Writing Description Part One – Change Through the Centuries

The last post was the beginning of a series of posts on writing description in fiction, where I talked about the pros and cons of writing description and why it is important. So now we’re going to focus on this question: Why do books today have less description and detail than older classics?  

Writing Description Part One- Change Through the Centuries

So I’ll be honest with you and say I have googled that phrase at least five times, each time rewording it, and I have found nothing. This one aspect in the whole subject of writing description is so controversial and full of depth, and it has to do with a lot of history of literature throughout the generations. Since I’ve found no research related to this topic (or I haven’t looked hard enough), I’m going off of my experience and knowledge here, focusing mainly on the change of culture which changed writing.

I think that one of the many reasons why there is less description and detail in modern books is because of the change in our culture, mainly American. If you’ve ever read a classic book such as Lord of the Rings, and then read Eragon right after, you’ll know what I mean. Have any of you skimmed anything in LotR? I’d think a lot of us have; if you’ve never skimmed anything in LotR, I have to say you are an amazing reader (or I’m a horrible one). Who’s skimmed anything in Eragon? Probably less than half of us. Why the difference? Lord of the Rings is a classic, and was written in the ’60s. Eragon is a modern bestseller and I chose it as an example of one because its characters and ideas are dangerously similar to LotR. The stuff you’ve skimmed in LotR was most likely the excessive detail, because there’s a ton of that. I’m not saying Eragon is better than LotR; I’d say vice versa, and confidently for various reasons. LotR, in my opinion, is a flawless epic besides a lot of detail, but in my opinion, those things, as well as the detail are precisely what makes it a classic. Eragon will probably be a classic later on, but I believe that because our culture is constantly changing. Let’s get more specific here.

Fast food restaurants. Alarm clocks. Coffee. Traffic. Rush hour. Cars. “We’re going to be late!” Speed limits, for Zark’s sake. Get the gist of it now? Culture back then, before the industrial revolution, was slow paced, and someone had time to settle down and read a good book with picturesque detail and wouldn’t have to worry about reading too much of it; authors could get away with a lot of depictions that could be really interesting if we spent time taking in each word. Nowadays, most of us just want a good book that doesn’t take a lot of time to read. Excessive detail gets skimmed because, in our mind, it’s just a waste of time. In this culture, we’ve been brought up to expect speed and efficiency, less of this, more of that. Firing dialogue, quick neck-snapping action. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but it’s good to know the difference, particularly if you’re a writer and want to be successful with your novel that you are going to publish. ‘Cause you’re going to publish it. … Right?

I read this book called Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass last year. It really helped me develop my high fantasy novel Netherworld more, plot-and-character-wise. Writing 21st Century Fiction is a great book, and even if you are a seasoned writer, I think that this book is an important read if you’re trying to get a bestseller published in the 21st century. Anyhow, the reason I bring this up is, Maass had some things to say about description, and though he talked about it only briefly, his analogy was pretty cool. He said that description in books today are like horse carriages. Pretty self-explanatory.

Here’s a fun fact for you. My brother (Michael Jr., a contributor on this blog) is reading Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath (published in 1939). He says that Steinbeck uses description in a very unique way: In the first chapter, he focuses on setting the context of the story background. In the second, there’s character development. Third chapter, nothing but deep detail and context. And on and on, each chapter changing from story to detail, from story to detail. Sure, this is unique, but will it keep readers intrigued or not? It does depend on how many pages of detail one can stay awake on. Not me.

How could description in modern books today be a good thing? Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see the art of description in fiction vanish altogether. I’m one of those people who enjoy the classics as well as the modern sci-fi bestsellers, and even though I’m a bit of a skimmer, I like to immerse myself in the worlds of the books I read, and the right amount of description, used right, helps me to do just that. I think there are lots of other people like that, even people with busy lives who just want to spend an hour and a half or so to sit down, pick up a good book, and just slow down and drink up every word. Description, in this sense, can actually be appreciated in the 21st century.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you enjoy reading a lot of description or does it help you skim? Do you think it’s a bit of an old-fashioned technique, or is it, to you, the elimination of a precious art in writing? Your opinions are very much appreciated. Stay tuned for the next post on how you can write description in your story like an artist with words.

2 thoughts on “Writing Description Part One – Change Through the Centuries

  1. I just started War and Peace!!! Sorry, the sidebar distracted me! That will have a lot of detail and I’m sure we will be tempted to skim some, but I’ll try to absorb myself into the setting if you will! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s