Today, I am going to tackle another of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing:
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
Before I continue, I want to emphasize that I am not criticizing Mr. Leonard’s writing style. He does what he does very well. I am just touching on why not all of us may want to write like him.
What is the number one thing that people skip? (Come on, admit it, you probably skip stuff, too…unless the “you” in question happens to be my husband, who probably never skips anything.)
The answer, of course, is description.
Some modern authors respond to this by leaving it out. They have almost no description. I read one recently, it practically seemed indecent, as if the story was not wearing enough garments.
These stories read like a screenplays. Only most of us do not read screenplays. We watch movies full of rich backgrounds and imagery.
Sure the descriptionless books read quickly, but, to me anyway, they fell empty, like cotton candy—easy to eat, but gone in a moment leaving either nothing or a stomach ache.
This is not so bad if they have something else to offer, a hairraising plot, edge of your seat action, and— and this is the important thing—if they take place in a familiar landscape, such as modern day America, where the reader has no trouble filling in what is being left out.
But this minimum description method breaks down if the story either takes place in an exotic location (real or imaginary) or requires a delicately painted mood.
Most of my favorite books are loaded with description, even top-heavy with it. Description that fills in the details of what is around you and helps anchor you to the story and surroundings. Detail that makes the book much more like a steak dinner with potatoes, corn smothered in butter and garlic, and a crisp salad.
Books like that stick with you. Years later, I still remember then and reread them.
Do I read these descriptions, savoring every word?
Well, often no. Even I do not. But I SKIM them.
Skimming is different from skipping. When you skip, you miss it all. When you skim, you get some of it, a taste. The mood and gist of it settles into your thinking, helps color the experience. When you skim, the fact that the description is there matters…it improves the story.
Let me tell you a story that explains why I feel description is important.
As most of you know, John and I are roleplayers. If you do not know what that means, picture your favorite book, imagine that there was someone who could portray the characters as if they were real people, so that you could talk to them and interact with them.
That is what it is like.
John, when he is moderating (running the game, being the storyteller) often pauses to describe things—sometimes at length. Often, these periods of description come at the beginning, before we get to engage in the action. Often, very often, they are boring. I remember one time that a friend and I were groaning out loud, begging him to please move past the description to the part where we got to talk and act.
But, do you know what? I still remember that description. It made a big difference to the game, to the way the scenes felt, to my memory of the occasion.
In retrospect, I really appreciated the description, even though at the time, I did not want to do the work of having to listen to it and picture it.
Books are like this, too. Good description enhances the experience, even if it is hard.
Which brings us to a question: Are descriptions harder to read than quick dialogue?
Is hard bad?
No. It is harder. Some readers are too lazy, but it is not bad. In fact, good readers occasionally enjoy the books that make them work a little harder more. But it is not bad. Often it is good.
Believe it or not, some people actually like descriptions. Real people. Not just statistics out there some where in a national poll. I even know a few myself.
Now, that being said, are there things we can do to both have description and make it easier for the reader?
Sure…polish our description to make it easier to read, for one thing. Also, keeping one’s paragraphs shorter can help…I mean here both that short bits of description can be added sometimes instead of long ones, but also that long descriptions can be broken up more, to make it easier for the eye to follow.
(You can probably tell by looking at this that I like the short paragraph thing. Only use that if it works for you. ;-)
So, yes, description may be harder to read, it may slow us down, the reader may skim it, or even skip it. But that does not mean that the writer should leave it out!
And, by the way, Mr. Leonard, I do not necessarily know what the character is thinking and, I do care!
For next week: In Defense of the Heming Way: A Look At Some Viritues Of The Other Side.