Thursday, March 4, 2010

Description, Relevance, and Genre

I had some very interesting comments on Monday on my post about description - in particular, people commenting about the descriptive requirements of different genres. J. Kathleen Cheney took that aspect of the topic and ran with it on her blog, here.

I was particularly intrigued by the following from her post:

... I did add this stipulation [to my rule of relevance]: There are instances where description is expected rather than required for the sake of the story, so a lot more gets put than is strictly necessary...

For example: If you're writing a GBHF (Great Big Honking Fantasy) you're probably going to describe everything, twice. At least. Down to what manner of stains mark the hems of the priests' robes in January. This seems to be expected in the GBHF. (Yes, I'm making a generalization, but that's what the internet is for, isn't it?) If you're writing Hard SF, you're going to have to describe all your gizmos and then explain how they work. (Also, if you can find any excuse to include the description of field-stripping a weapon, you must include that. It's a right of passage, I think.) If you're writing Romance, you must decribe the women's clothing. (Men's you can skip sometimes, as they always dress alike anyway.) You must also describe the upholstery and drapery in any room the female POV enters...

All right, I admit I'm sounding a bit sarcastic, but the truth is that there are some expectations tied to the target market of the story, which are probably based more on what the reader wants to know.

In fact, when I wrote my first post, I was thinking about my own writing rather than considering genre distinctions - but Ms. Cheney makes an excellent point! Genres like mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction and fantasy each come with reader expectations, which translate into editorial expectations, for certain types of description.

On the other hand, that need not be the last word on the subject (need there ever be a last word on anything?). I think Ms. Cheney and I would agree that, while it's true that genre readers expect certain kinds of description, it's still a good idea to try to maximize the relevance of any description. Yes, describe if it seems appropriate, but don't cut corners and figure that all readers will be interested in extensive description without a lot of relevance support.

Try to push for more relevance support regardless of what you're describing, in whatever genre. Yes, there are expectations - but you'll hear people talking about how in really great writing, every sentence is doing more than one thing at a time. Not only is it worldbuilding, not only is it character building, it's also pushing the main conflict forward - oh and by the way, it's also serving the theme, etc.

Each of those things is a form of relevance support, and it just goes to show that in the end, it's worth pushing hard to create as much relevance as possible for descriptions.


  1. The next time I critique something with too much description, I going to say "You need more relevance support for this."

  2. I agree genre does add a modifier. But I'd also very much agree with Juliette's comments that,

    "it's still a good idea to try to maximize the relevance of any description."

    The point being the description needs to CONNECT to something; detached description of camera-like objectivity is largely tedious except in cases such as the narrator/VP character dissociated with shock or trauma... beyond emotional reaction for a moment.


    "in really great writing, every sentence is doing more than one thing at a time."

    This last is especially true. Way to go!

    Incidentally, J. Kathleen Cheney has a great novella titled 'Snow Comes to Hawk's Folly' in my upcoming anthology, 'Panverse Two'.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Dario. That's cool about her story; I'll have to read it when it comes out.

  4. This is one mark the passing of the Modern Ages, which were ages of representation in the arts. You can see it in painting, sculpture, writing. The goal of the Renaissance, Age of Reason, Victorian Age and all was to represent the world "als es wirklich war" (as it truly was). The words are Ranke's and refer to historiography, but look at Dürer's watercolor of a Young Hare, in which every hair [pun intended] is drawn in.

    Likewise, the novel was called "novel" because it tried to do in writing what Dürer and others were doing in painting. Hence, the appeal to all five senses, the dipping into different points of view, the vivid descriptions of the landscape and humanscape, the multitude of characters each motivated by his or her reasons. People were supposed to read a "novel" and say, "Yes, that is true to life." I've been there; I've known people like that.

    It was part and parcel of the Scientific Age, in which all truth was objective and experienced from without. The Renaissance, or Enlightened, or Victorian reader did not try to "identify" with any of the characters, but rather "observed" them objectively.

    The Post-Modern Ages, which began about a hundred years ago, or even earlier in the arts, began to replace objectivity and description with subjectivity and impression. So, impressionism, and the mis-named "modern" art. Nude Descending a Staircase is not a painting of a nude or a stairecase, which would be objective; but it is a painting of "descent."

    As visual arts became sketchier and impressionistic, the written arts became interior and minimalist. It is rare to see the universal, omniscient narrator any more; one expects to ride the "novel" inside one of the character's heads. Perhaps more than one; but if you populate your book like Tolstoy or Dickens, the post-modern reader will complain that his head hurts and he can't keep the characters straight.

    A reader of one of my own stories complained that I wasted too much time on character development. He only wanted to know "what happened." Content, not packaging. He had not learned his Aristotle: the matter and the form are inseparable. But he did reflect the post-modern movement toward minimalism.

    Now writing, by its nature will always be more logical than iconic. It uses words (logos) not images (ikon). But nowadays, we want to use as few words (and shorter) as we can. And we can dispense with the details. We can't describe every hair on the rabbit. So-called "graphic novels" eventually appeared.

    What we call "novels" today are simply "long stories."

  5. Mike,

    Thanks for these thoughts. Indeed, the development you're speaking of is interesting - I've also heard this inbound tendency (toward the individual and personally relative) related to a focus on individual will as opposed to the will of God. I'm sure you know more about it than I do. I may actually be able to incorporate some of your comments into a future blog post, so thank you in advance!