A member of my book club mentioned that she skips speech tags and descriptive passages when she reads. I was amazed. Sometimes, I might be able to keep track of who’s talking without tags, but I always want to know where the scene is set. In a mystery, especially, any aspect of the layout of a house or the geography of a canyon might be essential to the plot. Also, I feel that setting affects characters. I read for immersion as well as for the plot.
I’ve read a book by one currently popular author that featured too much description of upholstery and curtains, but that same author also said too much about the food, about the details of love-making, about the clothes characters wore—about everything—for my liking.
I’m now considering how I choose what to describe and what to let readers imagine. Is the setting so ordinary that “small town” or “café” will suffice, or is it so off-beat that readers would never imagine it without help? Does the image have symbolic or evocative meaning? Does it reveal something deeper about the story? Does it help the reader enter the character’s experience? Is it necessary to give the scene form and grounding? Smell and sound can touch emotions. And while I find excessive food description gratuitous, taste is part of the sensory wholeness of certain scenes. So is weather. There are writers who scarcely describe characters, but how we look—both naturally and through self-presentation—affects how we interact with the world.
Now I’m curious. Do you skip descriptions when you read? If you’re a writer, how do you choose what to describe?
4 thoughts on “Images in Words”
I don’t comment on here often, but wanted to comment on this.
I love descriptions. They help bring the story to life. I add them when I write, and absorb them eagerly when I read. Descriptions don’t only help me feel part of the story, but also help me visualize things I otherwise might have no concept of, whether because people from different countries have different ideas of what is “normal” or because it’s something I either didn’t experience or can’t remember having experienced while I still had usable vision. Descriptions are why so many visually impaired people would choose books over movies, and why people are fighting so hard to have audio description available for more movies and TV shows. Yes, there are times when people go overboard and get too carried away with descriptions. But better that than none at all.
Thanks so much for your observations. Very valuable to me as a writer.
Amber, I can actually tell you EXACTLY when I stopped ignoring things in reading. It was the first time I saw Hannah and her Sisters during a class in college and realized the *lighting* in the film was a character!