Adventures in writing – a personal journey by Stuart G Yates

The writer’s craft. This is something I’d like to touch upon. And one particular aspect. Descriptions.

I’m reading a book at the moment, by a very well known author. I shan’t say who it is, and I am not offering anything of what I say as a criticism, more of an observation as to how different writers work in different ways.

The book is interspersed between pages of sharp, stark dialogue, realistic and compelling, and lengthy descriptive passages of buildings, streets, highways. I found my attention, and my interest, waning as these pages became more and more laborious, and I wondered what they had to do with the story. Of course, we need some focus, some idea of setting, but to be informed of every minute detail, I found it tedious and I skipped whole pages, anxious to get back to the action. I confess I did wonder if all of it was simply to pad out the narrative, to fulfil the current credo that a thriller must be 80,000 words long. Perhaps, if all of those long, rambling passages were removed, we would be left with only sixty to sixty-five thousand words, and it wouldn’t look so thick on the shelf. When handing over our hard-earned cash, perhaps that is a consideration. Certainly it seems that way as far as publishers go.

I have read all of Cormac McCarthy’s work, and his descriptions are vivid, but not lengthy. You know exactly where you are, what the characters are seeing, and that enables you to become more immersed in their world. But none of this detracts from the story. I have never skimmed over McCarthy’s paragraphs.

The same can be said for Raymond Chandler, and Robert B Parker. Details are given, but they are brief, albeit well observed. For characters too, one is given outlines, maybe hair colour, physical shape, clothing (Parker always mentions clothing, describing exactly what each person wears. I’ve noticed John Harvey does this as well. I’ve never understood why we need to know how many buttons are on a person’s jacket, or whether their trousers have turn-ups or not. Some might be interested in that, but does it actually matter? I’m not convinced).

A hundred and fifty years ago, Dickens would describe a character’s physicality to the nth degree, leaving nothing to the imagination. But that man was a genius, crafting his words to paint pictures in a world without film or television. Now, I feel we do not require such over-statement. What is wrong with leaving a lot up to a reader’s imagination?

I rarely describe a character’s features. I may hint at it, putting in details of their age, size, possibly even hair colour. I might say a woman is ‘beautiful’ but do I really need to explain exactly why she is beautiful. Besides, my idea of what being beautiful is might actually be totally opposite to what my reader has in mind. So, by hinting, or giving clues, I am allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. That, for me, is far better and leads to a tighter, more well-paced story. I hate waffle of any kind; let’s get to the point, and make the journey an interesting and exciting one.

So, this book. It is a riveting read, but I’ve missed out thousands of words. Has this heinous act lessened my enjoyment, my understanding? Not at all. The act of skimming annoys me, and I’d much rather do without hundreds of words of detailed descriptions of the outside of buildings, their position on the street, how the paintwork has been lovingly and painstakingly applied to create a pseudo-Edwardian facade…yawn. I don’t care.

Each to his own. I offer these thoughts to simply underline what I think are the important aspects of writing. Pace, realism, mystery. By not giving too much away, we add to the reader’s enjoyment. Heroes and heroines are created in our imagination as we read. That’s how it should be. The reader then has ownership, and they can become rightly angered, or indeed pleased, when they see this character portrayed on the silver screen.

I am enjoying this book I’m reading. But I’ll not lie awake and worry myself over missing vivid descriptions of road surfaces. I’d much rather read over all of those to discover who actually ‘did it’.


Why not have a look at my own use of descriptive writing? You can go along to my websites and seek out where to buy my books. ‘Burnt Offerings’ has just been reduced in price for the Kindle, and is well worth a look.

Enjoy, and keep reading.





Filed under fiction writing

6 responses to “Adventures in writing – a personal journey by Stuart G Yates

  1. You raise important points in your post. It goes along with the teaching of show don’t tell. How much is too much showing? If all writers show everything, what does it take away from originality? Where does it take away from the plot? There needs to be a strong middle ground.

    I enjoyed reading your post. It makes you think!

    • Thanks for your comments Rebecca. It was whilst reading that best-seller that I suddenly just said, ‘this is SO boring’…and it really made me think. I’m happy you enjoyed my thoughts.

  2. “…I might say a woman is ‘beautiful’ but do I really need to explain exactly why she is beautiful. Besides, my idea of what being beautiful is might actually be totally opposite to what my reader has in mind.” EXACTLY. Less is more. I want the reader to make the story theirs, not mine. I take them done the path, which sometime is straight up, making them climb, other times, straight down, making them, not letting them fall. When they pay for my book, the story becomes theirs. Your reply to rdt14 is spot on. I have tried to read too many modern day writers that bore me until I toss the book in the trash fifty pages later. As Matt Stover taught me, trust you readers. Giving them so much information is a sin in my book.

  3. byjhmae

    This is so true. While I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to devote pages and pages to minute and unimportant details, I think that when an author is able to describe something with a poetic flourish that it can add to the story. George RR Martin is one example. I am biased because I absolutely love his writing style, but he does use a lot of description. But maybe he can get a pass because he is creating a whole world that we wouldn’t be able to imagine without description. So I guess in the end it is really a matter of balance. We don’t want the reader to have a totally blank screen in their heads, but we don’t want to crowd it either…

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