Mar 28

How Much Description Is Enough?

Used to be that writers like James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens and others would take pages to say, “It’s a fall day” or “…in foggy London town…” or “it was a day just like today.” And characters had to be described in such detail that we’d recognize them if we ever saw them walking down the street. In those times writing was written to be read out loud and enjoyed by whole families or shared with a friend.
Then came radio and without descriptions how would the audience ever know what a character looked like? Imagine hearing something like, “Who is that walking up the gravel sidewalk in the plaid suit smoking that curved pipe?” Such things were common, but unnecessary.
When GUNSMOKE began on radio, they wanted to use the approach used in the mystery series based on the Phillip Marlow character by hardboiled detective series novelist Raymond Chandler. It was a minimalist approach to storytelling using mostly dialogue and little in the way of description. “Who’s the sizzlin’ dame at the bar?” became enough for the audience to get the idea.
In GUNSMOKE, and I know this because I got my Ph.D. writing my dissertation about the radio and TV series, the main character, Matt Dillon, was only distinguished by being the only character who wore spurs. That way we’d know his steps from anyone else’s. He could cross the floor of his marshal’s office, open the door, step down from the wooden sidewalk into the dirt, traverse the street, mount another sidewalk and enter the Long Branch Saloon. The listener could follow all of this by the sound of his steps on wooden floors and sidewalks, on dirt, the sounds of opening and closing doors, and another character saying something like, “Hello there, Matt.” Minimalist.
In screenplays you can’t do much more than thumbnail a character because you don’t know who will be cast in the part. Thus, unless the plots turns on the fact that he or she is a redhead or blond or bald, you don’t need it in the script. Such thumbnailing gives the script reader enough to go on to be able to see the character if not in every detail. Still distinguishing characteristics like scars, tattoos, piercings, or others might be mentioned. More important are those qualities we call quirks, nervous twitches, habits, mannerisms, even handicaps which make the character unique.
In prose the same principals apply. Trust your audience. While you may have an exact image of your character in mind, how important is it really for the reader to know he has large nostrils or wears a particular brand of baseball cap? Read some Robert L. Parker (Spencer For Hire, Jessie Stone Mysteries, or his westerns featuring Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole). For example: “A tall, thin young man in an undershirt stood up from a table near us and walked over to us. He wasn’t heeled that I could see.” After a few words of conversation we learn, “The young man hadn’t shaved lately, but he was too young to have a beard. His two front teeth were missing.”
That’s all we need to know about this character. If it’s important, Parker will tell us more — like his jeans, his boots, his hat, etc. if they’re important to the story.
I hate musicals where the story stops while the cast sings or dances. When the music is part of the story and moves the story forward — and something would be missing if we didn’t have it — then it works.
The same is true with description. Depictions of faces, bodies, costumes and places are best when they are part of the action and the story. Like: He limped up the stairs with blood oozing down the leg of his expensive trousers only to collapse his average sized frame in the dark of the first landing amid the rat droppings, crumpled beer cans, and plastic take-out boxes.
If you realize later that his missing watch is important, you can add it as his body is examined by the cops, or that he has a mob tattoo on his shoulder. We could learn that when the medical examiner checks the body out. You can always go back and add details which you realize later as needed to an earlier description, but do we really need to know his shoe size, the pattern of his socks, boxers or briefs, eye color or the freckles on his butt?
Keep in mind your readers are there for the story and the characters it reveals. Get the hell out of the way and tell the story — and only tell us as much as we need to know. We’ll figure out the rest of it if your story is engaging. Description should add to the readers enjoyment and understanding, not get in the way of the narrative.

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