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Each and every time I read my stories to people, only one comment is usually made, albeit in different ways... I'm just not sure if they're being honest, or if I am actually doing something right.

"Very descriptive!"

"I could picture it in my mind!"

"You have a knack at describing things so that I can picture them."

And so forth.

I'm not sure if this is just something that people say when they compliment someone's writing, something default, or 'nice'. Perhaps I am being a bit critical, and over-analyzing people's input.

I tend to stay away from fancy words, and describe sequences, whether action, dialogue, or setting, with concrete terms. I want to use words that are almost palpable, instead of trying to play fiddle to the slow-thinking response, rather than quick-thinking...

Slow thinking (more abstract): John walked ambiguously into where he wanted to go. He felt ambivalent as he looked at Diane with disdain.

Quick thinking (more concrete): The elephant squirted cherry Kool-Ade through it's trunk, and into the cabin of John's house-sized, purple monster-truck.

This is kind of a dumb example, but am I doing something right?

Or, are these people just being nice?

Also, when should I be descriptive? Is there such a thing as too much description? Somebody did tell me that the style of one of my stories changed from being very descriptive with setting, to being very intimate with dialogue. I'm not fully sure of what he meant, or if it's a bad thing.

If I want to stay in one style; descriptive, or intimate, which one should should I focus on?

Thank you,

Jared.

  • You're apparently in a position where you're getting real input from people. Great! You're not understanding it. Not so great. So: Ask them! – Weckar E. Aug 9 '17 at 12:56
  • I think it comes down to confidence as well. It's something I'm working on. – Jared Eli Walsh Aug 9 '17 at 16:19
  • show us a 1 page sample? impossible to tell without a small writing sample... – ashleylee Mar 18 at 21:53
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First of all, try not to focus on whether people are doing something just to be nice, or to avoid hurting your feelings. If it's a real and genuine compliment, then you're potentially dismissing it. If it's just a nicety, do you gain anything by knowing that? It should be a positive thing that someone is being nice or trying to avoid hurting your feelings.

If you want (or need) frank and honest feedback, then ask for it. You may not get it, but you're certainly more likely to than if you don't. You can help them to frame their response to, for example "Imagine I'm an author and you're my literary agent. Given that your success depends on mine, what would you change?" or even "what did you like least about it?"

As for the questions around descriptive writing, it's largely subjective. I know people who can't get into the Lord of the Rings because they feel Tolkien put too many words into The Shire, Bilbo's Party and general "hobbiting" before the fellowship even gets underway. Likewise, I have childrens' book authored by Bryce Courtenay, who is a fantastic writer - but in this particular book he gets bogged down in flowery metaphors that don't really add anything for the intended audience.

There's certainly nothing wrong with describing things in unambiguous terms. I prefer that style of writing for action scenes. It tends to keep the pace up, and if you have a lot of moving parts, it gives the reader more clarity. But I'd suggest that prior to getting into the action, unless it's a dramatic opening scene, you should try to give your reader a good sense of the actors and scenery before the action takes place. For example:

Bob charged, sending his assailant crashing through the flimsy market stall and onto the concrete floor.

That's quick and unambiguous. But well before Bob is attacked:

Bob had never seen anything quite like the city's night markets. A steady throng of people moved like the currents in a river; those in the middle could do nothing but float downstream, while off to the side little eddies would form as people broke off to barter with the hundreds of merchants and their eclectic wares. More often than not, the stalls were just as animated as the flow of people, with cages of sticks and twine holding all manner of livestock, from chickens that flapped a squawked to exotic, unclassifiable magical beasts.

I'd say that yes, it's possible to be overly descriptive, but that largely comes down to your intended audience and what they're likely to be interested in. If you're writing erotic fiction from a male POV, you'll probably spend significantly more time describing the physical attributes of the supporting characters than you will describing the lead. If you're writing a horror story where the main character is locked in a cell for the duration of the narrative, you'll spend more time describing their state of mind than their surroundings.

But you have to decide what's appropriate for your story. In the horror story example you might have a scene where your lead scours every inch of the cell looking for some way out, so you might have cause to go into great detail of something pretty mundane.

I don't know that anything I've written is actually helpful, but my sense would be that you're getting genuine positive feedback. Literature is broadly subjective, so I'd focus less on trying to establish a set of rules (beyond the incontrovertible stuff like grammar, etc) and find ways to get detailed, constructive feedback on work you have done.

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If people are telling you that your writing is very descriptive, I would take them at their word. I have been in many critique groups with many very nice people and they do not say that about every piece they read.

A good story is a composite of many elements. There is no one recipe for a story any more than there is one recipe for food. Every story is different and every story is a particular combination of different ingredients. Just like a chef may have a signature taste and a favorite set of ingredients that they use frequently, a writer may favor certain ingredients in their stories, but they still need multiple ingredients and they need to combine them in just the right proportions to produce a satisfying story each time.

If you have a gift for description, chances are that will be one of the signature flavors of your writing. You will still need to combine it effectively with other ingredients, but each story will be different. In any one story you may put too much or too little description, but you can't generalize this. You just have to focus on how best to use the ingredients you excel at to create overall satisfying stories.

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There are several adequate answers already provided. However, you are presupposing that their is a way of writing that pleases every reader.

There is not.

I, generally speaking, do not appreciate descriptions. In the modern era, triggers are far more effective. If you write "The rolling green hills beyond the valley . . ." my brain will retrieve a pre-stored image of rolling green hills from experience or TV. Whatever descriptions you write beyond I will ignore, and switch reading mode from 'reading' to 'scanning'. But that's just my preference. I am not your target reader.

In basic discussion there is also the misguided notion that a novel should be written in a consistent style.

It doesn't have to be.

Descriptive passages slow pacing. Should a novel be like the monotonous banging of house music, or do you prefer the slow-slow-quick-quick-slow of a foxtrot?

All the disciplines of writing band together to create the unwritten effects of story-telling, and expansion of 'show don't tell'.

If, for example, we are in third-person. In describing a woman who has entered a scene, the POV character's thoughts become particularly wordy, purple, and descriptive - what are we to make of this? Does this provide a similar effect to string section firing up in a movie. And in a later scene we explore the child's thoughts pertaining to the same woman, what language, what style should the narrative adopt in the description?

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Reading between the lines of these comments, I'd say description is NOT what you should be worried about. If everyone likes your descriptions, that's a good thing. However, it may be a subtle hint that the rest of your writing isn't up to the same standard. And the comment about your "switch" in styles may mean that you aren't integrating your descriptions with your dialogue, but just presenting a big block of first one, then the other.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Descriptions are not a natural strength of mine, so I've worked a lot to improve them. Your weakness might be plot or dialogue. It also sounds like you need to do more at weaving description, action and dialogue together. The trick is to capitalize on your strengths and to remedy your weaknesses.

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