On Writing: How Much Description is TOO Much?

I started reading Geek Love by Katherine Dunn last year, and god, it was dense. Now, I am not someone who perseveres through books she’s not enjoying. I will dump that shit faster than my boyfriend the day before Valentine’s Day. (Side note: I like the 10% rule. If you’re not interested by 10%, put the book down and move on. Also applies to boyfriends, probably.)

But this book had something. I wanted to know the story and the characters and the fucked-up ride I knew was held within. (It’s about a carny family who try to breed freaks by having the mother take drugs, subject herself to radiation, etc. during pregnancy. WHY WOULDN’T YOU WANT TO READ THAT? Also, it gets a lot more fucked up than that, so yay.)

But to get through it, I had to wade. God, I had to wade. I’ve seen people describe the writing as beautiful. It isn’t, not to me. It’s not bad, exactly, but wow, it’s dense and overly descriptive and it stalled me. It stopped me from moving on to the next sentence because I was too busy trying to decipher the current one, trying to put all its tiny parts into context, into a whole image. That book could have been half the length without losing any of the story, I swear to fucking Christ. The author would describe the most minute details.

Here’s a passage from Geek Love:

Her breasts hang in flaps at her waist but her carriage is still erect. She has the long-faced, thin-nosed stamp of the Protestant aristocrat. She never goes out without a hat, usually a tweed hiker with the brim pulled so far down over her pink glasses that she is forced to throw her head up and back to catch what faint light and movement her eyes are willing to deal with. Draped with a few dead rodents she could slip unsuspected into cucumber luncheons.

Even now, fully aware of the context and the story, I find this description hard to process. I have to think – really think – about it to conjure the images I’m supposed to see. As I was reading, I felt the author was trying to depict the exact images that should appear in my mind’s eye, instead of letting my brain just do its thing and come up with its own movie. She was trying too hard to control my experience.

On the other end of the spectrum, I read the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them screenplay. Now, I’d never read a screenplay before, but man, it was awesome. There were brief setting and character descriptions, but other than that it was all dialogue. Everything was brief and to the point.

Here’s a passage from the Fantastic Beasts screenplay:

The customs official spins the case towards him and pops the catches, lifting the lid to reveal pyjamas, various maps, a journal, an alarm clock, a magnifying glass and a Hufflepuff scarf. Finally satisfied, he closes the case.

And, god, the world I pictured was so vibrant and colourful and magical. Notice how the items in that passage aren’t described in detail – yet I bet you can picture them precisely, can’t you? After I’d finished the book, I went to see the actual movie. And it was… not as good. Not as good as what my imagination had conjured! Imagine that: just from a succinct smattering of words, my brain was able to create entire worlds within its vision. And I’m guessing that’s what MOST people’s brains are like. We need the basics and our minds will put together the rest.

After that, I read Rice, Noodle, Fish by Matt Goulding. It’s about Japanese cuisine and culture, and it made me want to go to Japan so badly. I want some ramen RIGHT NOW. Good ramen. I can probably get some mediocre ramen in Edinburgh, come to think on it. But anyway, I digress. The descriptions in the book are simple – but they are evocative. They say the bare minimum yet there I sat, drooling onto the page and envisioning the glories of Japanese cuisine that await me in my future.

Here’s a passage from Rice, Noodle, Fish:

Kamimura has been whispering all week of a sacred twenty-four-hour ramen spot located on a two-lane highway in Kurume where truckers go for the taste of true ramen. The shop is massive by ramen standards, big enough to fit a few trucks along with those drivers, and in the midafternoon a loose assortment of castaways and road warriors sit slurping their noodles. Near the entrance a thick, sweaty cauldron boils so aggressively that a haze of pork fat hangs over the kitchen like waterfall mist.

Can you imagine yourself sitting at the counter in that diner, alongside the truckers? Can you hear the cauldron boiling and the slurping of noodle soup? Can you smell the pork broth that lingers in the air? Taste it, even? Simple is good. There is a reason all those grammar books advise keeping things succinct. Brains are clever. They will fill in the gaps – construct entire worlds – with their own details without you even noticing. So tell us the story, give us enough detail to put it into context and evoke our senses, and let us do the rest.