As a reader I have come across a problem that pulls me out of the story so irrevocably that I’ve put down the book and nudged it away with my toe. I’m sure you’ve encountered the same problem, but you may not have as much of a melodramatic reaction to it. I’m talking about lack of description. The lack of description that is so bad that you’re not quite sure whether you’re in Middle Earth or New York City.
I recently read a book that was supposedly set in an ancient Chinese culture. It’s funny though, the only indicators that it was set in China were the character’s names. Otherwise it could have been set in any old medieval world. There was no effort to show how this place that I was reading about was any different from the classic English fantasy world. Given that the Chinese culture and technology was vastly different to the English equivalent of the time, I expected a little bit more in terms of description to wrap me up in this world. Needless to say I got bored.
As a writer, you need to make sure that your reader is grounded in your world as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is through description, and consistent description as well. If your book is set in Ancient China, show me how it is different from everywhere else. If it’s set on Pluto, I expect some mention about the ridiculously cold temperature. Make me believe the characters are freezing their butts off. Unless, of course, they are evolved to handle that kind of temperature. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
Another failing in the use of description is changing haphazardly or unbelievably. I call this the ‘characters are standing inside talking and inexplicably it starts raining on them’ phenomenon. Or ‘first draft’ phenomenon. That’s perhaps a bit easier to remember. It’s fine to have these happen in the first draft, but if they make it into the published copy then I’m angry. I don’t like reading inconsistent description. If someone has left the room, then starts talking to the protagonist out of nowhere it gets confusing. If no trees exist in the world but the main character’s house is made of timber from the finest wood in the region, then there’s a problem. Remember what has come before, otherwise you’ll be creating inconsistent description and unnecessary plot holes.
But what about too much description? When does it become too much that the story is lost in the describing of the world? I must say, early on I was guilty of writing far too much description. It wasn’t until a reader pointed out that they really didn’t need to know how many petals were on the purple flower that tapered off to amber at the tips that I figured out that maybe laying off the description can be a good thing.
There are articles that suggest the only description that should be put in is that which relates directly to the story. I think it also depends on the genre. Description about the world isn’t as necessary if you are writing a romance set in present time, as readers can draw from their own knowledge. However, if you’re writing a sweeping fantasy completely set in an alternate world with magic systems and differing laws of physics, then description is necessary to embrace the reader into your world.
It must also be remembered that readers have different tastes. I absolutely love the A Song of Ice and Fire series and a lot of that has to do with the amount of description that is placed within the story. Other readers would quickly grow bored with seemingly endless descriptions and names of boats, armour and food. Fair enough, but if George R.R. Martin wrote about the comparison of soil composition between Westeros and Essos I would lap it up and beg for more. When articles tell you that too much description equals no readers, just look to George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan. Their success tells you otherwise.
Please don’t make me ask where I am when I’m reading. I get lost enough in the real world, I don’t need it to happen anywhere else.