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I have a middle section in my book where the characters arrive in a new city (in another world) and are taking in all the sights.  So I have description going for almost 3 pages.  They talk and reflect along the way, but nothing "happens" for those three pages.  How long is too long for description?  Any rules of thumb?
#1 - April 05, 2010, 10:23 PM

Kurtis

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It's hard to say without seeing the pages, but three pages of description sound long. You can usually describe things in passing... and you might find that writing all the stuff out at first helps straighten it out in your own mind, then you can parcel it out to later scenes.
#2 - April 06, 2010, 04:36 AM

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Unless you're writing Anna Karenina In Space...I agree. Three is a bit long.

BUT, if the conversation is moving the action/plot/something-or-other in a way that's exciting/really engaging, it's probably fine.
#3 - April 06, 2010, 05:10 AM
« Last Edit: April 06, 2010, 05:13 AM by aimeestates »
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If I write a description that is longer than a sentence, I ask myself: does this description reveal something about my characters? is there a plot clue here?

If the answer is no, cut.

Most people are impatient when it comes to description. Two hard-hitting sentences that allow the reader to flesh out their own imagination, imo, is better than lots of details they'll gloss over anyway.
#4 - April 06, 2010, 07:40 AM

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That sounds like a lot to me. I recently ran across an article about world building that really resonated for me. Basically the upshot was that world building is often most effective when it's slipped into things the characters are doing or discussing as part of a non-world-centric scene. They do whatever they're doing for the plot, and the world building creeps in in the background. (I'm not positive, but I think it might have been one of Janice Hardy's blog entries. Those might be useful even if I've got the wrong link, though!)
#5 - April 06, 2010, 06:17 PM
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I was writing more sparsely at first, but my critiquers (admittedly all unpublished writers) said I needed more world building.
#6 - April 06, 2010, 09:51 PM

Doesn't the first Harry Potter have quite a bit of world building when they go down diagon alley?  What makes that work?
#7 - April 06, 2010, 09:52 PM

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I was writing more sparsely at first, but my critiquers (admittedly all unpublished writers) said I needed more world building.

World building and description are not synonymous, though. World building is best parceled out through, around, and behind actions and emotions.
#8 - April 06, 2010, 11:01 PM
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You might want to read some of the suggestions put forth by Canadian sci fi writer, Karl Schroeder. You can find him on the Net. He teaches and he's a wonderful writer with awards under his belt. He's also a very nice person. I studied with him and he taught me that world building is something that occurs throughout the course of the story or novel. But, no matter what we do, we must be consistent. Our world must make sense to those who live there.
#9 - July 09, 2010, 01:06 PM

amysun

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Sometimes I find that picking one or two details that are extremely revealing and telling can pack more punch than pages of description. 

Did your readers specifically say you were telling, not showing or they couldn't see your setting?  Or did they say you needed more world building?  These things can all go together, of course, but world building generally involves having a clear idea of how things work in your world (rules of magic, economics and politics, religion, etc.), which you then incorporate throughout the novel. 
#10 - July 09, 2010, 01:40 PM

They talk and reflect along the way, but nothing "happens" for those three pages.  How long is too long for description?  Any rules of thumb?

If you mean there is no conflict for three pages -- you have totally lost your story. You must have conflict that moves your story forward *on every page*. So think about your scene. Why are they in the city? What do they need? and what can immediately stand in the way of them getting that need? It doesn't have to be big -- it can be as small as a pickpocket, cop or getting lost-- but your reader must want to turn the page to find out what happens next. You're city can be described beautifully in the midst of the action.

eab
#11 - July 09, 2010, 02:09 PM

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Honestly, if I got to a place in a book where there were three pages of description I would put that book down. Probably around the beginning of page two, when I realized there was more description to go. And I wouldn't pick it up again. But that's just me, even in books that I love, I tend to skim description if it goes longer than a long paragraph.
#12 - July 09, 2010, 03:45 PM
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As long as there's some kind of action, as in, the characters are interracting with this new world, instead of just standing around admiring it, then you might be safe.
And anything can be tightened, if it comes down to it.
#13 - July 09, 2010, 08:03 PM

My agent just nailed me on this very same thing. I have this amazing descriptive narrative for about 3 pages while my characters move from point A to B. But he wants me to add action and pare it down cause it is pace killer.
#14 - July 09, 2010, 08:53 PM
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You just need to "Michael Bay" it up.  Throw in an exploding F-16, or better yet or a sweet talking robot hellbent on destroying your wonderfully described environment.

That should do it. 

Or just write under the name Tolkien--then you can go on for as long as you like.
#15 - July 09, 2010, 09:44 PM

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I come up against this challenge a lot in my sf and fantasy stuff. When encountering a new city, I pick a few elements to focus on -- the ones that are most important to the point of view character at that moment. Maybe the new city reminds her of her homeland. Maybe it's smaller or bigger than the city where she grew up, or filled with different kinds of people or creatures. Maybe her dead mother would have loved to see it for some reason.

I find description much more enjoyable to read when it is doing more story work: describing the setting and illuminating character at the same time. Getting it to advance the plot as well is the holy grail, imo.

Good luck!

Jenn
#16 - July 09, 2010, 10:18 PM
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Happens to us all, Anon!!  :crazy

One thing that helps me: I take a deep breath and remind myself that I don't have to describe it all at once. I can save some of the smells for when my character has to go to the market the next morning... And some of the more bizarre city-planner bloopers for the chase scene when my protag gets cornered in a blind alley...And my observations about class injustices for when she's importuned by a beggar with a wasting disease....And my descriptions of the hulking prison for when my protagonist needs to know that her father is inside!!

On the other hand, my husband just read one of my scenes and asked for MORE description.  :snork
#17 - July 16, 2010, 10:00 AM

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I have a middle section in my book where the characters arrive in a new city (in another world) and are taking in all the sights.  So I have description going for almost 3 pages.  They talk and reflect along the way, but nothing "happens" for those three pages.  How long is too long for description?  Any rules of thumb?

Why do you need a full 3 pages to describe it? Why are they "taking in the sights?" Sightseeing sounds like something that would slow down your story. Is it necessary to the plot?

I have a scene in my MS where the characters arrive in a new part of the city but I limit the description to a few paragraphs.
#18 - July 16, 2010, 06:31 PM

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I have not yet published in the fantasy genre. AS A READER, however, I have lost patience reading lengthy descriptions of worlds by even such fine writers as JRR Tolkien and Susan Cooper. I much prefer actions to lead the story, with sneaky bits of description tucked in between. For what it's worth...
#19 - July 16, 2010, 11:16 PM
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