Thursday, May 29, 2014

Invitation to Another World

A couple neophyte writers told me recently they weren’t going to make the “mistake” of including description in their books.

I asked were they intent on writing novels or telegrams. They gazed at me, puzzled.

Saying description isn’t needed in a novel is as ridiculous as claiming trees are unnecessary for a forest. One of the pair immediately quoted Elmore Leonard’s dictum about leaving out the parts readers tend to skip.

He could have quoted Leonard’s Rule No. 8: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Or No. 9: Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Note that in both cases he didn’t say avoid description.

Elmore Leonard is known for a spare style of writing that is immediate, graphic and heavy on dialogue, well suited to the tastes of those who grew up with the cinema and television. Indeed, many of his stories have been made into films. But, if you want the best of Leonard, you must read the books.

Leonard often cited Hemingway as a major influence on his style. Both cut to the chase and give us a sense of person or place in eloquent yet spare prose. Kurt Vonnegut once said every sentence should either reveal character or advance the action. This can be achieved by dialogue, showing (action) or through proper use of description.

A reader with imagination doesn’t need much to bring him or her into this other world the writer has created. Not all readers are blessed with enough imagination to gain entry to this world. That’s why we have description.

A reader once told me she didn’t need me to describe a character since her imagination allowed her to see him. What she didn’t get was that while she might imagine Johnny Depp I could have been thinking Gary Busey. The writer wants readers to see his characters, not just any character.

The important thing is to be certain you’re describing and not simply providing a laundry list of articles. Description is necessary to bring us into the story. It should be a bridge (not a barrier) between dialogue and action. Done right, it provides the poetry needed to carry us into a different world.