Taming the imagery, primping the prose and finding the balance…

Warning: This post has examples of very poor writing. Please resist the urge to yawn.

Example 1:

Her eyes followed the lengthy, slender, brown, deer like legs all the way up to where they married the round thin flat slab. They then turned their focus to the object upon the plank. An iridescent, shimmering, translucent, hour glass shaped object, held some crystal clear liquid. An elongated, emerald shoot, pierced the liquid, upon its top end sat a crimson section. This section had several layers of membrane like rounded pieces that folded upon each other, much in the same manner, as my mother’s old, mesh, hinged, kitchen strainer did as a child. The pungently sweet odour rose up through her nostrils. In the air around her, it sounded as if a tiny saw was fluttering through the room. A round, fat, furry, noir and ochre body, touched down like a jet flown by a very experience pilot, on its chosen runway.

-or-

Example 2:

She looked at the table legs. She looked at the table top. She looked at the vase. The vase had water in it. There was a rose in the water. She could smell the rose. She heard a bee. The bee landed on the rose.

Yeah, I know, both examples are terrible. The first one is so filled with descriptive words it somehow loses its meaning and the second is just plain boring. Could you imagine reading an entire novel written in either style?

Currently, I am working my way through one of my novels which I had believe to be completed. This process involves restructuring, editing and rewriting where needed. I am trying to make it so it is a lot less of the tell me style and a whole lot more of show me style of writing. This is part of the reason I have been so absent from the blogs lately.

This morning I got to thinking about the use of descriptive language in novels. This is where I make a confession and I know some of you may disapprove of it. I don’t like to be given a huge amount of description when I am reading a novel, in fact most of the time I skim or even skip right over it and move on to the next section. So this is where I am struggling a bit with my own novel. I am at the stage where I am wondering how much imagery is too much and how much is not enough?

My current manuscript is not quite as bad as example 2 and it will never be as flowery as example 1. Instead of going to the extremes, I am trying to strike a good balance. I am sure this is what most writers strive to do. So how do we do that? I do not know of any magical formula for striking the balance. I have even scoured the internet and couldn’t find anything there either.

Feeling a bit at a loss, I decided to look at the topic from the perspective of a reader instead of a writer. I asked myself the following:

When reading what do I tend to skip over?

  1. Descriptive writing in fast pace sections. Pace is important and if things should be moving quickly, I find adding too much description to these sections slows things down and then I tend to skip over parts of them. Fast pace sections should be choppy.
  2. Obvious things described to excess for no reason. I know the sky is blue on a sunny day. I do not need a big description of the blue sky unless something unusual is happening in that sky. Otherwise just say the sky was blue.
  3. Internal dialogue that goes on for ages describing things in detail but does not move the story forward.
  4. I like dialogue and sometimes when reading a section where there is quite a bit of it and the author then puts in some descriptive narrative to try and break it up, I skip the narrative.
  5. Backstory in the form of an information dump that could be better written in another way.
  6. Sometimes if there are more than one storyline in the book and I am only interested in one I will skip or skim the others.

Now that I have compiled my list, perhaps I need to go through my novel and make sure I am not perpetuating any of these things skippable offences myself. Hopefully then I will have somehow struck my balance.

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About Billie Jo Schinnerer

Born and raised on the edge of the Helderberg Escarpment in eastern New York. Formerly a primary and middle school teacher. Moved to the North West area of England in 2003. Now a mother of three and a wannabe author.
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12 Responses to Taming the imagery, primping the prose and finding the balance…

  1. Jo Eberhardt says:

    Great post, Billie Jo. Great examples, too. I seriously couldn’t keep focused during the descriptive passage, and had to keep forcing my eyes to read one word after another, and by the end I had no idea what you were describing. The second passage was almost a relief in comparison, but would wear very thin after a couple of paragraphs.

    I, also, tend to skip long passages of description when I read. I think your comment on pacing is right on the money. It’s when things are really starting to happen that I find myself thinking, “Why didn’t you describe the vase on the way into the house, when you were relaxed? Why would you notice it now that she’s running away from an attacker? Yes, of course, you’re going to use it to hit the guy over the head, but seriously? Is it important what it looks like right now? It’s just an object! A weapon! Would you describe a gun or a hammer in those flowery terms?”

    (Yes, I tend to rant when I’m reading. I mostly do it in my head.)

    • Thanks Jo! I think the proper placement of clues and props is important to the overall pace and feel of the novel.

      Don’t worry, I rant while reading as well, but I will admit It is not always in my head.

  2. If the writer writes good description, as in: language that is wonderful and makes me look at an ordinary object, person, view, or situation, in a new way that I hadn’t previously considered or been aware of, then I enjoy it. But generally I agree, if it’s an ordinary sky, just say so, and move on.
    I have been guilty of only reading the story line that interests me too, Billie Jo. Glad to know I’m not the only philistine out there. =)
    Kudos to you, dear, for taking the time and effort to do rewrites.

  3. Selena says:

    Re-writes are the worst. It’s like looking at a pile of dirty laundry. I agree with you on this, though. I usually read my stuff aloud to someone and watch to see if they are distracted or totally into it. Great post, Billie Jo! Good to see you back, too!

  4. It can be tough to strike that balance. That’s probably why Stephen King suggests putting a completed first draft away for a little while so that you can read it more objectively. I lean towards mostly wanting to read only the description that’s necessary (as a reader anyway). We don’t necesssarily need to know what everything looks like but a complete lack of description doesn’t pull us in either. Alas, I have no magic formua. I’m still working on my balance of description in my stories. 😀

    • That is the problem with this work, it has been put away for ages and now with fresh eyes I can see just how much work it needs. I think finding balance is a life long process. I don’t think I will ever find that magical formula but it would certainly make life easier if i did.

  5. Pingback: Write Thing Wednesday Mash Up of Marvelousness | Sonia G Medeiros

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  7. tamarapaulin says:

    Hello, I came via Jo’s top 5 links!

    Like you, I also skip the purple prose. I recently tossed a side a book that had laborious descriptions of what the sun looked like every day. It felt very … creative writing exercise-y. I read some reviews where people were in awe of “the writing.”

    I think the writing should be mimetic–a fancy word I learned via http://www.kidlit.com. It can be poetic, but only when the character is FEELING poetic.

    • Thanks for popping by. I am not often one for books with a lot of hype, I hated most of the ones on my required reading list back in high school. All the flowery language that made others find them great put me to sleep. That being said, I do love to be dunked into a new world or meet a new being from time to time and they do require a certain degree of description to introduce them properly.

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