Have Books Lost Something With Their Lack of Description?

There was a time when you couldn’t pick up a book without massive blocks of descriptive prose. It was an art form all of its own.These descriptions were seen to be adding more depth to the story and giving the reader more information about the characters and setting.

Modern writers tend to steer clear of vast expanses of informative, yet mostly unnecessary writing. In fact, authors have gone in the opposite direction, giving only what is needed to leave the reader to imagine the rest. There also tends to be less time given to journeys and the transition of time.The modern method seems to be to get there as quickly as possible and cut out the filler. Again, this works well for me as a writer and a reader

Personally, I don’t mind some description, but I much prefer it when it is kept to a minimum. As Stephen King said in his excellent On Writing book, you don’t need a spot by spot account of someone’s face to say they have acne.

But what about you? Do you think we have lost something with the fast-moving novels of today? Do you think the art of prose has died as a result of our need to ‘get there already’? Do you think stories can sometimes seem a little hollow when they are swept up by the endless need to keep moving? Or do you think that relevance is key, and everything else if just filler and waffle?

Please share your opinions below.

32 thoughts on “Have Books Lost Something With Their Lack of Description?

  1. I think the world has simply changed. It would be wrong to say modern books have lost something due to a lack of prose, and it would also imply all older books are better than all newer books.

    My view is that a lot of the greats, like Charles Dickens, were too long-winded in their descriptions. A lot of it simply wasn’t necessary. I would be interested to see how long Dickens’s novels would be if much of the superfluous description was cut out. A focus on the story could cut everything in half, most likely.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has already attempted to rewrite Dickens in this way.

    • Thanks for the reply, James. I agree that the world has changed, and changed for the better in my opinion. I don’t think too many people want to get absorbed in long wordy descriptions anymore. It would be interesting to see a lot of the old classics modernised to see what happens to style and length of story.

    • The word “necessary” is a subjective term. To a 19th century mind, it was necessary, and Dickens was particularly skillful at what, in that period, was appreciated. Looking down our 21st century noses at their preferences is, in my mind, a bit arrogant.

  2. I see this from another perspective. Although I enjoy the speed and brevity of current writing trends, I grew up in the 1950s reading books from the 1890s through the 1930s, mostly travel, science fiction and mysteries. I love the relaxed pace and full-immersion experience they afford.

    I suspect that densely described text will make a comeback- everything cycles. What I knew as a child was much closer to earlier times than today, and if the reader wants to enjoy stories about any past period, expanded description might be required for understanding.

    • Hi Cathy,

      Thank you for commenting. I agree that when the description is done in the right way it can allow you to become completely involved in the story.
      On the other hand, I have read some passages of description where I’ve wanted to move through the story faster and even skipped bits to get to the parts I considered more interested. It definitely depends on how the description is written.

  3. I too get rather turned off by reading too much description, but obviously there needs to be a certain amount of ‘scene setting’. I believe character details must be given early on before the reader forms a vision in their own mind. Nowadays, everyone’s favourite expression is ‘show, don’t tell’!

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.
      I agree there does need to be some scene setting otherwise the reader may not be aware of where the story is taking place. Too much character detail can put me off a book. As I believe Stephen King said, you don’t need a spot by spot account of a face, just he/she has acne will do!

      All the best,

      Mark

  4. I have a fondness for description and immersion. My first draft of Seeds of Autumn was full of long passages describing the setting and the characters. Feedback from my beta readers was a resounding “cut cut cut!” so I did, but I miss those sections. I’ve kept them in a document just for me.

    I used to love Dickens as a teenager, though now I’m not so keen. A lot of literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is excessively “wordy”, in no small part thanks to the authors being paid a penny a word. I’m sure many of them used to pad out their work in order to be paid more.

    Losing that padding is no loss to the world of literature, but I think there’s a place for more descriptive prose in certain genres. Thrillers and adventure stories need to be fast paced, sure, anything heavy on the action needs to cut straight to it. A little more contemplative fiction can be a welcome change of pace sometimes though.

    • Hi Holly,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree with you that certain genres can cope with more description than others. I would have thought that genres such as sci-fi or fantasy would need more description in order to explain things to the reader. There would be many places, objects etc only seen in the author’s mind that they need to get into the readers. I’ve started trying new genres recently and I have noticed that some just tend to have more description in than others. For example, other universes and new created species need the description, but a tree by tree drive down a long road doesn’t!

      If I can see the point of the description and feel it’s needed then I’m OK with it. I’m put off a book if I feel that the author has become too wordy and over the top.

      All the best,
      Mark.

  5. Let me preface this comment with the disclaimer that I am the sort who would kick an efficiency expert down a stairwell. Reading is not a physical race to the finish although the best books transport the reader. Descriptions give texture and context for me. If the writer assumes cultural familiarity in a reader, he by design writes for the instant moment, and not for the ages. If that makes any sense…

    • Hi Nemo,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      I agree that reading ism’t a race – in fact I’m quite a slow reader! I do appreciate descriptions when well written and when, like you say they transport me elsewhere. What can put me off a book is when an author seems to use description for the sake it or when it is poorly written. Good writing with or without large amounts of description will last the ages.

      Best wishes,
      Mark.

  6. The two propositions are not mutually exclusive. Providing sufficient description for the reader to visualize is important. So is allowing the reader to think and infer. The best books don’t do the thinking for you. For the writer, it becomes a balancing act. We don’t want characters to look the same as the stick figures we drew in infancy. The writer needs to use words as an artist uses colour, -strategically. Readers also need a sense of setting. The art lies in walking the line between enough and too much.

    • Hi Alan,

      Thanks for the comment and I agree that there is a balancing act to get right. Authors don’t want to tip that balance. I like your comparison with colour, no-one has used it before.

      Best wishes,
      Mark.

  7. When it was overdone (I’m looking at you, ghost of James Michener!), I glossed over the tirade. I’ve also read books from the pulp era that were very well done. Marie Corelli is an excellent example of someone who could put in description without making her books sag. Heck, in her day she outsold HG Wells, Jules Vern, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — combined. I still enjoy them today.

    • Hi Guy,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment. There were many authors in the past, who like you say didn’t let their books ‘sag’ with too much description. I too have enjoyed some Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dickens, but on the whole found the majority of other authors used too much description. Equally I’ve read some current books by authors who will remain unnamed, who use far too much description instead of moving the story along.

      All the best,
      Mark

  8. Myself, I prefer reading books with less description. I believe it allows the reader more room to personalize the characters and scenes to become more personalized to my liking. The main character, for example, in my mind, ends up evolving into someone I may better relate to. I am allowed to be able to ‘customize’ him and envision him in a way that will most appeal to me. The more a character appeals to the reader may change a story into a better experience. If I am provided with a specific face with all their features laid out for me, then I may not identify with them and the story may lose some of the special magic that reading a novel provides me. I like it when the writer gives me the basics, an outline, but I want to be able to have the freedom to add that little something from my imagination that makes him and the story truly unique. There are many reasons why a novel ends up being much more enjoyable than a filmed version, one is mainly due to whomever is cast in the roles. If I have already read the book before seeing the film, I have already formed a firm idea about the character that the author has created. If the movie then casts the latest Hollywood idol in that same role, and they are completely different from what I imagined, sadly, I am left disappointed as the whole experience has been altered beyond my control. Written mediums are very special as every different reader sees what their imagination allows them to, as long as they are provided the opportunity, and that experience is then as unique as the readers themselves.

    • Hello Kare,

      Thank you for taking the time to read this post and leaving such a detailed response to it. I too prefer to be allowed to use my imagination whilst reading. I agree with about being better able to relate to a character if we can personalise them as we read. I can also stop watching a adaptation of a book if I think something about it seems wrong – after telling the TV ‘No! It shouldn’t be like that!’ 🙂

      Best wishes,

      Mark.

      • I agree with you completely on having to stop watching a TV show or movie. I recently caught a glimpse of a series based on a best selling series of novels. They were spot on with the female character, but the actor for the male lead was so vastly different from how I imagined him there was no way I could watch any of it! My version of the male could not have been any more different! Shame.

        • In my case it Stephen Kings’s Under the Dome. It was so vastly different to the book that I managed the first 2 episodes and then stopped watching. Some people have told me they liked it, but then they hadn’t read the book first. Again it was shame as I really liked the book.

  9. As a writer, I find descriptions are necessary based on genre. If I write: “The lone man walked the path covered with the fallen, white petals of the cherry trees,” you get the basic idea. If I write: The man, his clothes dirty and tattered with age, stumbled through the broken and hilly path, obscured by the bone-white, dead leaves of the corpse of cherry trees; their sickly-sweet odor souring his stomach,” it hits on the senses.

    In fact, you need it in fantasy stories. If I write: The krenshar roared, shaking the borlak trees,” the reader wouldn’t have a clue what you are talking about. Thus, you need to describe. A fantasy story needs world building that only occurs with descriptions.

    Today, everything is about speed. I need it and I need it NOW! But I like to slow things down. Simplistic stories have no life. This reminds me of something Faulkner once wrote in his story Barn Burning:

    The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he said he could see the ranked shells close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind, but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish — this, the cheese which she knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which is intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of the blood.

    You could never simplify this. Remove the descriptions, and you destroy the life of what was written.

    • Hi John,

      Thank you taking the time to read the post and comment.
      I agree that description is necessary in some situations and I think that when its used well it enhances a story. When I’m reading and I come across a passage that seems to over describe a person or place, I feel it slows down the story. Other people have used fantasy as a genre example that needs to use description. I can see how it’s useful here otherwise imagined worlds would be alien to the reader! 🙂

      The examples of description you used show how well description can be used and I’m pleased you’ve highlighted them here.

      All the best,

      Mark.

  10. Love Dickens, one of my all-time favorite writers. But, I do like today’s more streamlined fiction. So I will be squarely on the fence, guess I don’t mind wordiness in the old guys just do not care for it in modern literature. I still read and enjoy both styles, currently reading an Indie published, 2015, mystery and rereading some James Fenimore Cooper.

    • Hi Neil,
      Thank you for reading and for your balanced comments. I agree that the likes of Dickens do come across as wordy in comparison to today’s authors, but writing styles were different then. I do enjoy some of ‘the old guys’ but like you, I prefer a faster, slightly less descriptive read.

      Best wishes,

      Mark.

  11. While endless description droning on and on can bog down a book, there is something wonderful about a scene described well enough that it draws you into the story. I want to be immersed in the textures and scents of a scene. Those scenes stay with you because they truly take you there.

    • Hi Sandra,

      I agree with you. I read a book last year about the conservation of elephants in Africa and the description in that was excellently done. At times it was like I was actually there watching what was happening. There are other times and genres though, where I just want the story to move along, and not get stuck on a description of something.

      Thanks for reading,
      Mark.

  12. When the classics were written, people weren’t as busy as they are now and could spend more time reading. Although I am not of the belief that one shouldn’t put a book down and resume reading it later, I also believe that if you spend more than a week with it, it’s too long. Todays novels tend to be shorter with less descriptions in part, because the average experience of the reader is greater and they can more easily fill in the non-essentials. Plus again, everyone’s attention span toward a book today is driven by the activities in their lives. Thus, a shorter novel seems to better fit the reader’s lifestyle. A recent experience, was reading a fellow Indie author who’s book was twice the size of my own. The story was terrific; I liked the style of writing, but it just kept going and going. I found myself skipping familiar parts to move along in the story. I like it when the author leads me in a direction, but leaves me to fill in some the blanks. Let’s face it, when a book goes to movie, it rarely satisfies the same as when you read it because some of your own imagination went into the reading.

    • Hi Anthony,
      Thanks for reading the post and your comment. I agree with you about lives being busier but I think that a long novel can still be a good thing when done well. I hate it when I’ve read a book and then see it as a movie or tv adaptation and nothing is as I imagined it would. Eg, Stephen King’s Under the Dome was nothing like the book or how my imagination had pictured it.

  13. I used to think that descriptive was best. I too grew up reading the long winded prose of my formative years and once I started to write believed that was the way to do it.
    It certainly wasn’t.
    I should have realised – at school we were told to read ‘A Ring of Bright Water.’ If you haven’t – don’t. As one of the few exceptions to the rule, watch the film!

    • Thanks for commenting David.
      Not only does description take longer to read, it also means it takes the author longer to write the book!
      Oh and I haven’t, so I won’t.

  14. This is an interesting thought starter. When I began writing, I enjoyed going into great depth with my descriptions. I would stand back and marvel at my flowery prose. “I really can write,” I thought. Then I went on a writing course and they told me I was doing it all wrong. And they were right.

    Reading big chunks of descriptive prose is like slamming the brakes on an exciting story. It used to be more common amongst writers not blessed with the editing tools provided by computers these days. We can edit and edit and edit. They did not have that luxury with the pen and typewriter.

    This does mean modern writing can be quite stark in comparison. But it doesn’t mean we have to lose description all together. Some of my favourite moments in good writing happen when something is described in one line so perfectly, I have to stop reading and say, “Damn, I wish I had written that.” Description should be drip fed to the audience in the flow of the story. Let the audience build the picture in their imaginations and help them with bits of detail here and there. Don’t put the brakes on the story. That’s the bit they really care about.

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