Sunday, September 23, 2012

Blowing the Dust Off Description

By Janice Lane Palko

Words are but the signs of ideas—Samuel Johnson

Several years ago while my daughter was still in high school, she was sitting at the kitchen table reading when she suddenly slammed a book closed and screamed, “I hate this book.  Five pages describing dust!”  She had been reading The Grapes of Wrath, and evidently, Steinbeck had gone into too much description of the Dust Bowl for her liking.

I recently published my first romantic comedy, St.Anne’s Day, and one of the recurring compliments I’m receiving is how descriptive it is.  “The writing was so visual, I felt like I could see it,” says one of the book’s reviews on Amazon.  Another says, “It is very well written, very descriptive.”  Apparently, I’d hit the sweet spot of just the right amount of description to satisfy these reviewers.

Here is a bit of description from the novel.  It is the scene from the middle of the book when Anne and Gerry, who are still just flirting with each other, go to the Emergency Room.  Anne, who is a nurse and is taking care of Gerry’s mother, is the only one available to take him to the hospital when he cuts his hand on the way out the door to a black-tie event with his latest girlfriend.

They arrived at the Emergency Room near six o’clock.  Anne signed Gerry in with the receptionist who directed them to a cubicle, where they found an attractive black woman sitting behind the counter at a computer.  Her hair was a fountain of black, glossy loops, a style so elaborate, it reminded Anne of the coiffures found on characters in Dr. Seuss books.  Her nameplate said Letitia Pinkney, and she was sucking on a lollipop.  Removing the sucker with a great smack, she put it in an ashtray.  “Gave up cigs,” she explained.  “Blood pressure was sky-high.  Trying to fool myself by substituting these.” 
“Is it working?” Anne asked as she took a chair across the counter from her. 
“Nope.  It’s like taking Chris Rock to bed and telling yourself it’s Denzel Washington.”   
She looked at Gerry who had also sat down.  “So what’d you do, Handsome, slash your wrist to keep from getting hitched to this pretty lady?  She eyed Anne. “Don’t even tell me you’re walking down the aisle in that sorry get up.” 
“No, a glass broke in my hand,” Gerry said. 
Anne looked down at her scrubs, laughing.  “We’re not getting married.”  She fumbled for some words that explained their relationship then finally said, “We’re just friends.” 
“Friends?” the clerk mumbled, her eyes on the computer, her thumbs tapping the space bar. "Second biggest lie next to the check’s in the mail.” 

Notice that I didn’t describe the Emergency Room in great detail, or whether Letitia’s computer was a Mac or Dell.  I didn’t describe the wallpaper, the chair’s upholstery, or the color of the carpeting.  It was unnecessary.  Unfortunately, most of us have been to the Emergency Room at some point, so I let you superimpose your memory of the Emergency Room onto my passage.  When I write description, I try to create an impression, sketch out a scene, and then allow my readers the pleasure of filling in the details in their own minds.  I think the key to finding the balance between too much and too little description lies in writing enough to put the reader into the scene but then holding back so that the reader can then work out the rest of the details in their own minds.

While I will not attempt to criticize a master writer like Steinbeck for his lengthy description, I will say that he could have painted the picture of what the Dust Bowl looked like in my daughter’s mind more vividly if he had only written that it resembled her messy room and what was lying under her bed.

How about you?  How much description do you like in a book?  Have you ever skipped over a passage of description?  Have you ever slammed a book shut because there was too much description?  Which writer do you consider to be a master of description?

St. Anne’s Day is available at Amazon, the Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble Nook Store and Smashwords.

Follow Janice at

Janice grew up in Pittsburgh and is the author of the romantic comedy St. Anne’s Day.  A writer for more than 15 years, she is currently the executive editor of Northern Connection and Pittsburgh 55+ magazines, where she also pens a column and contributes regularly to the magazines’ content.
One of the inspirations for St. Anne’s Day was the St. Anne prayer that her social studies teacher, Sr. Jane Frances, taught to her high school class so that all the girls would find prom dates.  And they did!

She is working on her second book, a Christmas novel entitled, A Shepherd’s Song, which will be released in late fall.

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