On January 28, 2010, Wendy the Bard wrote, What about too much description and thought? Any words on that?
In writing this blog I’ve often thought of the old song “Dem Dry Bones.” I’m making up the bones to fit writers, but it goes something like, Your finger bones connected to your hand bones, your hand bones connected to your wrist bones, and so on, with a strong beat. In writing, everything is connected to everything else. So description and thoughts are connected to point of view (POV) and to voice and to all the other elements that make up a story.
If you’re writing in first-person POV or in a third-person POV that’s not omniscient (all knowing), only the main character’s thoughts can be reported and only what she sees, hears, smells, touches can be described. Suppose she’s a landscape painter and sees herself as a colorist, she’s going to be alert to the hues wherever she goes. You will certainly want to emphasize the colors in each setting she enters. She may be emotionally tuned to colors too, so she might be distressed in certain environments. She might even like or dislike someone according to the color scheme in his house or his clothes. She may be too fascinated by the blue tones in the ocher mud caked on the green linoleum kitchen floor to conclude that the floor is dirty.
But she may not be sensitive to sounds. She may not hear the ticking clock or the teakettle hissing as it approaches a boil. Despite the hiss, she may jump when the whistle starts. If there is something auditory you need the reader to know about, you may have to make it deafening, or you may need to have another character mention it.
So, thinking about who is telling the story will help limit your descriptions to only what this character would notice.
However, if your main character is, for example, a detective who notices everything, the task is harder. He sees the mud on the floor and the footprints tracked through it and the teakettle and the absence of tea in the cupboard and all kinds of things as well, the pack of matches under one leg of the kitchen table to steady it, the frog refrigerator magnets, the wildlife calendar turned to the wrong month. Some of these observations may be important to the mystery and others may not. You will probably want to mix the irrelevant in with the relevant to mislead the poor reader, but you still won’t want to go on too long.
How to stop? Your detective can be interrupted. Someone can ask him a question or enter the room. His cell phone can ring. Even his thoughts can change tracks. Suppose your detective is falling in love. The orange tablecloth can be the same color as his girlfriend’s scarf, and his thoughts can go briefly to her. If he’s thinking too much already, you may not want to opt for this, though.
People think differently, too. Some think in grammatically correct paragraphs, some in phrases, some in a word or two, some in images. When a character has a problem it may cycle endlessly through his mind. An argument can do this too, as he thinks of all the cutting remarks he could have made. Or if he was told something that stunned him, just a few words may echo over and over.
If your character is a loquacious thinker you can bring in the same devices to stop the thinking as you used to cut off the description. When I’m caught on a thought treadmill in real life, I often turn on talk radio to shut myself up. Your character can do the same, or she can watch TV or listen to music, whatever will distract her.
You can switch to telling as well, as in, I stayed up half the night going over Dylan’s words. Then the next morning comes and the story moves on to other things. Or, Sheila couldn’t stop thinking about the secret. Maxie came by. They talked, but the thinking wouldn’t go away, like the crawl under the television news. By informing the reader that thinking is taking place, you don’t have to reveal every thought.
If you’re telling the story from an omniscient third-person POV - by a narrator who’s outside the story - the narrator’s voice can help limit description. A no-nonsense voice will not let you spend many words on the Venetian blinds in the kitchen. It will hurry to the boy peeking through the slats to see if the class bully is waiting outside the house.
A more lyrical voice may linger, which is fine, as long as you keep the reader in mind. You can spend a whole page on a lovely picnic scene if the reader knows that an approaching airplane is having engine trouble and may crash land there. In fact, in such a situation, more may be better. Show the reader the budding dogwood trees, the girl with the five-week-old puppies she hopes to find homes for, the artist sketching the family of picnickers, and the old man sleeping with the newspaper over his face. You can even zoom in close enough to reveal the newspaper headline about improved air travel safety.
Having said all this, you may still write too much description and too many thoughts. I recommend not worrying about this in your first draft and maybe not even in your second, not until your story is solid. Before then you can’t be sure what you need and what you don’t.
When you’re revising, try cutting sentences and paragraphs of description and thoughts - but before you cut, save the version and continue in a new version so you don’t lose what you had before. If you’re working longhand, cross out in pencil. See how the slimmer version reads. Is it better? Or do you and the reader need at least some of what you took out?
To help guide you in your cutting, ask yourself if the part you’re thinking of cutting contributes to character, setting, mood, plot. Even if it does, question whether those elements are already established enough without these passages.
This is my prejudice: Don’t cut humor unless it is out of place or works against your scene. Few readers mind extra sentences that make them laugh.
Remember, you don’t need a machete to cut. A nail scissors works fine too. You can cut a third of a story or even of a book with a snip here and a snip there.
F and Arya, originally I thought I would get to your questions about too little dialogue, but I failed, so next week I will.
Here are prompts: Describe a room in your house and give the accompanying thoughts from the point of view of one or more of these:
• a burglar who has broken in at 2:00 am;
• a teenager who’s come along with her parents on a house-hunt;
• the family dog or cat;
• a grandmother who’s just moved in with her daughter’s family;
• an interior decorator who’s been invited to redo the room.
Restrict yourself to no more than two pages for each. Then revise and see what you can do very well without. Have fun and save what you write!