How Much Is Too Much?

This post was sparked by a conversation on Jane Eyre that I had recently with the awesome Laura Sibson. (You remember Laura from this post and of course her blog? Thought so.)

As an undergraduate, I was a writing major, part of the English lit program.

literature

So, I’m used to books with long passages like this one from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

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Masterful stuff, and reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 3 in the Bible. Dickens provides a window into the age. But would a paragraph like this fly in a book written nowadays?

Many writers struggle over how much description to include in their narratives. Enough to help a reader picture a scene or a character, and understand said character’s motivation, surely, but not so much that the pacing suffers, and a reader loses interest. As Nancy Lamb, author of The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, states, “Too much detail can destroy your story” (202).

Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French, authors of Writing Fiction also aver, “The points to be made here are two, and they are both important. The first is that the writer must deal in sense detail. The second is that these must be details ‘that matter’” (23).

Details that evoke the senses and are important to the story. Okay, got it. But how much is too much?

Baby Expressions

“Yer askin’ me? How should I know?”

Back in the day, when letters were exchanged and months would pass between visits of relatives and friends, long, descriptive paragraphs in books, particularly Dickens’s serialized works, were savored. But in this age of instant communication through email, phone texts, Tweets, etc., we’re used to short sound bites. And some of the hustle and bustle of our busy days leaves us with little leisure time for lingering over long passages of description. Or so I’ve been told by a few teens who claim to have been “forced” to read the classics.

As a fantasy writer, I’m torn on the matter. After all, world building is paramount in fantasy. And world building requires a certain amount of exposition.

As I reread books like Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Catherynne Valente), I revel over the gorgeous descriptions, some of which are tucked within long passages.

Tolkien waxes eloquent on the setting, because in his books, setting is as important as the characters. In Valente’s book, the second of her series, the setting at times literally is a character, as voracious towns and marketplaces scoop up unwary travelers to populate their streets.

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Tolkien’s book debuted almost 60 years old. Valente’s book, however, debuted last year, but has the style of a classic adventure story. Valente, like Tolkien, lingers lovingly over descriptions.

As I struggled with the question of how much description is too much, Laura had this to say:

I agree with you that the Internet and the television and instant everything has an impact on our pace and, as a result, the way we experience literature and the way we write it. But I’m not sure it’s all due to electronics impeding our attentions. I think it’s a style choice and also a bit of fashion. If you think about Raymond Carver and before him, Hemingway, there have been writers who were purposefully spare. I think (though I’m no scholar) that in Carver’s time, that spare in your face approach was sort of all the rage.

Wow. I had forgotten about Hemingway and his sparse prose. And I confess I didn’t know about poet and short story author Raymond Carver until I Googled him. (I know. For shame.) Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, also has a sparse, but brilliant style that packs a punch.

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When it comes to description, I’m probably somewhere between sparse and fulsome. That’s because I usually have a reluctant reader in mind—a byproduct of my textbook writing days when I worked on ancillary material for reluctant and ESL readers. I wouldn’t want a reader to approach something I’ve written and whine, “Oh, this is sooooo boring.” But I also want to be adequately descriptive.

What’re your thoughts on the matter? Do you like to write long passages of description or linger over them in books? Do you have favorite books with lengthy descriptions? Please comment and share!

Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction. Boston: Longman/Pearson, 2003, 2007, 2011. Print.

Lamb, Nancy. The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

Confused baby from therealkenjones.wordpress.com. Authors photo from tuition.com.hk.

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42 thoughts on “How Much Is Too Much?

    • I do like those too. I was going to include a D. H. Lawrence excerpt from “The Odour of Chrysanthemums,” which has many, many complex sentences, but decided that it would take up the whole post!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  1. This is an interesting debate, even with picture books which used to be about 1500 words. Now, 800 words is considered a lot. In revising a short chapter book, I’m concentrating on editing out anything extraneous and I haven’t worked on longer ms’s. I’ll have to check back to see what the consensus is!

    • Yes, the picture book continues to be short. I just read Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn. I wonder if the book has 500 words. It’s delightful though. So the challenge is to be pithy.

  2. I was going to say exactly the same thing about the Ecclesiastes, a season for everything, then discovered your own reference to it.
    I cannot think of many teens or young people now, high school age, who have a fondness for reading classics. Although I did see a teenage girl the other day selecting The Great Gatsby (I cannot help it, I am always curious about what people are reading. If I’m on a train or a bus reading I am tempted to ask them, but my better half discourages me!) I think she was probably inspired by the film out now with Leonardo Dicaprio. Which is encouraging.
    I loved The Book Thief. And also the input in your post of that young child!
    Sorry, I realise I haven’t answered any of your questions, but these are my immediate thoughts. I will just add that my favourite place is Orkney, and when I haven’t visited for a while I read George Mackey Brown. And although he doesn’t overdo the descriptive elements there is enough to give me a sense of being back there. The sea, the sky, that old way of life.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Brown, because I wasn’t aware of his existence! I just read a poem of his “A Work for Poets” which charmed me deeply. So, I’ll check out a book of his poetry. So thanks for that mention.

      Yes, I think teens will get into the book because of Leonardo. I know only a few teens who are old souls and like to read Jane Austen and George Eliot. The others have to be dragged kicking and screaming. They do love Animal Farm, however. Some like Great Expectations. But they’ll plow through The Hunger Games and read all 256,000 words of the fifth Harry Potter book!

      • I have the collected works of Brown’s poetry, but it is more his novels I read, particularly his many collections of short fiction. All based in Orkney, but set over the different eras of the thousands of years of history it is famed for. From the Neolithic, the Vikings including the famed St.Magnus through to the twentieth century and the way the modern world began to impinge on the islanders way of life.

      • My library has The island of the Women and Other Stories so I’ll check that out. There are also several other books in stock. Thanks for the recommendation!!

      • I haven’t read that one yet- that was his final collection published (not sure if it posthumously done.)
        Of his full novels I liked Beside The Ocean Of Time, about a daydreaming boy of Orkney. Have also read Magnus, linking St.Magnus and Bonhoeffer, and Greenvoe, about the impact a military establishment has upon the islanders age old way of life.
        Not sure if part of the appeal is my familiarity with places and periods he writes about, and whether you not being familiar would hinder your enjoyment? Anyway, good luck!

  3. Another teaser… For me, punchy is best. I’ve taken people who are not really interested in nature on nature walks. When I notice they’re losing interest, I focus down on something bite-sized they might be able to appreciate. That might have to be done many times to get them to the end of the walk. Me, I’m lost in the grand spectacle of it all – the huge narrative and walk for miles, not needing titbits.
    Isn’t it the same with writing anything? You’re taking the reader on a stroll through territory that you know (or should know) intimately. Point things out, and gently open their eyes to the bigger picture. The interconnectedness of everything in you story. Just don’t expect them to get everything until the walk is over.

    • For those of us writing today and especially for children and teens, I think the interconnectedness you note is important. We can – and should – spend time on description *as it relates* to the overall story. A mistake I made early on was in waxing poetic about the wonders of nature in a book that had nothing, really, to do with nature 🙂 If we think in terms of how our characters perceive their world and serve as interpreters for our readers, we are moving in the right direction. (I hope!)

      • And I get caught up in my own waxing too, Laura. I remember being so proud of a scene that I showed Amanda second semester. She told me what she disliked about it (everything). She was right. I was not in character at all. I was being writerly and melodramatic. I tossed that scene–actually that whole book. That’s why I haven’t yet returned to a book with those characters. I feel as if I don’t know them yet.

    • I love the notion of something “bite sized.” And excellent point about taking readers for a nature walk. (How cool that you take people on walks.) So true. I essentially take readers on my characters’ journey. At that point I can describe what the main character sees, because she’s never been in this territory. Every sight is fresh to her. But, I tried to rein back the desire to describe everything. I only touch briefly on what she sees. Why? Because for most of the story, she’s in high tension, and would only notice certain details–for example, a crackling sound in the trees, which could mean an animal or someone following her.

      But interconnectedness. Yeah. The teacher in me can’t help making some aspects teachable moments. 🙂

  4. Linda – thank you for this post. As always, you’ve got me thinking. When we sparked this discussion, it was because though I *love* Jane Eyre, I became a bit weary of her describing every piece of furniture in a room and, truthfully, I could still do without some of that. I find Tolkien a bit dense for my taste (I know, you’re horrified!) but Anna Karenina is one of my all-time favorite books. To add more fuel to the fire — someone once said to me that Americans prefer plot-driven books while Europeans have more patience for character-driven stories loaded with description. What do you think about that?

    • Thanks, Laura. Hmm. That’s an interesting comparison. If that’s the case, my reading tastes are probably more European. I absolutely adore Cold Comfort Farm, for example. 🙂 However, I can see why some would believe this to be true. When I read reviews of books, the stellar plot is emphasized. However, many people have said they prefer character-driven books, particularly in YA.

      But I’m glad you brought this up, because now I want to check out the bestseller lists and reviews again and see what others think!!!

      As I give further thought to the matter, I’d say in YA, character-driven stories are desired, but long, lingering descriptions aren’t, unless they’re descriptions of other people, particularly someone hot. 🙂 But that’s not the case in all stories. I will check on this.

  5. Great post. I think setting and description are the hardest things for me to write. I prefer to give a few details and let the reader imagine their own setting. When done well long visual descriptions can be beautiful, but most of the ones I read really take me out of the moment. If that makes sense.

    • It does, Alison. I guess it depends on how much “life” the author infuses into the description. My mind tends to wander if every inch of a room is described, and a character does not interact with that green lamp or the items described have no bearing on the plot. I read a fight scene where the author describe the surroundings in perfect detail. But if you’re getting beat up, would you really notice how blue the sky is? You’d notice that fist coming at your face for sure!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I just love language as you are aware! When I was at uni reading English, I adored reading those beautifully crafted classics. Dickens is full of imagery. I love it! I think there’s a time and place for supermarket fiction. After all reading has to be pleasurable for everyone and I know some dyslexic readers build there confidence reading fiction written succinctly, using short sentences and words

    • Your love of language comes through your poetry. 🙂 And I agree: reading needs to be pleasurable. Writing needs to be also. I can tell that Catherynne Valente (whom I highly recommend; she is a poet also) enjoyed herself immensely as she wrote her series.

      Thanks for popping by!

  7. This is really difficult for me, as I think you may know, because I love poetic language and description, especially vivid imagery. But after my semester with Julie, wherein I wrestled with overwriting and melodrama, I’m still not sure how much is too much. Maybe I’ll never know because it seems to be so much a matter of style, opinion and taste, which are all changeable and individual. It frustrates me, though, to read my work and think “I like this”, but know that to other people it’s probably way overdone.

    • Shawna, so much of criticism is subjective. But I had Julie for workshop and yes I can also attest to her dislike of melodrama. 🙂 She read the same scene of mine that Amanda read and said, “Ugh!” But I’ve since learned the need to be in character!

      Have you read Catherynne Valente’s books? I think you’d appreciate them.

      • Yeah, it is amazing how different some responses were to various workshop pieces. I remember thinking my submission was super dramatic and Amanda being fine with it, lol! So funny. Oh well. YES! I love Cat Valente’s books sooo much, especially the fairyland books. She is a genius and I totally want to write like her. And, interestingly, she’s talked in the past about her work being judged as “overwritten” and how important beautiful language is to her as a poet.

      • Shawna, based on your poetry and imagination, you and Catherynne Valente have so much in common! So, I don’t doubt that you’ll turn out a book in that vein!

  8. I never thought of the opening of Tale of Two Cities reflecting Ecclesiastes. I’ll have to read them side by side sometime. 🙂

    I try to choose language that reflects my own experiences. If there’s a lot happening all at once or I’m having an engaging conversation, I’m only likely to notice a few details. If I’m waiting, or if something is creeping me out, I’ll notice everything. I try to adjust my writing for sparse or long language accordingly. Like this guy says. 🙂 http://www.youtube.com/watch?list=UUA8p25VV0ylyOdl_llJZLbw&v=l4oyePYhuEI&feature=player_embedded

    • I’ve been that “secretary” he mentions in the video–the one who was the first reader who either rejected or passed on manuscripts (all according to the publisher’s plans). And I agree there are different levels of editing and editors.

      Different scenes seem to call for different levels of description. An “eyes wide open in wonder” scene would call for more description. But a scene of tension would call for select details.

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  11. It’s interesting what you say about the opening of a Tale of Two Cities and Ecclesiastes. I hadn’t made the connection before but it’s so obvious now that you mention it.

    • I love A Tale of Two Cities! It’s probably my favorite of Dickens, next to Little Dorrit.

      How are you feeling? I read your vent about your (ouch) torn hamstring tendon.

      • Okay, I’m done with my rant! Happy freaking Friday everyone!
        I love A Tale of Two Cities too. I haven’t read Little Dorrit but will have to add it to my list 🙂
        I was irritated it took so long to diagnose the issue with my leg and that I continued to work out (with the doctor’s okay) and make it worse. I just had to vent so I could move on and focus on getting better. It’s a good thing I like to swim. I get grumpy if I can’t work out. Need that outlet :-)

      • Little Dorrit is a beast of a book, so I can understand if you elect not to tackle it. I grumbled when I had to read it for class, mainly because I had nine other books for that class. But I grew to love it. BBC had a lovely production of it some years back. I highly recommend that.

        I can understand your frustration though. A friend of mine didn’t realize her finger was broken, because her doctor didn’t go the X-ray route at first. (I’m cringing now.) It just made her recovery time longer too.

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