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.

Ain’t She/He a Beaut?

Some blog posts seem to write themselves, and this is no exception. It screamed to be born as I drove out of the parking lot of my local library, and fired my synapses to recall a certain grad lecture at VCFA and a subsequent discussion on beauty.

That’s what I want to talk about. Beauty.

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And what interesting timing. As I began this post, a news story flicked across my screen, declaring that People magazine named Gwyneth Paltrow as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman.

Perhaps when you think of beauty, the poem, “She Walks in Beauty,” by Lord Byron comes to mind. Here’s the first stanza:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

But I think about an incident during my undergraduate years at Northwestern. (Go Wildcats!) Senior year, my roommate situation was like a revolving door. One would leave and another would arrive. It was just one of those years.

One of those roommates—let’s call her Marcie—had the kind of Miss America looks that guaranteed her male attention. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. But I don’t think many people would disagree that Marcie “was in high looks” as Jane Austen would say.

At first, I thought, Great. I’m doomed. Whose gonna notice me with her around? And then, Opportunistic Me thought, Maybe I can get her leftovers. So let’s just say I had a catty reaction to Maricie until I came to know her better. She told me her story: how women instantly hated her because of her looks (and I admit I looked shamefaced at that); how some men only wanted her because of her looks. In other words, how objectified she felt.

Long story short, that conversation made a deep impression on me—but not then. I was too busy crying my own river, and couldn’t really see beyond my own nose. Cut to now, with the writing of one of my novels and the point of this post. You see, my main character is physically beautiful. Because of that conversation with Marcie, I wanted to write about a heroine for whom beauty isn’t working—as in Marcie’s case. It slams shut some doors and causes her pain.

YET my character is beautiful. And I can’t think of a book besides Secret Garden, Jane Eyre, and Sarah, Plain and Tall that I’ve read where the heroine wasn’t described as “beautiful,” “pretty,” “in high looks.” (Note the words I’ve read. You might have read others, and I welcome any suggestions of titles.)

I don’t mean those books where the heroine says in that self-deprecating way, “Oh, I’m not beautiful,” but really is, since everyone reminds her that she is, and even animals follow her around. If there’s a love interest/hero, he’s smoking hot—unless he’s Mr. Rochester. But notice the actors cast in the most recent adaptations of Jane Eyre: Michael Fassbender and Toby Stephens.

Actor Michael Fassbender arrives for the BAFTA awards ceremony in London

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They’re not exactly how Charlotte Brontë described Rochester.

The love interest for my main character isn’t what you would call hot. But I fight against the temptation to make him handsome somehow. Kinda like in that stereotypical way when someone takes off a pair of glasses and somehow is an instant knockout. “Oh my goodness! I didn’t notice! You’re gorgeous!!!” I cringe at scenes like that. Just like I cringe at the fact that no one seems to recognize that Clark Kent is Superman, simply because he’s wearing glasses. But I digress. The temptation is there, because I wonder if readers will be turned off if he isn’t hot.

This comes from my often shallow outlook. As I mentioned before, I’m pretty middle grade in my thinking. I used to rate comic book or animation characters by their hotness. Zuko in Avatar? Hot. Tony Stark? Hottie. Thor? Hubba, hubba. (Okay, I shouldn’t lie and say used to. I still rate them that way.)

The issue for me about my main character’s love interest isn’t his looks but his character: how he treats my MC. He’s there for her when others reject her. He’s faithful and loving, but also stubborn and taciturn sometimes. In other words, he’s a real guy, instead of the fantasy I keep trying to inject in my fantasy story.

This is not to say that a hot guy or three aren’t lurking somewhere in my book. But I struggled with whether they really served a purpose, or if their inclusion was my way of worshiping at the altar of beauty. (The jury’s still out on that one.)

What’s your take on beauty? In your WIP, is your main character gorgeous? When you read a book, how important is it to you that a main character be extremely attractive? Please do not misunderstand me. I am NOT against characters who are physically beautiful. I’m just curious.

Photos from greenobles.com and filmofilia.com