I have to confess to the world the hardest part of writing to me… exposition. Description of places, buildings, areas, anything that doesn’t deal directly with the plot of characters. I just don’t like doing it. Why? I have no idea. I understand that it has to be there. I’ve read tons of books and sat in on lots of lectures at conferences about it. It just doesn’t come easy for me.
I don’t even like to read a lot of description. I remember the first time I actually recognized my ‘non-love’ of exposition. I was already several years in to being a beginning writer and my inner editor was occasionally appearing when I would read other author’s books. I was reading a Sue Grafton book, one of her alphabet series murder mysteries. Kinsey was travelling through the desert in her VW. For two pages or more, Grafton described the desert. I was so bored and wondered why she had spent so much time on this description. I skimmed the pages and later wondered why. So I reread it. To me, it was over kill. Tell me she is in the desert. Give me a short description of it if necessary or if anything is needed for the plot or will make a statement on the character. Tell me it’s hot. I know what the desert is… and move on.
I realize that in some genres, the setting is a character itself. Like paranormal. Using description sets the stage and gets the reader in the spooky mood. Horror and science fiction are the same way. I get it. But in other genre’s, like murder mysteries, some of the descriptions of places are not as necessary to draw out, for instance an interrogation room in a police station. Everyone knows what they look like from watching TV. And yes, usually TV doesn’t get it right. (That’s true for a lot of things in Law and Order type shows… and the cops are happy about it too. Makes the criminals make stupid mistakes!) Anyway, a few sentences is all it takes to describe the room. Boom. Done. Move on.
Is description necessary? Absolutely! Of course it is necessary. Stories would be really stupid without it. But too much is … well, just too much. Here is how I write it. (And again, remember this is not my favorite thing to write.)
My first draft contains very little description. Maybe a line that says … they walked into an interrogation room. I move on. The second draft I will add a little more but I am still concentrating on plot, character development, red herrings (murder mysteries, remember), etc. On the third or later drafts I actually begin thinking of how my description needs to fit into the story. This is where I do the work of fleshing out the description. After that I usually hear from my editor that I need to add more. So I do so then. Finally it’s done.
Now this is how it goes for me. You may be the complete opposite. I have a writer friend that writes excellent exposition. I mean awesome description. She writers paranormal and we usually have to pare her stuff down a little bit (not much but some). The bottom line here is you need to find the best way to write for you. Each and every writer writes differently. Just remember to not use so much description that it pulls the reader away from the story. It’s a balancing act and that is what makes writing an art!
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Author of the Mel Addison Mystery Series
Acquiring Editor, Seventh Wave Books, LLC