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.

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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.