Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Too much descriptive detail can hurt your novel’s power

By Dennis Mellersh

Sometimes when you are in the process of writing a book, such as a novel, it can be a temptation to include virtually everything you know, everything your research has uncovered.

To include too much descriptive detail, however, can weaken your book.

By compressing your knowledge and by leaving out some of the details that you would like to include, the writing in your book can become more powerful and compelling.

If you read book reviews and commentary (which you should be doing as part of your program of learning to write a book) you will find that reviewers sometimes criticise writers for including so much detail in their books that they become tedious, boring even – “more than I ever wanted to know.”

For example, if you are writing a novel with the action centered on a specific locale or a geographical area you are familiar with, too much descriptive detail about that location can take away from the strength of the action and the flow of the plot in your book.

Overuse of description, with detail piled upon detail, can also detract or interfere with the imaginative powers of your reader. You need enough detail in your novel to give the reader an appreciation of the surroundings in which the action takes place, but not so much that it slows down the action and plot development.

Most of us have had the experience of reading a novel loaded more detail than we want, and the result is that we find ourselves flipping pages, or reading them cursorily so we can get to where the action picks up again.

This is one reason that movies based on books often seem to move along much quicker than the books they are based on. Instead of page after page of descriptive detail, such as in a novel describing scenes where the action takes place, a movie can show these elements visually and quickly , and they are equally quickly absorbed by the viewer.

It is the quality of compression that will add strength to your novel. Although you have detailed knowledge, gained through either first-hand experience or extensive research, you will need to discipline your writing to include only the essential elements that enhance your novel’s action.

Ernest Hemmingway was noted for conciseness of dialogue and description in his novel writing, yet it was this brevity that gave his writing power. His novels are not considered long, short even, yet they are memorable, and the images his novels created in our imagination stick in our minds.

Here’s how Hemmingway once described what we might call the power of leaving things out, or the power of less being more:

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”

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