I was debating whether or not to call this post THE CURSE OF LONG DESCRIPTIONS, but thought that was a bit drastic, though I can assure you that I'm thoroughly afflicted with said curse, and I certainly have seen the danger of using long descriptions in Siren Suicides, my 1st novel, particularly in Drafts 3 and 4 (I will be posting them for download later on my site, by the way, since people asked me, to see the difference). I got carried away in dishing about the weather and the clouds and the rain (did I mention, I live in Seattle?). Yeah. Anyway, like every beginning writer, I suffered from the fear of my reader not understanding what I'm talking about, painstakingly writing out everything in long poetic passages that my Beta Readers confessed to skipping. I hope I'm much wiser in Rosehead, the 2nd novel I'm writing right now. I hope. Nonetheless, I do know now the danger of long descriptions, and here it is for you in all its intricate glory.
Readers don't care for beautiful. Readers care for story. This was a very hard blow for me and a hard lesson to learn. As much as I tried to act all nonplussed on the outside, I totally squirmed in hurt inside upon my Beta Readers telling me that they could do without lengthy poetic descriptions of the rain. Oh, how could they! Oh, but it was so beautiful! Oh, but I worked so hard at it! Yeah, it took me a while, but then I cut a lot of them, ruthlessly, I might say, out of the final Draft 5 of Siren Suicides (not without shedding a tear or two, dare I mention). And, lo and behold, the story flowed better. Really, the descriptions were bogging the action down, and, what's interesting, cutting a lot of them out also forced me to pay more attention to character development, because it was kind of hidden behind all the descriptive facade. And, it made me realize something else too. Namely...
Don't over-explain to the reader, let the reader imagine. This is key in any story telling, be it a book, a movie, a play, a song, anything. The idea is that we all have had similar experiences in our lives, but we are also very different. For example, we were all afraid of some type of monster when we were little. Don't tell me you weren't, I don't believe you for a second. I was afraid of a monster under my bed, thinking he will snatch my feet when I got out in the morning or got in at night, so I sprinted up really fast, making sure to tuck in the blanket all around me, in case the monster decided to try and pull at my feet while I was sleeping. Now, you might have been afraid of the moster in your closet, and you thought he was very green in appearance, and somebody else was afraid of a ghost in the kitchen. For all these different people who will read your book, all you have to say is, there lived a monster in the room, then give him a few broad strokes, as in, he was stout and his lips opened like that of a toad, and he was covered in shabby fur. Don't even give the color. The reader will supply the rest, making this monster hers or his, and a very real one at that, because this monster will be tied to her or his childhood fears. If you explain too much, you will make your monster too foreign and it will be hard for readers to relate to. In fact, less readers will relate to your specific monster, which will directly result in a diminished success of your book.
Every sentence has to either advance the story or to develop the characters. I wish I'd said that. I didn't. Kurt Vonnegut said it, not exactly like that, I'm paraphrasing him. So, imagine you are wasting your precious sentences on descriptions. A polite reader will suffer through them, a not so polite reader will toss your book away, frustrated. "But.. but.. but... !" You're saying, I can hear it. Yeah, I have the same problem. I love my descriptions, how can I not describe everything? Well, think of it this way. Are your descriptions relevant to the story? Does the description of a sock left on a chair signify a clue in your mystery? Then, by all means, describe it down to specific cotton fiber and the knit rib and the red color of the stripes, heck, even specify the shade, crimson royale, or whatever, assuming that the killer in your book has a fetish on socks particularly of crimson royale shade. I'm just making this up on the fly, but you get the idea. I use a very simple rule of about 3 sentences. Every new setting I introduce, I try to give it enough broad brush strokes to orient the reader, and then I move on.
Long descriptions are an excuse to skip hard work. I have felt this myself, so I know it's true. Whenever I got stuck, I found myself ruminating extensively on this or that outfit of a character, or the description of their hair, or the way their jeans looked, or the way the sky looked when they gazed at it. I mean, oh, I'm so guilty of this, you have no idea! It's so easy to flip an object in my mind, writing about it from this and that angle, and it's so hard to write action, knowing what will happen, how characters will react, what will happen next, how it will change the story. As soon as I recognized what I was doing, I started seeing it in other books. Literally, I could see spots where the author just got lazy. Everyone does it, from big names like Stephen King to every single newbie author. And I'm not talking about necessary breathing points that follow intense action, I'm talking about plain fatigue and fillers, places that could be cut and could've made the story advance faster. Hey, everyone slacks off once in a while, right? Writers are no different (I do it too, but don't tell anyone!).
Well. This is it, really. I'm sure there are more terrible dangers lengthy descriptions possess (like this very lengthy blog post, for example), but the main one is really one simple fact. You will bore your reader and your reader will put your book down, and you don't want that. You want your reader to be glued to your book, turning page after page, wanting to know what happens next.