The late Elmore Leonard suggested writers should leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
You could do worse than trying to model yourself after Leonard, who knew a few things about writing. My initial response to this advice, however, was to bristle and say, “Well, I don’t ever skip anything.” You see, I’ve always been proud of my reading comprehension skills and I have a profound respect for the written word.
But, like most instinctive responses, this was a baldfaced lie. Maybe I don’t actually skip parts. But, my brain sometimes shifts into a different gear when I’m reading, a gear in which I may not be giving my full attention to the words I’m looking at. Or worse, my thinking becomes compartmentalized and a part of my brain is making a running commentary about what I’m reading rather than allowing me to lose myself in the scene.
Of course, I’m talking about fiction here. When I was in school, there was a lot of stuff I skipped in textbooks. I’d read first and last sentences of each paragraph, and would only occasionally read what was between them when the thoughts didn’t flow logically. This was also how I handled the reading portions of the GRE, and I did well. So, saying I never skip anything was, in fact, whatever’s worse than a baldfaced lie.
Fiction, however, is something I read for pleasure. If a reading experience isn’t pleasurable, over all, then I stop reading. In essense, I skip an entire novel or short story. This happens more frequently the older I get. Time is a precious commodity. However, there’s still a part of me that tries to power through a book despite its flaws. It’s that completist thing.
I’m not going to tell you the author’s name or the title of the book, but I recently abandoned a novel written by an award-winning author who deserves all of the praise that has been heaped upon her. It was a beautifully written story with lush descriptions and impressive worldbuilding. And, it bored me to tears. The story failed to hold my attention. I had read two of the author’s earlier novels and loved both of them. This one was a miss. For me. Plenty of other readers loved this one as well, and I’m not saying they were wrong.
That’s the inherent problem in Leonard’s advice. Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. All readers are different. All genres are different, as well. Things that might be okay in a comedic heist novel, ala Donald E. Westlake, might not fly in a hardboiled crime novel, ala Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark. A writer needs to be familiar with the conventions of a genre as well as the expectations of the genre’s typical reader.
Also, any advice I give about which parts to skip is going to be highly subjective, filtered through my own perspective.
Keeping that in mind, I’m going to write about some of the things you should consider skipping so that your readers won’t be tempted to. In this post, the topic is descriptive passages.
Too much description.
How much description is “too much”? This is kind of like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it.
The common example given for this is usually from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Of course, I read this one after The Catcher in the Rye, and didn’t care for it as much. The famous bathroom scene includes a long description of everything found inside of a bathroom cabinet. This isn’t the only place in the book where a deluge of description is found, and considering the differences from Catcher, it seems to be a stylistic choice rather than a failure to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.
The rest of us less talented and enigmatic writers have to make choices when writing descriptive passages. If I decribed the contents of the office I’m sitting in right now, at this moment, I could write a chapter for every item I see. At a glance, I see more than two dozen items I could write about, including the abandoned dog toy at my left foot (when did that get there?), a wooden wind chime from Hawaii hanging from the closet doorframe for reasons that escape me, a Carolina Gamecocks neon sign made for me by my brother-in-law, and a painting of Miles Davis bought at the Little Rock pizzeria Vino’s in 1999. This was without mentioning the huge carved cherrywood desk with its glass-shelved hutch, the matching squat file cabinet upon which sits my wireless printer, the computer with its flatscreen monitor, phone, stapler, coffee cup, etc., etc.
As interesting as some of this may be—and certainly a little revealing of character—when a writer doesn’t make choices, a description becomes an inventory. If a description is called for at all, I’d suggest choosing no more than three or four distinctive items. I didn’t mention the other senses available to the writer, but if an apartment smells like boiled cabbage or curry and the refrigerator is humming “Flight of the Bumblebee,” you would probably mention it.
If I were describing my office in a work of fiction, I’d probably leave in the Miles Davis painting, the cherrywood desk and flatscreen monitor, and skip the rest, unless it was important to the plot that the character was an alumnus of the University of South Carolina or that he owned a dog. I’d definitely skip the neck traction apparatus attached to the walk-in closet door that might make you think I was contemplating hanging myself. In fact, I already did. Skip it, I mean. Not hang myself.
As I mentioned earlier, genre helps decide the type of description the reader is willing to accept. A police procedural may include a more dispassionate, complete description of a room’s contents. I prefer it when all description is filtered through the perception of a scene’s viewpoint character. A character who enters the same room every day of their life isn’t going to make note of the same things that someone who had never been in the room would.
You will, of course, be describing more than the contents of rooms in your fiction. You’ll also be describing people and things.
My opinion is that simpler is always better. If a concrete noun exists to describe a thing, an object, then you use that noun. If a character is smoking a cigar, it’s not always necessary to describe it, the band around it, or the length of its ash, or to name it as a Macanudo or Montecristo. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
A lot of writers like to sprinkle in name brands. Stephen King is one famous example. There’s nothing wrong with this, although it will tend to date your work. If your character is shopping at a Circuit City, make sure the story is set prior to 2009 or is in an alternate reality. You can probably count on McDonald’s being around in twenty years, but you never know.
I’m not really a car guy and rarely recognize the make and model of any vehicle made after 1979, unless I’ve owned it. So, many of my vehicle descriptions are generic. Sports car, sedan, pickup truck, SUV, luxury car. Often that is enough. When a particular make and model seems necessary, I’ll do a little research and do some virtual shopping. The same with firearms and other weapons. In either case, I keep descriptions simple, and try to keep my characters from screwing silencers onto revolvers, and things like that.
You’ll also be describing the people in your fictional world. As a rule, you should never have your viewpoint character look at themselves in a mirror so that you can describe them. It seemed like this happened in every Irving Stone book I’ve read, but that’s okay; if you’ve become Irving Stone, feel free to flaunt the rules. If a description is really necessary, you might have another character do the describing.
I am frequently a left-brain type of writer. I have a tendency to become over analytical and linear. In learning to model the type of writing that I enjoyed to read, I came up with nineteen different categories of description used to describe people. Each of these categories was further broken down into subcategories. It was a fun diversion that took a lot of time and kept me from doing any real writing, which I’m beginning to believe was the point.
I’m not going to list all nineteen of the categories I came up with—at least not in this post—but they probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Here are a few: eyes, face, mouth, hair, voice, clothing, skin, age, size, race . . . etc. “Clothing” was broken down into: hats/headgear, tops, bottoms, shoes, dress/suit, accessories . . . “Accessories” was further broken down into: jewelry, handbags, glasses, smoking accessories, and so on.
I would never attempt to describe a character using all nineteen categories. No one wants to read that. Some of my favorite authors will always describe a character’s clothes in some detail, often including brand names where appropriate. I’m a t-shirt and shorts kinda guy at heart, and don’t believe I’m famous for my sartorial elegance. My description of clothing is usually minimal.
As a rule of thumb, I’ll choose the first three or four categories that appeal to me. If you picture a character in your mind’s eye, or if you’re actually using a person you know or a picture in a magazine, there are always a handful of traits or qualities that stick out.
Jim is someone I know, a 75-year-old man who always greases his hair back from his tan forehead, so that his hair looks darker than I know it to be. He frequently wears button-up shirts that he tucks into his jeans. And he has the ready smile, complete with blue-eyed twinkle, of a retired mobile home salesman, which is what he is.
Unless you know the guy I’m talking about, you’re probably not picturing him exactly the way he looks. But, I’m willing to bet you formed some picture of him in your mind. Now, I managed to weave in quite a few of my categories, even sneaking in a “blue-eyed” as an adjective, but I left enough blank spots on the canvas that you can help fill in as my collaborator. I am drawn to writers who do the same when I am the reader.
Here’s another example from something I wrote twenty years ago. I’m not claiming it’s great literature, but it is an example of what I’m talking about here:
Her silver hair was held in place by tortoise shell combs. Her skin glowed with good health. Her deep brown eyes sparkled with good humor. For a long while after George died, they hadn’t. Looking at Bessie, I knew what Ruth would look like in another thirty years, and I was comforted by the knowledge.
The description, as minimal as it is, is filtered through the perception of the viewpoint character and even includes that character’s impressions and commentary. The passage threatened to be a passive one until an allusion to backstory was made, along with the viewpoint character’s comparison/contrast of his girlfriend to her mother. My idea of character description is more impressionistic than photo realistic.
Overlong descriptive passages are just one of the things that some readers skip while reading. There are several other frequently skipped things that I want to write about, but it seems I had a lot I wanted to say on the first one. I’m going to save those other items for future posts. If I break this topic into bite-sized chunks, maybe there’s less of a risk that you’ll skip them.
I’m going to close with two descriptive passages from the master himself.
The first is a description of a room in the Elmore Leonard novel Freaky Deaky:
Green-and-white parachute cloth was draped on four sides from the center point of the high ceiling to the top of the walls. The Jacuzzi bubbled in the middle of the room, a border of green tile around it. Booker sat beyond the sunken bath in his green leather wingback . . . Behind him, French doors opened onto a backyard patio.
Leonard described the room economically, but very visually. I know there’s more furniture in the room, and probably decorations and wall art. My imagination filled in those details. The writer didn’t have to mention everything, and neither do you. I flipped through the rest of the chapter. While there is more about the leather wingback chair, because it pertains to the plot, the room is described no further. It’s not necessary. Other than the green tile around the Jacuzzi, I don’t know if the rest of the flooring is deep-pile shag carpeting or a different color stone tile. I’m going with white shag carpeting in my mind.
This next is a description of a character from the same novel. I will tell you that Leonard seemed to prefer to give his character descriptions in increments rather than in a single paragraph. Most of his people are characterized by their words and actions long before you know what they look like.
Skip Gibbs smiled, a thirty-eight-year-old kid: dull-blond streaked hair tied back with a rubber band in a short ponytail, bread crumbs in the beard that grew up into his cheeks; Skip the Wolfman wearing a black satiny athletic jacket that bore the word Speedball across the back in a racy red script: the title of a film he’d worked on handling special effects, blowing black-powder charges and squibbing gunshots. [Some dialogue follows, then this . . .] —crinkling his light-blue eyes at her.
I’ve formed an image of Skip in my mind. If I were a casting director, I may have cast a younger Jeff Bridges or Kurt Russell in the role. Both know how to rock the longish hair and beard. But, all we’re really getting is a report on age, hair, jacket (with some limited character backstory), and eyes, all filtered through the perception of the viewpoint character. Most of the rest of the characterization comes from the character’s dialogue. In fact, later in the same scene, Skip himself describes his first impressions of a female character, using sexist language that further describes his own character. Dialogue was one of Leonard’s favorite things from his writer’s toolkit.
Just remember that sometimes, to keep a reader’s attention, less is indeed more when it comes to description.