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Footnotes 2017-2018 > Sunday Conversation Topic - 6/17

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message 1: by Jason (new)

Jason Oliver | 2105 comments Descriptions, especially physical descriptions of people. Do you like the author to describe every inch of the person, or just the major details and let you create the rest in your mind? What what point is too much description and at what point is too little? How do you feel when you have created an image of a character and then later a feature is commented on that does not fit with your idea? How do you feel about most main characters being attractive and athletic people? Do you like when the main character is ugly? Should level of beauty and aesthetics be brought into the character descriptions?

Descriptions of places and buildings. How much of the area do you want to see and how detailed do you want to see it? Do you enjoy books that focus on architecture or landscape. When is it too much and when is it too little description?

Which authors are the best as description or your favorite descriptions of a person, place or thing. What is the worst example of description?


message 2: by Karin (last edited Jun 17, 2018 12:20PM) (new)

Karin | 7473 comments It depends on the book, honestly. There are times when looks are important to the plot (think Pride and Prejudice) and when it's not. There are times when I want very little description, and times when it just is perfect to have more in, particularly if it's done as part of the story and not just a plain description.

Two examples of books with excellent description where it is important to have more than just a tad and a great part of the book are (one is a 4 star book for me, the other 5) are Enemy Women and Snow Falling on Cedars.


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments I think Dickens had a great knack of fitting personalities to indelible physical renditions. On a larger scale some authors spend a whole book on all the dimensions of a person so that they come through to you as real as a family member. Think of the vivid characters in True Grit, Dalva, Terms of Endearment, Madam Bovary, etc.

For my favorite books that evoke place in many dimensions I contributed about 20 to the Listopia list "Biography of Place". It's an art to make the perceptusl environment of a character almost achieve the level of character itself. Think Kent Haruf, Marylynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Willa Cather, etc. And place can come alive as an imaginary one equally well, reminding me of Lord of the Rings, Charlotte's Web, Watership Down, Neuromancer, Invisible Cities.

I guess in answer to the fascinating questions I would say I love whatever a great writer serves up when they are on their game.


message 4: by Amy (new)

Amy | 9372 comments I feel similarly to Michael. Sometimes a great writer had just enough description to make you feel like you really capture something, but leaves enough to your imagination. There are times I feel like something has been over described. I rarely feel the reverse. But I do notice when descriptions are lush. When example that comes to mind is The Signature of all Things. For some reason I feel like that captured something essential for me. I also just mentioned another thread, the book Beautiful Ruins to describe Italy. That captured something for me too.


message 5: by Kszr (new)

Kszr | 172 comments The difference between a description that is meaningful and a description that fills space is large. For instance, there are many books in publication that need an editor to cut more vicously than they are (The Lost Sisterhood), which seems to be a more modern issue. For the older books, mostly written in a previous
generation that had no television, radio, tivo, netflicks etc to reduce their attention span.
Henry James is very difficult for current readers to enjoy. I know I myself hated to hear so much about the descriptions of the houses and where the curtains were on the window when I was reading Portrait of a Lady. Because we are no such a visual world, it is hard to plow through this. When it was written, however, it made more sense that these descriptions were not only about the house, but the person that occupies it as well.
The art of this is lost to our generation of immediate understanding/access/information children.


message 6: by Cynda (last edited Jun 17, 2018 06:23PM) (new)

Cynda  (cynda) Right our slice-of-life writing has eliminated so much. On Quora, I have a follower who wants to reactiviate the 19th descriptive way of writing. I used Poe's story The Masque of the Red Death. Today a writer might say something to the point. The latest wave of the Plague desvasted the City. To avoid personal contagation and to have a grand time, Prince Prospero invited a thousand people to his abbey out in the countryside to wait out the latest wave of disease. Did the Prince think that Death could not find him at the prince's country house?

Modern writer might have to say that Prince Prospero invited his friends to country house. Otherwise 21st-century readers might needed it to be made clear to them that a castellated abbey with strong and lofty walls with iron gates might need to be explained. Popular readers may not understand the abbey previous to the Reformation was both a place of prayer, contemplation, libraries, livelihood & a place of protection from marauders. In the 19th-century many of these old abbeys were now privatized houses. So much to explain.

And without the common knowledge, the story becomes less accessible to the popular reader. We may once again have a common understanding history, but tit will not likely be anytime soon.


message 7: by Cynda (last edited Jun 17, 2018 06:54PM) (new)

Cynda  (cynda) Double Dipping.
Loving The Marriage of Opposites for its descriptions. I love the descriptions because I recognize the willful protagonist as a self-run-wild, a self that makes for misery. So I read and wait to see what happens.


Tessa (FutureAuthor23) | 229 comments Kszr wrote: "Henry James is very difficult for current readers to enjoy. I know I myself hated to hear so much about the descriptions of the houses and where the curtains were on the window when I was reading Portrait of a Lady ..."

Ha! Don't get me started about Portrait of a Lady and Henry James! I completely agree.


message 9: by Amy (new)

Amy | 9372 comments I actually thought about mentioning the Marriage of Opposites for its descriptions. But I am an Alice Hoffman broken record, so I thought to go in an alternate direction. But since you said it, don't think I didn't think it..... Outright crying by Chapter Two....


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

Amy wrote: "I actually thought about mentioning the Marriage of Opposites for its descriptions. But I am an Alice Hoffman broken record, so I thought to go in an alternate direction. But since you said it, don..."

Amy you made me laugh. While I've only read one Alice Hoffman book so far her descriptions are vivid and enticing. I felt her descriptions were just enough to leave you longing to find that place.


message 11: by Amy (new)

Amy | 9372 comments Faithful was excellent too... just saying... broken record crones on - lol.


message 12: by Meli (new)

Meli (melihooker) | 3682 comments I'm with most everyone here - good when it's done right.
The physical description isn't as much important, if not important to the story, but I like to be in a character's head.

Like Michael said, I guess in answer to the fascinating questions I would say I love whatever a great writer serves up when they are on their game.

Two examples of character descriptions that were really successful for me were the characters in Stephen King's IT. In particular the side bar about Patricia (Stanley's wife) early in the book. I remember being able to really feel her embarrassment and shame in the scene from her past. It was really important to her current self, even though she is such a small bit part.

The other is Lauren Beukes' Broken MonstersBroken Monsters. I felt really connected to those characters or could really understand their motivation / feeling. Love that book!

Descriptions of places can be more difficult for me. Must be the way I digest information but too much detail can confuse me. I think I am lazy and try to quickly construct the scene and I don't like spending much time on it. It's the character's psychology and pathos that interests me (usually). I am OK with just a setup of atmosphere.


message 13: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl  (cherylllr) I love it when a setting is a character... when getting to know the village of New Auburn, WI, helps a reader to empathize better with Michael Perry, or when the spaceship is built without hallways in the planetside sense, but instead with passageways to accommodate navigation in freefall.

I can't stand it when someone writes of a place that I've been, and they haven't, as their research is invariably insufficient.

I would prefer only a very little physical description, if any, of people. It's far too easy to generate stereotypes. For example, cocky, impulsive, aggressive man is all too likely to be described as small. And then there's Heris Serrano (The Serrano Legacy, #1-3) by Elizabeth Moon - briefly but clearly described in the text as having skin "even darker than" someone else's, and having hair that curls too tightly to grow out. Damn publishers for that ridiculous cover.


message 14: by Jason (new)

Jason Oliver | 2105 comments Cheryl wrote: "I would prefer only a very little physical description, if any, of people. It's far too easy to generate stereotypes..."

I agree with this so much. I also get tired of most descriptions focusing on the aesthetics of the characters or lack there of. I find this a bit shallow and lazy. Unless the description is imperative to the story, I like minor details and allowing the reader to create their own image of the character. By mentioning that a girl is popular, most people have an idea of what makes a popular girl. There is no need to comment on the color of the hair and how beautiful she is. We get it. Though each readers visual representation of the character might be slightly different, we still get a beautiful popular girl. Add minor descriptions can add to the mental image to add to or break the stereotypes most readers would jump to when reading about a popular girl.


message 15: by Jason (new)

Jason Oliver | 2105 comments I like when writers experiment with different things such as Ken Follet goal in writing The Pillars of the Earth trilogy was to focus on architectural descriptions. This made a different and interesting read. Overall though, I like partial descriptions that conveys the idea and mood and allows me to build the scene or character myself. This might also be a reason I have trouble with books turned into movies because the movie rarely fits my mental representation.


message 16: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl  (cherylllr) Ooh, for descriptions of a place that really add to the story... I just read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest and oh boy were there some passages in there that could have been cut, by a bad editor, for the sake of focus on plot, but absolutely were necessary for theme, character development, etc.


message 17: by Karin (new)

Karin | 7473 comments Jason wrote: "I like when writers experiment with different things such as Ken Follet goal in writing The Pillars of the Earth trilogy was to focus on architectural descriptions. This made a differen..."

Yes, the architectural descriptions were integral to that book. He doesn't always do that type of description, either. I've read quite a number of his books (don't like all of them), and he didn't do that in The Third Twin as I recall, but buildings really aren't important to that story.


message 18: by Jason (new)

Jason Oliver | 2105 comments Karin wrote: "Jason wrote: "I like when writers experiment with different things such as Ken Follet goal in writing The Pillars of the Earth trilogy was to focus on architectural descriptions. This m..."

You are right Follet does not normally put that much description especially on buildings. He wanted to experiment and broaden his writing according to an interview I read.


message 19: by Karin (last edited Jun 19, 2018 03:29PM) (new)

Karin | 7473 comments Jason wrote: "Karin wrote: "You are right Follet does not normally put that much description especially on buildings. He wanted to experiment and broaden his writing according to an interview I read. ..."

That makes sense. I did not like the sequel to this nor the third book in his trilogy of long books that starts with Winter of the World. I think he's better with stand-alone books. Also, I get tired of certain repetitive things he always has, plus the third book was very predictable and you could see where he was going to go with the second one in the trilogy. I am taking a long break from reading his books.

I have read at least 13 of his books over various years, in part because my dad used to like his novels back before Pillars so I read some of those because they were at home already. The irony is he's not even in my top 10 favourite authors.


message 20: by Jason (new)

Jason Oliver | 2105 comments Karin wrote: "Jason wrote: "Karin wrote: "You are right Follet does not normally put that much description especially on buildings. He wanted to experiment and broaden his writing according to an interview I rea..."

Winter of the Worlds was the second book in the century trilogy. Fall of Giants was the first.

I have only read six of his. The Pillars of the Earth trilogy and the century trilogy.

I loved the first Pillars of the Earth, thought the second was okay and the third one, just published, was enjoyable but didn't feel part of the Pillars Trilogy.

I loved the first two century trilogy books but I not the third.

I agree he repeats themes and even scenarios in his book. Many of his characters are reused but he is some of the most accurate historical fiction I've ever read. He also has "mistakes" on his website on facts he got wrong or things he added that didn't exist yet.


message 21: by Karin (last edited Jun 22, 2018 07:06PM) (new)

Karin | 7473 comments Jason wrote: "Karin wrote: "Jason wrote: "Karin wrote: "You are right Follet does not normally put that much description especially on buildings. He wanted to experiment and broaden his writing according to an i..."

Wow, a third in the Pillars? Not going to read it--I got so sick and tired of certain things in the second book I quit and just read the end. Same with me in the century trilogy. Yes, excellent historical research.
I really liked The Third Twin because it handles an important topic although it is not historical fiction. It's more of a thriller and semi-scifi (not futuristic, but there is science involved).


message 22: by Elise (new)

Elise (ellinou) I read The Third Twin a long time ago but I remember enjoying it a lot!

To respond to the original topic, I remember Stephen King saying something about descriptions (physical descriptions of characters mostly, I think) in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Basically, don't describe just to describe? Like, if the colour of your character's eyes don't directly affect the plot, nobody cares, so don't waste a paragraph describing them.

The author that I feel overdescribes way too much is George R.R. Martin, especially in the GoT books. He stops in the middle of action scenes to describe what the characters are wearing... By the second book I'd taken to skipping descriptions altogether. As soon as I saw a description starting, I skipped to the next paragraph. I don't believe I missed anything, and that book was read much faster than the first...


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