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wordiness or color?

philhebe

For years I have written nice tight short stories. I am now endeavoring on writing a book. I have no idea how I am going to come up with 100,000 words. Reading Mr. Martin of Game of Thrones fame I notice he will describe a characters clothing down to the underwear. Mr. Hammett of the Maltese Falcon fame has the habit of describing his characters face and body in intimate detail. I started a new novel and the author had the character walking in a mall and proceeded to name every store in the mall. In many cases I felt the descriptions were over done. Am I wrong? Are they adding words to make the word count or is it necessary story color?

Dominions Son

@philhebe

I felt the descriptions were over done. Am I wrong? Are they adding words to make the word count or is it necessary story color?


It depends on the story, the character, the point of view, and how it was done. Character development is much more important in a novel length story.

Take the mall scene.

One person might walk through a mall with a solid destination in mind. He remains focused on that destination he does not notice the other stores or the other people around him.

Another person might actively look at every store, window shopping the displays.

A third person might be blind to the stores, but notice the surrounding people, a people watcher.

point of view is important as well. I

n 3rd person, particularly 3rd omniscient it's important to set the scene for the reader, but going overboard can detract from the story.

However, in a first person POV, what the POV character does and does not notice actually tells you things about the character. How the POV character perceives the scene becomes part of character development.

Crumbly Writer

Excessive descriptions can be overdone, but they're also a necessary part of storytelling, as you want your readers to feel each scene as if experiencing it themselves. The secret--which most of us have yet to master--is figuring out how much is too little, and how much is extravagant.

When I create characters, I'll base my descriptions on pictures of similar characters and I'll pattern their behaviors on those observations. I try to pattern scenes in places I know or recognize so I can do a decent job of describing them. Little details, like how a characters plays with the salt and pepper shakers, or how the orange paint is beginning on the walls, or a stray spiderweb in the corner, and make a scene real for the readers.

Simple things help, like describing the vines covering an old building helps establish that it's a tradition bound institution, or using the weather to foretell what's about to unfold in the story (aka: "It was a dark and stormy night" transformed into "The wind picked up, tugging at Jacob's jacket and scattered raindrops began to pepper the sidewalk. He knew he had to hurry if he wanted to escape getting wet.")

Your best bet in these regards is to read the books you like, and decide which aspects you appreciate and want to emulate, and which you'd rather avoid at all costs. That doesn't mean to steal their style of writing as your own, only that you've got to decide what your style is before you can begin to develop it.

But, rather than padding a story's length with pointless descriptions, I've long used my own technique. Once I get a story largely worked out, I throw in a major complication, which threatens to undo the entire story. I then put the story aside and allow my mind to process the story in the background, often for weeks or even months while I work on other projects. I'll suddenly figure out how to resolve the issue (like killing off all the characters, or communicating with aliens), and the added complications and detail will make the story much more detailed and involved--as well as making the story fill out significantly.

It's the same with descriptions. Knowing a character has heavy eyebrows or a mole on their cheek can become part of their characters. If they keep fiddling with it, it becomes a sign of their character and will reveal what they're thinking without your having to spell it out.

In either case, good luck with the new book. In the worst case, try a content editor to advise you on where the story either needs beefing up or to be severely cut back. In most cases, they'll tell you flat out what works and what doesn't. However, fans will rarely tell you what doesn't work. In general, you've got to pay people to be honest with you!

Dominions Son

@philhebe

For years I have written nice tight short stories. I am now endeavoring on writing a book. I have no idea how I am going to come up with 100,000 words.


Burn that bridge when you get there. Let the story dictate the length.

You might even find your self having the opposite problem.

Prior to writing Battlefield Earth, L. Ron Hubbard had only written short stories. He turned the spigot on and had trouble turning it back off, ending up with a science fiction novel weighing in at almost 430K words.

Battlefield Earth has sub-sub-sub plots and touches on every science you can think of from astronomy to zoology.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer  Grant
Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

Burn that bridge when you get there. Let the story dictate the length.

That's true to a certain degree, but it's easier cutting back than filling in. That's why I suggested more complicated plots--like L. Ron Hubbard did in your example--rather than 'filling in'. With a complex plot you can always eliminate entire subplots that don't work well, but adding filler ends up being noticeable with long unreadable boring passages.

That said, I'd follow DS's principal by focusing on the plot first. If it's a 'novel-sized' plot, it'll work fine. If it's a bare-bones short-story plot, it won't.

Grant

@Dominions Son

For years I have written nice tight short stories. I am now endeavoring on writing a book. I have no idea how I am going to come up with 100,000 words.



Burn that bridge when you get there. Let the story dictate the length.

You might even find your self having the opposite problem.


That was one of my issues when I did English at school; having to write an essay of a certain length.
For me, something takes as many words as it takes- if it's important i'll include it, if not then I won't. I never could write something over 500 words if it could be covered in 250. Nor could I keep something to less than a 1,000 words if that didn't adequately cover the topic.

I've got plenty of peeves when it comes to reading a story, but one of the ones are when the author has written to a set number of words. Either padding it out with redundant noise, or leaving important points unresolved or not even addressed.

Ernest Bywater

@philhebe

In many cases I felt the descriptions were over done. Am I wrong?


No, in most cases the description are over done. Many writers try to mimic the writing of Austen, Dickens and the like where they'd spend a page or two describing a room in intricate detail, and end up with books few read in the original, but many read the condensed version where all that gumf is cut out.

I've seen books where an author has described a character in such detail you could have a police artist draw a damn good sketch of the person. However, too often that level of detail will turn a reader off, because the author leaves damn little to the reader's imagination, and thus they can't get really involved in the works.

How you strike a balance is damned hard, and only comes with practice, but then it needs to be adjusted to suit the story and the genre.

If there is a valid reason to have more words in the story than you currently have, say the publishes says they want 70,000 and you only have 45,000, then you need to beef it up to get the sale. In case of a real need to expand the story it should be possible to do so by thinking of extra side-plots or sub-plots you can add and use to expand some aspect of one of the characters or the society.

In my story Always a Marine the core of the story is the character of the man who dies in the store robbery at the start. The story goes on to have others reveal aspects of his character. However, in my story A Farmer's Life I include a side event where some people try to hold up a pizza store while the main character is there. The scene is used to demonstrate a part of the main character's attitude to life. I could've done that a few ways, but that scene did it better than some others I thought of.

When I took over the revision and completion of Shiloh for The Scot, he had a scene with a few thousand words to describe one room. Later, when I talked him into reviewing that section he cut it to a quarter of the original and it made a lot more sense and wasn't boring anymore. He never could remember why he did it like a Dickens scene description.

In the end you need description that convey enough for the reader to get a good feel of the essence of the person, item, or area being described, without being too flowery.

Ernest Bywater

@Grant

having to write an essay of a certain length.


I found essays and assignments could be easily padded by a ten word reference that adds fifty or sixty words in the bibliography, and most teachers counted the bibliography in the word count. Only failed when I got a teacher that excluded the bibliography in the word count.

Replies:   sejintenej
Crumbly Writer

@Grant

I've got plenty of peeves when it comes to reading a story, but one of the ones are when the author has written to a set number of words. Either padding it out with redundant noise, or leaving important points unresolved or not even addressed.

I used to aim for 6,000 words per chapter, though that amount varied from anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000. I've since given up on that assumption (that those sizes fit the SOL page size nicely), and just divide chapters wherever the action/focus demands. Now I'm wrestling with abnormally short chapters!

Then again, you can always write sci-fi, in which case it'll take at least 20,000 words creating the backstory and defining the universe the characters find themselves in.

richardshagrin

If you are more comfortable with shorter stories, write a series of linked short stories and add connective data that integrates them tightly. Novels don't have to have just one hero or heroine. Multiple plots work. Or you can follow one person or a group through life starting at kindergarten through primary and secondary education, university, romances, jobs, children and their experiences, and bring it to conclusion at final retirement. I don't recommend death of the central character as an ending. You need to leave the reader happy with "and they lived happily ever after."

Ernest Bywater

@richardshagrin

If you are more comfortable with shorter stories, write a series of linked short stories and add connective data that integrates them tightly. Novels don't have to have just one hero or heroine. Multiple plots work. Or you can follow one person or a group through life


That's good advice. My Clan Amir series as Ernest Edwards is 349,500 words over 44 stories originally published in 7 novel length books, and are now 2 anthologies. The original books included 3 novels, 12 novellas, and 30 short stories. Most of the stories were about one character, while some were also about other people he was connected with. Writing a series is a good way to end up with a large finished work while not having to bloat any single story.

Switch Blayde

@richardshagrin

Novels don't have to have just one hero or heroine. Multiple plots work.


That's exactly what I did in my novel. I have two separate plots with separate characters. They follow the same theme (revenge) and come together at the end.

Dicrostonyx
Updated:

Regarding description, one thing to consider is why the long descriptions are there. Certainly in some cases they are used to pad out the length of a story to stretch a novella into a novel, but in many cases authors actually do have a purpose in mind.

For example, in S.M.Stirling's Conquistador, there is a point in the novel when the protagonist is invited to lunch at the estate of the founder of one of the alternate reality kingdoms. Stirling spends a couple of pages describing the estate -- the driveway up to the house lined with trees, the white gravel of the parking area, the gardens, etc -- followed by nearly a page detailing the spread of the buffet-style lunch. Now, if you're not into description this could easily appear to be superfluous and even annoying, but there is a point to it.

Despite occurring in the present, this landowner is living a lifestyle analogous to the antebellum South in the US. He isn't just wealthy, he is literally the lord of all he surveys. There are only about a dozen family/kingdoms running an entire planet, and he's the guy who started the ball rolling. The world is not completely without politics and internal strife, but those are more about global policies than who controls what territory.

So if you find yourself bogged down by the description, or find that the action moves very slowly, that is actually the point. Stirling wants readers to be slowed down, in order to engender a feeling of peacefulness and lassitude. Then, when the plot's conflicts start resolving, the reader feels the loss; it's not the end of the world, but it is the end of peace.


Reading Mr. Martin of Game of Thrones fame I notice he will describe a characters clothing down to the underwear.


I'm not certain what Martin's influences are, but given his background this might be an allusion to Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Takes is probably the single most influential book ever published in the English language. I know that sounds odd given that most people never even hear about it unless they study English in University, but it's true. When the Tales were published in the late 14th Century, English was the language of peasants; scholars studied Latin and Greek, the nobility of England spoke French, and England in general was considered a bit backward culturally compared to the rest of Europe, so most entertainment was in French, Spanish, and Italian.

As for how this connects to Martin, Chaucer goes into great detail talking about the clothing and dress of all of his characters. Not just what the clothes look like, but the fabric they are made of and where they were made. There are two main reasons for this.

First, there are a lot of elements of satire in the Tales, and the Sumptuary Laws (basically, what you're allowed to wear is dictated by your class, not what you can afford) were a major element of class dynamics. By describing dress Chaucer was denoting class; moreover, by using inappropriate dress he was drawing attention to those characters, such as the "poor" priest wearing fine clothing, paid for by selling indulgences.

Second, in addition to being an author and a court clerk, Chaucer spent several years as the comptroller of customs for the port of London, and fabric would have been one of the primary luxury items being imported. So, when Chaucer wrote in detail about clothing, it was because it was a highly specialised field of knowledge about which he knew a lot and clearly enjoyed. In other words, he wrote about what he knew.

So, maybe Martin himself also has a personal interest in clothing, or perhaps he ran across a good database of medieval outfits when doing research and enjoys using it, or perhaps he's just emulating elements from Chaucer. Similarly, a lot of the odder story structures in The Lord of the Rings are the way that they are because Tolkien ignored the past few centuries of literature to focus on older works like Beowulf.

So to get back to @philhebe's original question, when considering description you don't just need to consider what the character would notice and describe, but also what is your reason for the description and your focus as an author? If you personally do not use a lot of description, then perhaps you might want to try doing so just to expand your skills. On the other hand, you may prefer to write in a crisper, more action-oriented style and eschew description.

If you want see a really freaky example of minimal description in a published novel, check out White Jazz by James Ellroy. Anecdotally, when Ellroy's publisher complained about the book's length, he stripped out all of the verbs and sent it back. The actual finished product is gripping, but very strange; Ellroy's prose has a staccato style that keeps the reader going at an almost frantic pace, despite not really knowing what's going on most of the time.

sejintenej

@Ernest Bywater


I found essays and assignments could be easily padded by a ten word reference that adds fifty or sixty words in the bibliography,.

By contrast I once had to write a nomination for someone famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) with a limit of 500 words. First draft broke 1000 words and getting it down was a pig.

I heard of one famous English novelist who was paid by the word! Boring!

Ernest Bywater

@sejintenej

I heard of one famous English novelist who was paid by the word! Boring!


The standard fee process for all writers was by the word, until around the 1960s. This is especially true of those who first published their works in newspapers or magazines.

Bondi Beach

@sejintenej

I heard of one famous English novelist who was paid by the word! Boring!


"Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. "

Hmm. Now I wonder which British author that was ...

bb

Bondi Beach

@philhebe

In many cases I felt the descriptions were over done. Am I wrong? Are they adding words to make the word count or is it necessary story color?


Whatever the story demands is the easy answer. Anne Rice is famous for dense descriptions, which I found unreadable after about 250 pages, and Martin sometimes sounds like he's doing his own essay on medieval *everything* and showing off in doing so.

But I'd say go for it and see what it looks like / sounds like when you're done.

Read stories or novels you like and see how long or short descriptive passages work for you in that story.

bb
bb

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Bondi Beach

But I'd say go for it and see what it looks like / sounds like when you're done.

Read stories or novels you like and see how long or short descriptive passages work for you in that story.

Most of all, go with what feels right. While others use different techniques, it's important for each other to find their own writing style. Some are verbose while others are sparse, some describe nothing while others wax poetic. As in most things literary, there are no rules, only guidelines, and if you know the risks, you can bend/break those anytime you want. The last thing you want is to sound like everyone else, as then there's no point in reading your work!

fhjohnauthor

@philhebe

This is an interesting topic, so I'll throw in two cents worth.

Write the story and see where you're at and THEN worry about the word count if it turns out either too short or too long. Write the scenes and the descriptions the way you think they should be written. Include what you think is important and leave out what you think is not. When you are finished, if the story is too short or too long, you will know it and deciding how to handle it will be easier.

With all due respect to the authors you mention, the reason I have avoided reading 'Game of Thrones' is because everybody I've talked to says the same thing you have just said. They tell me all about all the intricate details that Martin brings into his stories and I cringe (and I know this is a personal preference). Whenever I am reading a story where the author drones on with pages of descriptive detail, I find myself skipping ahead. Personally, I could give a rats ass about what kind of underwear a character is wearing anymore than I would care what kind of underwear you are wearing right now.

Many of the suggestions the other authors here offered are good and I would agree that they should be considered when you write your descriptions. My main point here is to just sit down and write your story. Plan the things that should be plan and leave the rest to your muse. I think you'll be surprised and you will most likely end up finding yourself cutting, instead of adding when it is finished.

Replies:   Switch Blayde  Grant
Switch Blayde

@fhjohnauthor

I could give a rats ass about what kind of underwear a character is wearing


I believe that's the answer. If she's wearing crotchless panties, that may be important to the character or plot so it's described. If she's wearing lime green panties with a pink bow in the front and those are found as a clue to a mystery, it's described.

As to scenery, other than the Chekhov's Gun stuff defined, you may want to set the atmosphere. But don't go overboard. In the past, authors, like in Jane Austin's period, provided a lot of beautiful prose to describe meadows and houses and stuff. But readers were different back then. They had more leisure time and enjoyed sitting by a fireplace or under a shade tree when they read. Some also wanted to be taken to places they've never been.

Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

Some also wanted to be taken to places they've never been.


Some still do.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Dominions Son

Some still do.


The point was that people are more mobile today. Back then you traveled by train, horseback, or boat so how often and how many places did you go? And I believe only the upper class, who had money, traveled. Then again, they may have been the only ones to read books.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Grant

@fhjohnauthor

I could give a rats ass about what kind of underwear a character is wearing anymore than I would care what kind of underwear you are wearing right now.

Pet peeve.
If you could give a rats' arse about the kind of underware they're wearing then it is of importance to you.
If you couldn't give a rats' arse about the kind of underware they're wearing then it isn't of any importance to you.
Like the many times I've seen a character say "I could care less" when what they actually mean is that they "Couldn't care less".

Another of those instances where I generally understand what the author is trying to say, even though they say the opposite. But it does interrupt the flow of the story.

sejintenej

@Switch Blayde

If she's wearing lime green panties with a pink bow in the front and those are found as a clue to a mystery, it's described.

Surely that or any reference to something not normally talked about or which totally stretches the imagination becomes a hook or clue immediately.

If they are immediately removed by his(or maybe even her) lover then such a detailed description is not necessary

Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

The point was that people are more mobile today.


There are still places no one can go, like Mars or Middle Earth.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Dominions Son

There are still places no one can go, like Mars or Middle Earth.


I assume that means they should be described in painstakingly detail.

I used to love SciFi movies. If someone had a ray gun I accepted it existed. If Scottie beamed Capt Kirk to the planet's surface, I accepted it. I didn't need to know how it worked.

I dislike SciFi today. Why? Because they spend forever describing how things work.

So even though I'm not traveling to Mars, I'd want things described that affect the astronauts. The movie "The Martian" is a good example. They didn't go into how much gravity Mars has or the temperatures at different times of the day or how deep the sand was. Only the stuff pertinent to the story.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I dislike SciFi today. Why? Because they spend forever describing how things work.

So even though I'm not traveling to Mars, I'd want things described that affect the astronauts. The movie "The Martian" is a good example. They didn't go into how much gravity Mars has or the temperatures at different times of the day or how deep the sand was. Only the stuff pertinent to the story.

That's an interesting contrast, since the story itself was heavily dependent on knowing the details of the science--even if they weren't expounded on. It focused heavily on the descriptions, but not the explanations.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

-even if they weren't expounded on.


That's the point. They explained what they needed to.

Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

So even though I'm not traveling to Mars, I'd want things described that affect the astronauts. The movie "The Martian" is a good example. They didn't go into how much gravity Mars has or the temperatures at different times of the day or how deep the sand was.


I find it very odd that you think gravity, temperature or ground surface conditions/composition would not have significant effects on the astronauts.

These things are described, they are just described in images rather than words.

philhebe

I thank one and all for their input. You have provided many ideas that I can now incorporate into my story.

Describe, but only as much as necessary to set the stage of the scene.

I like the suggestion of using subplots. It is something I usually have no need for in a short story.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@philhebe

I like the suggestion of using subplots. It is something I usually have no need for in a short story.

That's the difference between short stories and books/novels. Short stories are short, and allow you the room to play around with presentation rather than presenting a large amount of plot. In longer stories, you're mostly concerned with the story, so there tends to be more telling than you have in short stories (as you explain the background, the people and the relationships between them). Showing is still important, but you're forced to ration it out, rather than run with it all the time. That's where much of the descriptions come from.

Perv Otaku

A.k.a. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SceneryPorn

I do it occasionally for an outfit or costume where I have a very specific idea that I want to convey. A thousand words for want of a picture, you might say. Otherwise, nah, I don't bother with overdetailing things.

Crumbly Writer

I understand the reasons for not describing characters (i.e. readers prefer their own character descriptions), but I still prefer using my own. If you don't repeat it, they'll still overlay it with their own, but it gives them something to hang their understanding of the character on.

I typically use about a paragraph on such descriptions. Roughly one sentence for their look, and for their dress and another for their attitude (though I sometimes combine them, depending on circumstances). In those three lines, I create an image of how the character portrays themselves to the world.

My use of scenery porn depends on what I'm trying to convey. If I'm trying to put readers into a physical world, yes, I'll name streets. If I'm trying to set up something (like how the weather paints a picture of what's coming), I'll spend more time on it, or I'll spend time describing a building if it indicates the type of people living there (so you can expect who they'll meet inside). It all depends on your ultimate objective.

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