Thursday, March 4, 2010

Description, Relevance, and Genre

I had some very interesting comments on Monday on my post about description - in particular, people commenting about the descriptive requirements of different genres. J. Kathleen Cheney took that aspect of the topic and ran with it on her blog, here.

I was particularly intrigued by the following from her post:

... I did add this stipulation [to my rule of relevance]: There are instances where description is expected rather than required for the sake of the story, so a lot more gets put than is strictly necessary...

For example: If you're writing a GBHF (Great Big Honking Fantasy) you're probably going to describe everything, twice. At least. Down to what manner of stains mark the hems of the priests' robes in January. This seems to be expected in the GBHF. (Yes, I'm making a generalization, but that's what the internet is for, isn't it?) If you're writing Hard SF, you're going to have to describe all your gizmos and then explain how they work. (Also, if you can find any excuse to include the description of field-stripping a weapon, you must include that. It's a right of passage, I think.) If you're writing Romance, you must decribe the women's clothing. (Men's you can skip sometimes, as they always dress alike anyway.) You must also describe the upholstery and drapery in any room the female POV enters...

All right, I admit I'm sounding a bit sarcastic, but the truth is that there are some expectations tied to the target market of the story, which are probably based more on what the reader wants to know.

In fact, when I wrote my first post, I was thinking about my own writing rather than considering genre distinctions - but Ms. Cheney makes an excellent point! Genres like mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction and fantasy each come with reader expectations, which translate into editorial expectations, for certain types of description.

On the other hand, that need not be the last word on the subject (need there ever be a last word on anything?). I think Ms. Cheney and I would agree that, while it's true that genre readers expect certain kinds of description, it's still a good idea to try to maximize the relevance of any description. Yes, describe if it seems appropriate, but don't cut corners and figure that all readers will be interested in extensive description without a lot of relevance support.

Try to push for more relevance support regardless of what you're describing, in whatever genre. Yes, there are expectations - but you'll hear people talking about how in really great writing, every sentence is doing more than one thing at a time. Not only is it worldbuilding, not only is it character building, it's also pushing the main conflict forward - oh and by the way, it's also serving the theme, etc.

Each of those things is a form of relevance support, and it just goes to show that in the end, it's worth pushing hard to create as much relevance as possible for descriptions.