This post is in response to Lady Glamis's request for ways to avoid detail dumps in your writing. Detail dumps are those long descriptions that tend to intimidate or bore or infuriate most readers. (The comments in the last few posts definitely agree with this conclusion.)
In a detail dump, a reader feels like they are being stalled or overloaded with unimportant information. They want to skip ahead to the action or movement in the story. Sometimes they DO skip ahead. So, what can we do to make sure that we give out information in an interesting way?
I'm turning back to a lesson I learned from the wonderful writer, Mary Yukari Waters. She was also the one who got me to rethink the show-don't-tell rule. Keep in mind that this tip applies more to getting readers than to getting in touch with your own personal preferences. This is a tool for how you can improve your chances of connecting with strangers (such as agents) as they read through your manuscript. In other words, this may not be important to you.
Mary didn't directly address detail dumps, but she provided a tool to avoid what she called "skim-worthy prose." When writing prose, we have the goal of giving out information along with moving the story along. To keep the prose interesting for as many readers as possible, a writer must make sure the prose is doing as many different things as possible. The more things the prose is doing, the more likely a reader will like one of those things. It's statistics.
Here's a boring description:
Janet went out to the balcony. She wore an oversized cotton sweater and a pair of blue jogging shorts. She had on a wedding ring with a small diamond in it. She looked out at the lawn around the estate. It was sprawling with rows of squared hedges and rose gardens and water fountains. It led up to some low grassy hills. Between the hills, there was a view of the edge of a lake, the ripples in the water shimmered in the sunlight.
This isn't too long, but I think we get the sense that the details aren't providing us with much information about any sort of story or conflict. All we get here is a view of this woman, Janet, and where she is standing. To get more information and to feel like the story is moving, readers want action and insight into Janet's situation: her actions, her mood, her history, her thoughts. So, we can add all of this throughout the paragraph to give:
For the last time, Janet went out to the balcony. Although she usual wore delicate cashmere sweaters, today she had on an oversized cotton sweater and a pair of blue jogging shorts -- she didn't want anyone in the neighborhood to recognize her. She still had on her wedding ring, with the small diamond in it, but not for long. She slipped it off her finger and dropped it over the marble handrail. It landed with a tiny thud into the dirt below. She looked out at the lawn around the estate. It was sprawling with rows of squared hedges and rose gardens and water fountains. She once loved all of this, but now she hated it. She crossed her arms. She shut her eyes before she could see more. She knew that the lawn led up to some low grassy hills, and between the hills there was a view of the edge of a lake. The lake was the only thing she would miss. Not the house, not her husband, just the lake.
This second paragraph has all of the information that the first paragraph does, but it goes beyond that to keep the story moving and to reveal where Janet is on her journey. In the first paragraph, we got a bunch of details that didn't point to anything. In the second, the details give insight to what she likes and doesn't like. It tells us about her past and predicts what her future has in store. And, in the second paragraph, I have added some action, that of her taking off her wedding ring and dropping it down below. She has made a tangible move and we know that it was an important one.
So, how does this increase our chances of getting people to like the second paragraph over the first? Well, if the reader likes action, there is more action than there was before. If the reader likes psychology, there is more psychology than there was before. If the reader wants history, there is more history than there was before. AND, if the reader likes description, the description is still there. While the first paragraph only did one thing, the second paragraph does multiple different things. So, statistically, you are more likely to catch a reader's interest.
It's true that some people prefer simplicity. In my stories, I tend to choose really simple language and not much detail. The thing I risk is that I have to hope that the readers I'm targetting prefer the limited range I give them. It's like going to a restaurant with a fixed menu versus going to a grocery store where you can buy whatever you want. The restaurant might prepare a better version of cassoulet, but if you don't want cassoulet, the grocery store is the better bet.
Take a look at published books and short stories. Find a dense paragraph that has description in it. More than likely, you'll find that this description is interspersed with other details and action and flashback, etc. Most published writers have mastered the art of having their descriptive paragraphs serve multiple functions.
Mary had a simple way to evaluate your own writing. Read each paragraph and count on your fingers how many things it is doing. For her, if a paragraph is only doing one or two things, she revises it.