My wife doesn’t like a lot of description. She likes when books get straight to the point and move from point A to B to C without stopping much to look at the scenery. Although she says ‘description’ I know from she’s also referring to backstory, long introspection, and basically any significant periods of time where ‘nothing happens.’ I get these comments a lot when she reads drafts of my novels and short stories.
On the other hand, I have friends who read my stuff and comment about how they like it because of the rich descriptions and the character depth. As a writer, this can be confusing to hear. We are often told ‘less is more’ yet we can’t deny that some of the most successful writers spend pages and pages fleshing out details that, if found in early drafts of our own work, we’d probably consider leaving on the editing room floor out of fear. While fiction has moved away from the ultra-descriptive times of Tolkien and Dickens, you can still find well-loved contemporary novels that can spend pages without dialogue or significant action.
I was reminded of this topic while reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower Book III: The Waste Lands. For much of this book, nothing happens. But that kind of depends on how you define ‘nothing.’ For example, one part of the book follows a young boy, Jake, as he discovers his draw to a parallel world. Things happen to him, and he ultimately moves the plot forward, but a lot of time is spent inside the boy’s head. We learn of his fears, his grievances, and gain a deep understanding about the dilemma he has with this ‘other world.’ In truth, some of these extensive parts could be summed up with a few paragraphs and the reader would know what is needed to push forward with the larger part of the story. I’d bet money that my wife would find this part hard to get through, and I guess I can’t much blame her.
However, I quite enjoy it. A big part of what I love about reading and I ultimately try to replicate in my writing is character development. I like getting lost in the thoughts of a character. How I can relate it to my own life. Sometimes it’s the intricacies of moral dilemma or subtle relationships that I enjoy more than the actual ‘things’ that happen. And as for it being ‘nothing,’ with good writers I find that this ‘long’ parts come back to make the action that eventually does happen more rich and meaningful.
I’m also reminded of this when watching a popular television show, and my current favorite: Breaking Bad. Some episodes find the characters in a very different place at the end than the beginning. Others, like the episode about the fly contaminating the lab, or the one where they are stuck in the desert with no gas, could technically not exist and the storyline wouldn’t change much, if at all. Those episodes are spent mostly exploring the relationship between Walt and Jesse, the two main characters. My wife doesn’t like these episodes. It’s not that she’s wrong. We just have different tastes.
I guess it comes down to what any art does: there’s no one right way. If you fill your stories with description, someone will be turned off by it, and if your stories read more like screenplays, some will be left wanting more. The important part is making sure words aren’t wasted. This isn’t the same as simply trimming your manuscript because it’s too long, or taking out a backstory simply because it’s a backstory. Look at the things you’re spending time on and ask: what’s the purpose? Can the reader get this information from another part of the story? And even if they can, does this part add enough new perspective on an old trait/plot point to make for a deeper narrative? The answer isn’t always no.
In the end, you might not be able to truly know these things without reader feedback. But beware! Don’t base your decisions on one reader’s feedback alone or, for that matter, one type of reader’s feedback. One of the hard parts of writing is distinguishing the ‘truly bad’ from the ‘valuable, but not from everyone.’
But who said writing was supposed to be easy? 😉