I read a great blog post yesterday guest-written on Lorrie Porter’s blog by Marcus Sedgwick, who is an author I admire. I find his books are punchy and action-driven, intelligent and ‘wordsmithy’, dark and thrilling, and – more than anything else – short. He says as much himself in the blog post, where he writes about something he believes is vital to a good story – judicious and sparing use of description in order to bring a scene alive.
This is contrary to most people’s expectations: surely, a scene cannot come alive in the mind of a reader unless every tiny thing is described minutely?
Consider this paragraph:
Jeremy ran, full pelt, hearing the thundering boom of the dragon’s footprints crashing down behind him. It felt so close – close enough to breathe right down the back of his neck, or to step down – splat! – on his head. He had never been so terrified in his life, and he knew he had to run fast, or he was done for. He looked around, but there was no clear line of escape. The far-away sky above was hazily blue, looking down on him disinterestedly, the occasional cloud streaking over it like a veil. The walls to his right and left were crumbling red-brick, with ivy scattered through them like icing on a cake, and the ground beneath his feet was studded with small rocks, like tiny grey eggs made of stone. Then, finally, he saw a corner up ahead; he turned it at speed, without looking, and found himself smacking right up against something – something that said ‘Ouch! What’re ye doin’, ye great…’ followed by a splutter. Jeremy bounced back, and saw that he’d almost knocked someone over – an older man, with hair like silver yarn that tangled up, almost exactly like a messily-made bird’s nest on top of his shiny pink head. Right beneath the hairline were dotted small constellations of freckles, and a thick bulging vein rain down his temple where it was lost in the bushiest white beard Jeremy had ever seen. The man’s face was red, tending to purple in spots, and his moustache was so big Jeremy wondered why it didn’t need scaffolding to hold it up. His nostrils were huge, and flaring, so wide and deep and dark that Jeremy wondered if another dragon lived up each of them. He shuddered as he looked at them. Tiny hairs waved inside each one as the man’s breath burst in and out, in and out. Then his teeth, square and white and strong, appeared in the centre of his beard as the man started growling his anger at Jeremy. ‘Tell me what ye’re playin’ at this minute, child!’ he said, his voice like someone heavy walking across a gravel pathway.
So, clearly this is something I’ve just made up, and it doesn’t hold a candle to a properly polished and edited section from a published book; I hope, though, that it makes a point. I have read paragraphs like this, at action-packed junctures like this, in books, and it drives me mad. Surely everyone would agree that the point of this paragraph is that Jeremy is running from a dragon. Does the reader need to know about the crumbling red-brick walls and the distant hazy sky and the number of waving nose-hairs displayed by the man into whom he crashes in his haste to get away?
I don’t think so.
Jeremy’s heart thundered in his chest as he ran. His legs burned with effort. Risking a glance back, he saw there was no sign of the dragon yet; all he could see behind him was this endless brick-lined corridor, this weird place he’d somehow woken up in. He almost turned his foot on a rock, then; they were dotted all over the ground like cobblestones, slippery and treacherous.
‘It’s coming,’ he thought. ‘It’s coming!’ Just then, a roar from behind made the skin all over his body shrink, and terror pumped through him. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his ankle, he ran faster, desperate to find a place to hide.
Then – a turning! A break in the brick wall. He flung himself to the right, taking the turn without looking.
‘Ouch! What’re ye doin’, ye great…’ Jeremy skidded to a halt, realising he’d crashed right into someone – someone big, and white-haired, and strong, if the grip he suddenly felt around his upper arm was anything to go by. He looked up into a pair of runny blue eyes, scrunched up in suspicion. White teeth flashed at the heart of the bushiest grey beard he’d ever seen as the man spoke again, his voice raspy and rough.
‘Tell me what ye’re playin’ at, this minute, child!’ Jeremy didn’t think he had the breath, or the courage, to reply.
I think this second paragraph – which says much the same thing – is a lot stronger. It does a better job of keeping the action going, and keeping Jeremy’s momentum alive. We get the same sense of place and character, I would argue, and enough description is given for a reader to imagine where Jeremy is, and who he meets. Interestingly, paragraph 1 is 359 words long; paragraph 2 is 231.
I know that time passes differently in books, in a sense. In reality, if you or I crashed into an elderly white-haired man, we would take in a lot of physical description instantly, through our senses; it takes a lot longer to write all that information out. I just wonder, sometimes, whether any of that description is needed. A scene shouldn’t carry too much extra weight, I think: the description should serve a narrative purpose, as well as a scene-setting one.
And yet – description is vital to writing, of course. Without description, all a writer would do is recount endless reams of dialogue between characters who exist only as words on a page, and not fully fleshed, rounded ‘people’ we can see in our mind’s eye. Having said that, if your protagonist is running for his life from a dragon, we don’t need to know how many liver spots are on the forehead of the man he runs into, or how many stones are in the ground at his feet. Give the reader enough to put the puzzle together themselves, and always allow them space to use their own imagination.
And go and read that blog post by Marcus Sedgwick. He says all this much more briefly and in a far more interesting way than I’ve done here.
Happy Thursday. Happy writing. May all the dragons pursuing you be slow and clumsy ones.