weapons of mass description

the kind of description you should be writing

This quote is from Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, and it illustrates one of the most important things to remember as a writer: DO NOT BORE YOUR READER.

People don’t like being bored. Newsflash! I know. I have literally never heard anyone say ‘I’m sooo bored right now, it’s amazing!’ or even ‘I can’t wait for the meeting on Thursday, I’m going to be so bored!’ 

When you write, people have a choice whether or not to read your output. It’s simple: if you bore them, you’re making that choice for them.

It’s true that there are great works of literature out there which do contain landscapes. The inclusion of descriptions of landscape does not automatically destine your work for the bin. I’m thinking particularly of the books of Lord of the Rings. Epic, sweeping, masterful, insert superlative adjective of your choice. And then one day I read a review of the films, and this review made the point that the books are full of boring bits, which the films cleverly managed to leave out. At first, I was shocked. Heresy! These are amazing books, how can you say they’re boring! Then I realised it was true.

Deft summary of hundreds of boring pages in 10 bullet points

I am still bowled over by Tolkien’s creation of an entire world, self-sufficient and complete unto itself, existing 100% outside any time and space we have ever experienced, yet totally plausible. (In the same vein as Gormenghast.) I love the Lord of the Rings books. But there are an awful lot of pages – hundreds, even, which could have been summarised thusly:

  • Where is Gandalf?
  • We are hungry.
  • We are walking.
  • This lambas bread is a bit crap but it’s all we’ve got.
  • Ooooh, Gollum, a baddie or a goodie? WHO KNOWS.
  • Walking some more.
  • Mordor is such a mission to get to.
  • Can’t you just text Gandalf? We could really do with some help here.
  • Loooooooong.

[Inspired by the excellence that is Molly J. Ringwraith.]

Write skippable prose, readers will skip it

I’m not saying long books are a bad thing – far from it – but I am saying that boring your readers is a bad thing. I wonder how many people got to the boring bits of LOTR and just gave up? Which would be a shame, because it’s really worth ploughing on to get to the better bits. But this review I mentioned earlier (that I can’t find, or I would link to it) also mentioned that if writers write skippable prose, they must not be insulted when their readers skip it. Real talk.

Here’s an example of a description, not of landscape, but of ’emotions, tensions, dejections, moods’:

‘Evening shadows make me blue,’ sang Connie Francis, ‘when each weary day is through. How I long to be with you, my happiness.’ The honey of her voice, the sweet sadness of the words and melody made his throat ache. Pictures riffled in his mind: rain streaming down windows; night roads unwinding in the headlamps’ beams; sunpoints dazzling on the sea; nakedness and firelight, glimpses, sounds and smells of youth and love and sorrow.

Angelica’s Grotto – Russell Hoban


Filed under how not to write

10 responses to “weapons of mass description

  1. electronicbaglady

    Thanks so much for this post 🙂
    LOTR is a great example but i also think sometimes it depends on my mood as reader as to whether I want to skip or read. I love LOTR and have read it a few times; each time I read it differently. Sometimes I want the action to move on, sometimes I pause to enjoy elvish poetry, sometimes I like to build the images in my head and treasure the long descriptions. But I have to say, JRR was not good at intros and had lost quite a few people as a result.

    • Hehe you’re welcome! That’s a good point – you can read it differently at different times. Or you could even learn Elvish and hang out with other people who can speak Elvish..

      The first Tolkien book I read was ‘The Hobbit’, which I think was the best way to start – if I’d started with LOTR I wouldn’t have made it all the way through..

      • electronicbaglady

        I didn’t manage the Hobbit until the third try because the opening section is sooo sloooow. My children found the same thing – I was begging them to keep going 🙂
        My grandmother would probably say something about “the best things come to those who wait”

        • Grandmothers are wise. I’ve tried to persevere with every book I’ve ever opened, because I hate being beaten by a book..

          The only two books that have ever defeated me are ‘The Cold Six Thousand’ by James Ellroy, and ‘Closing Time’ by Joseph Heller. I loved ‘Catch-22’ (even though it took me about five goes to get into it), so I had high hopes for ‘Closing Time’..those hopes were dashed 😦 it was just incredibly boring and repetitive and senseless. It’s still on my shelf though, in case I feel like giving it another chance one day..

          • electronicbaglady

            There have been some herculean struggles for sure – Foucault’s Pendulum nearly did for me. I did complete the Da Vinci Code but regret it, although I know alot of people did enjoy it. Horses for courses.

            • You regret it? Interesting – why? (I haven’t read it. I tried, but got as far as the second sentence before throwing the book across the room in disgust, and haven’t attempted it again since.)

              • electronicbaglady

                To be brutal – I regret wasting my time finishing it. I kept hoping it would get better, but my hopes were crushed ruthlessly, like a man drowning kittens. Really cute kittens.
                I bow to your superior powers in this matter.

  2. I just bought Foucault’s Pendulum!! It’s been on the list for so long… The time has come.

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