The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

How Readers are Cheated Out of their Imaginations

How Readers are Cheated Out of their Imaginations

By Larry Kahaner

I read a lot of indie books. Let me rephrase that. I read the first few pages of a lot of indie books. Most are terrible, and it’s often clear from the get-go when they’re not going to get any better.

book imagination

Artist: Igor Morski 

I’ve railed about the lack of excellent indie authors (and also praised some glorious finds) so I won’t do it again here, but I do want to explain one of the most flagrant early giveaways that a book is gonna stink.

It is over-description, and lately I’m seeing a ton of it not only in indie authors but some traditionally-published writers as well.

Why do some authors insist on depicting the minute details of a house, a mountain a person? It’s annoying, exhausting and pegs them as amateurs.

There are a few reasons why they do this, I think. First, they believe that it’s easier to spend time getting down to the atomic level rather than thinking about where the story goes next. And they’re right – in a way. It is easier to keep describing something in detail instead of moving the story forward. This takes guts, creativity and hard work.

Second, they believe that readers want this. Some do, but most readers want movement more than anything. They want the story to progress. They don’t want to read a page describing a twig – I just read an entire opening page describing a small branch. Brutal. – or the weather.

Third, they believe that a long description sets the tone for the book. True, but you get more ambience if the description is short, full of emotion, energy and integral to the story instead of borne from the author’s indulgence.

In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King explains why he doesn’t overly describe characters.

 

“I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue). I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like – I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us. Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

 

Those who are familiar with my blog know that I’m a fan of noir and detective novels. These past writers and their current day successors know how to cram a ton of description into a few words. Following are some recent favorites of mine. Note how these writers don’t nibble at the edges, but get right to point. Some might say the writing is over the top, too melodramatic, but I say ‘bulls-eye.’

 

James Sallis in Drive describes a pickup truck.

“Jodie’s former ride was a Ford F-150, graceless as a wheelbarrow, dependable as rust and taxes, indestructible as a tank. Brakes that could stop an avalanche cold, engine powerful enough to tow glaciers into place. Bombs fall and wipe out civilization as we know it, two things’ll come up out of the ashes: roaches and F-150s. Thing handled like an ox cart, rattled fillings from teeth and left you permanently saddle sore, but it was a survivor. Got the job done, whatever the job was.”

Nic Pizzolatto is not only an author but a screenwriter. He created the HBO show True Detective. Here, in Galveston: A Novel, he depicts a woman that he meets.

“A woman emerged out the room behind the counter, her flesh so grooved and dehydrated it might have been cured in a smokehouse. It was sun-baked the color of golden oak and draped across jagged bones. Squirrel gray hair. Her eyeglasses had a square of duct tape holding them together at the center, and she pushed them up on her nose.

I recommend Dodgers: A Novel by Bill Beverly whose style is refreshing, unique, and at times deceptively simple.

“The town smelled like corn cooked too long.”

 

In Mike Dime by Barry Fantoni, the 1940’s  noir oozes off the page.

“The center of the room was filled by a four-seated, seal gray velvet sofa that Norma Summers had re-covered in gin stains. She planted herself with some difficulty on the arm of the sofa and tried to get me in focus. The flap of her housecoat fell open as she attempted to cross her legs. It let more thigh through than it should have, but her thighs were never going to bother me, and she was beyond bothering about anything but the next drink.”

 

And the last one. Notice how the description in Beggars of Life by Jim Tully seems common, almost bland, until the last line.

Bill had blond hair, and a sharp face. He had blue eyes, a straight nose, and a square chin. He was a heavy-set youth, and his shoulders were broad and powerful. He had no morals at all, and was as irresponsible as the wind.”

I harp constantly about authors not respecting their readers. One way writers dis them is with over-description. They’re saying: “I don’t trust you to have an imagination so I have to tell you everything.”

That’s not cool.

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller “USA, Inc.” now available in eBook and paperback. All my books have a money-back guarantee.

 

 

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20 thoughts on “How Readers are Cheated Out of their Imaginations

  1. Good point. I often glance over long descriptions as they can be quite boring.

  2. Thanks, Christy. What was is that Elmore Leonard used to say when asked how he writes so compellingly? “I leave out the boring parts.”

  3. Good advice and better, good examples. Thanks. Btw I enjoyed USA, Inc. 🙂

    • Glad you liked the blog. As you can tell from USA, Inc., I practice what I preach. Thanks for reading it. If you would be so kind as to leave a comment/review about the book on Amazon, I would appreciate it.

  4. Thanks for this. I, too, believe in minimalism. It’s nice to hear it from someone else.

  5. In fact, this is the reason I inevitably say, “The book was better than the movie.” Nothing can compete with the great pictures of the characters, setting etc. that I hold in my mind’s eye. One of the worst insulters – if that’s a word – to our imaginations is Disney. I already knew what Pooh, Cinderella, Bambi, Alice, etc. looked like! What the hell are those cutesie abominations! Pah! I spit on your cartoons! I – oh, heh, sorry, got carried away there.

  6. Hm. I hardly think this is a new phenomenon. I’ve read fiction dating back to the 50’s and 60’s that were ponderous and over-wrought with description, yet were bestsellers in their catalog. Tolkien is especially egregious – yet his work is the flagship of fantasy today. Some people love that kind of description and it still sells well, even now. It’s either your cup of tea, or it isn’t. I could rail all day about how boring and over-used vampires are these days, but it doesn’t stop the books that use them from selling in the millions. Just depends on your taste buds.

  7. There’s a case to be made for too much exposition here. I just got off a Brandon Sanderson novel (and that guy is incredibly descriptive of every single thing) onto an indie. It doesn’t flow. There’s not enough telling, too much showing – it’s a lot like reading a Wikipedia article.

  8. Daniel Martone on said:

    “I was just off Southwest Pass, between Pecan and Marsh Islands, with the green, whitecapping water of the Gulf Stream to the south and the long, flat expanse of the Louisiana coastline behind me– which is really not a coastline at all but instead a huge wetlands area of sawgrass, dead cypress strung with wisps of moss, and a maze of canals and bayous that are choked with Japanese water lilies whose purple flowers audibly pop in the morning and whose root systems can wind around your propeller shaft like cable wire.” —- thus opens “Heaven’s Prisoners”, one of James Lee Burke’s (2-time Edgar Award Winner) novels in his Dave Robicheaux series.

  9. Great article. I didn’t invent this quote, but I love it –
    “Put the cat in the over and then describe the kitchen”
    The kitchen description could be full of tension while you wonder why there is a cat roasting in the oven.

  10. Reblogged this on Curious Hart and commented:
    George MacDonald wrote that “No teacher should strive to make others think as he thinks.” Mr. Kahaner makes a great case of why that also applies to writers.

  11. Pingback: I respect your imagination - Catherine Dove, Regency romance author

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