character is and what motivates them drawn out narrative can be useful. Also just to get a breather, it is sometimes nice to get a look at the surroundings and get some detail.

Lee
Tossing It Out

Bossy Betty said...

I'm pretty patient with exposition. In fact I like a lot of it.

Pearl said...

Overwrought descriptions of scenery make me skip pages, and, if it continues, authors.

Pearl

Cassandra Jade said...

I love your comparison of the girl to a UFO sighting only less interesting.
I tend to feel the same about excessive description of things that aren't relevant to the story but I do like well written and relevant description.
Thanks for sharing an interesting post.

Michele Emrath said...

I guess my comment didn't take...

Once again...

Why do men think they're the only ones who are thinking about sex?

Michele
SouthernCityMysteries

Bob Sanchez said...

I don't go in for much exposition either. Yesterday I chatted with a friend on just this subject. She wondered if she should cut the detailed descriptions of the inside of a house, and my response was that if it doesn't move the story along, leave it out.

In describing people, sometimes one or two telling details give readers all they need to know. One of my characters had a tattoo of his brains on his shaved head. I mean, what else do you need to know about the guy?