Descriptions – Essential or Padding?

keep-calm-and-love-descriptive-writing“It was a dark and stormy night”.   Probably the most famous piece of descriptive writing in the English language.  But it wasn’t that particular sentence that got me thinking about all that description in books.  Oooh, nooo, my thought processes are much more convoluted than that.

I have always been a dedicated description reader, from a very early age.  I know a lot of people just skip right over the parts about the daisy-filled meadows and the storm cloud-filled skies, and the aromas and odor wafting around.  They just want to get to the story part.   Or get on with the story part.

But I always felt that the descriptions in books — of a landscape, or the weather, or a room, or a street, was there for a purpose.  The author put it there to give us more ‘world’ in the fictional world we were reading about, and that we would be the lesser for having bypassed it in order to get to the battle scene or the smoochie stuff.

I gotta tell ya, nobody does long descriptions better than Kim Stanley Robinson.   I first came across his work when I read the Mars Trilogy.  The story was great, but it was the minute, detailed descriptions of the Mars landscape that kept my nose in that series until the very end.  But I think many people found his long descriptive passages tedious.   That is when I began to seriously consider description and whether it served a purpose other than padding to make the book seem longer.

I have since become a connoisseur of the compelling, well-done description.  I confess to going back to reread passages that I particularly enjoyed, in order to ask myself just what was it about that particular description that caught my fancy.  Was it because it evoked an emotion?  Or was humorous?  Or because it so nailed the place that it would seem there was no better way at all to describe it.

I think writers of an earlier age were better description writers.  Maybe because life was slower then, and more thought was given to it.  Or maybe I am wrong.  Maybe those early descriptive passages were simply more flowery,  more elaborate.  Certainly today’s offerings often contain some wonderful descriptions.   Even in genre fiction, where you might expect a cut rate approach to narrative in order to get to that the story in a cleaner, sharper way, have some wonderful flights.  But sometimes, it is the minutiae that hauls us kicking and screaming into the bowels of a story.  Sometimes we need to know the wallpaper was faded, or the carpet was worn in a path to the kitchen, or the cicadas singing in an August morning portended a hot day.  Sometimes we need to know what the world felt like just then.

I still remember a phrase from a book I read over fifty years ago:  …”the pale November sunlight…”    I was young and not so attuned to the world back then.  I said to myself, how can sunlight be pale.  It either is, or it isn’t.  But as life jostled along and I accumulated a bunch of years, and began being more aware of my surroundings, I came to recognize that particular kind of sunlight, that pale November sunlight.  If it weren’t for that descriptive phrase in that book, I might never have taken notice of the differences in sunlight quality.

It was a dark and stormy night, and it was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.*   Stop skipping over the descriptions.  They have something to tell you.


* Bonus points for knowing who wrote the two halves of this sentence  — WITHOUT googling.



3 comments on “Descriptions – Essential or Padding?

  1. Deb Atwood says:

    What a fun post! I think you are a writer in disguise! When I was younger, I would skip description, but now that I’m wiser or at least older, I read every word. Unless, of course, the writing is mediocre and then I feel no obligation to study each nuance. I get the bonus points for knowing where those sentence halves come from–yay, me. (But I won’t spoil the surprise for others.)


  2. H.P. says:

    I am firmly and unabashedly Team Description.


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