When I first started writing, I had a dream – a vision, if you will, of the mystical land I had created and the fantastic creatures who inhabited it. I knew inside my own head how it looked, how the people thought, how they would react, all of it. And that is where my problem started.
How could that be, you ask? How could having such a grand vision be a bad thing? Because in all my imagining and writing, I had forgotten one very important fact – once a story comes out of your head and onto a sheet of paper (or computer screen, as is more common these days) it is no longer your story!
Allow me to explain.
My vision of my world and my characters was so vivid that I wanted every reader to experience it the way I had imagined it. I over-described scenery and overcomplicated dialogue because I wanted people to know that this landscape and people were “just-so”. I didn’t give the reader enough credit to know what I meant, and that made my story a chore to wade through (he says with 10 years hindsight).
Inside my own head, I could know that a cave was 5 metres tall, 3 metres wide, deep, dark, smelled of rotten tomatoes and ten day old cheese, had a family of rats complete with newborn litter of ratlings, an old fire-pit and crevices in the top that would allow smoke to drift away, some odd blue / green algae and a problem with water drainage at one end. The problem came when actually put all of that on paper and expected anyone to read it – especially when that cave was a not a significant landmark.
When I was first writing, I found that just about every time I described things, I had multiple adjectives or adverbs. The cave was “dank and stagnant”, “stuffy and stinking”, the person was “raving and furious”. Ok, obvious examples and perhaps they seem a little silly in isolation, but I assure you they are more common than you might think. The rule of thumb that I eventually made for myself was, if I come across more than one instance of multiple adjectives / adverbs in a paragraph, two at an absolute push, then I was probably needed to re-read it and check if I was over describing.
The other problem I this caused was no one ever just said anything – they shouted, they growled, they whispered, they roared, they rumbled, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Why? Because that’s how I wanted the dialogue to play out, and given I was the author, everyone should share my vision. Right?
By over describing everything, I took away one of the fundamental things that makes reading great – the reader’s own imagination. Yes, I wrote the story, but it is up to the reader to interpret it in any way they choose! I may imagine a scene playing out dramatically with the two characters screaming viciously at each other on the verge of fisticuffs, where someone else may imagine them whispering coldly with naked hatred in their eyes, and that is a good thing. Readers need that power of imagination in their own hands or they won’t enjoy the experience. If they wanted to have every detail described to them, they would have just waited for the movie!
Imagination is great, description is a necessity, but always remember to leave some things for the reader to fill in the blanks, especially the mundane things. I think Stephen King sums it up fantastically in his book “On Writing”:
“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown.”
It took me a long time to learn this lesson and to let go of complete control of my writing, but I was much better for it when I did. I don’t think my wife has quite forgiven me for making her slog through the early manuscripts …