Help me get over anxiety about reading descriptive writing
April 27, 2012 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have trouble with/feel intimidated by physical descriptions of unfamiliar landscapes (natural/urban/etc.), settings, costumes, etc. in books? I get bogged down by being unable to get a clear picture of what's going on that it's kept me from reading George R. R. Martin, Tolkien, Dickens (and come to think about it, a lot of books, like the beginning of For Whom The Bell Tolls most recently). Did you get over it? Any suggestions?
posted by Busoni to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Hmmm. A while ago I realized that when I read I don't necessarily think that hard about descriptive passages like that. When I go back and read them carefully, I realize I just kind of made up my own picture in my head.

So maybe give yourself permission to paint your own picture? The books are there for you to enjoy- and if you're getting the action and dialogue, who really cares how tall the grass on the hill is?
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:47 PM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Are you a visual thinker? Is the problem that you are trying to visualise all this detail, or that you aren't?

I remember the descriptions of places/people etc, but unless it is particularly evocative, I don't actually visualise the things or people described.

Given several of the above have movie/TV adaptions, is it easier or harder reading them once you have actually seen what the are referring to, and can use that as a base?
posted by Elysum at 3:49 PM on April 27, 2012

A specific note on For Whom The Bell Tolls:

I think it is one of the greatest novels ever written in any language. However I almost quit the first time I started reading it. The first hundred pages or so are immensely over-described Spanish landscapes with not that much happening. For a while I thought I just wouldn't be able to hack it.

But it gets better, amazingly so. Don't give up.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:49 PM on April 27, 2012

Well, Tolkien (and GRRM, his disciple) uses florid description as texture. Yes, sometimes it's excessive when there are multiple sequential pages talking about the structure of a dwarvish cavern or bannermen's coats of arms, but honestly... that sort of stuff can mostly be ignored, at least for the first read-through. (I'm on my second reading of ASoIaF, and am appreciating that sort of thing much more. Ditto for second time through LotR.) The ornate texture is awesome, and has its place, but it's a shame that it turns so many people off.
posted by supercres at 3:50 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I skip it, except for things like, okay- they're in the mountains. The mountains are heavily forested. Anything more descriptive than that gets skipped.

But then I'm an impatient, plot and character driven reader. Anything that seems flowery is hard for me to read.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:51 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks, Jim. Elysum, I'm not a visual thinker at all. I get lost to the point that people are genuinely surprised at how bad a sense of direction I have. It's more that I have trouble getting a picture of a vale ("what the hell does a vale look like? A marsh? I've never been to one.") or picturing what an courtyard would have looked like in Dickens's or Dostoevsky's time/location.
posted by Busoni at 3:53 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another not-very-visual person here who just skips over that stuff, mostly. I sort of skim it. What really stays with me is the interactions between the characters and the turns of the plot.

I was actually pretty dazzled by the glimpse of Qarth in the last episode of Game of Thrones because I just skimmed past the descriptions of the cities in the ASoIaF books. I have no clear sense of what those cities looked like, which didn't bother me at all, because I do have a clear sense of who Daenerys is. And that's what is interesting and important to me.

So I guess my answer is - don't sweat it. Also a vale is like a lush valley, I think.
posted by jeoc at 4:01 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why not just skip them? I generally skim (heavily) over long descriptions like you mention, and I don't find it seriously impedes my understanding of the text. I can establish a good working sense of what's important via context clues during the dialogue and action portions of the story to get a grip on the important bits. (Character X is in a dress, and this impedes chasing after Character Y through the forest -- got it. I don't need to read much about what that dress looks like, or what trees are in the forest in order to catch all that.) If I really get confused, then I flip back to those descriptions to slog through them. I guess this means I'm willing to revise my mental picture about what's going on as I read, rather than taking the time to establish all the details of a scene before anything actually happens. Good writing will mention the important bits several times, enough for my dense brain to pick up on it so I'm not confused later on.

On preview: don't be afraid to substitute in your own pictures of something to facilitate reading, and then revise it as necessary. For modern-day literature, for example, I sometimes substitute my childhood house as a location until I need to revise the floor plan to fit with the important environmental details. For books in space, I have the same stock images of spaceship hallways and control rooms that looks very Star Trek-y. Vaguely medieval stories, regardless of time or location or fantasy or not, take place against a background of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If it's really important, I'll google unfamiliar geography -- here's a vale, so every book I read about a vale will likely have wooded bits surrounded by nice green fields and a cute little river running through it while some mountains impose in the background. But it's rarely that important; book characters generally tell me "oh the Vale is so hard to attack since there are tall mountains on 3 sides!" and that's all I really need to know.
posted by lilac girl at 4:05 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think I know the feeling that you're talking about. If a book is set in a location that is completely unfamiliar to me, I often feel a sense of distance to the narrative because I just can't find a place for it in my mind. What helps me, sometimes, is just doing some basic image searches for the locations, if the the book is set in the real world. For example, I'd do Sirra de Guadarrama Mountains for For Whom the Bell Tolls and recently I did Texas desert when I started reading Blood Meridian. Once I have a basic gestalt for the landscape or setting, my brain can more easily fill in the details.
posted by otolith at 4:06 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that other folks are right: skip it if you can. And yeah, if you have trouble outright ignoring the descriptions, than allow yourself to make up the details. Since you're not an especially visual thinker, give yourself permission to carry on reading, even if you haven't got a fully developed idea of the setting/appearances.

A vale is a flat river valley, but I had to look it up to confirm. On preview: heh, lilac girl and I picked the same one!
posted by Specklet at 4:08 PM on April 27, 2012

Yeah, I ended up summarizing most of the first half of the Fellowship of the Ring as "they're walking through the woods right now". And even on my second read of ASOIAF, many characters are just "guy on team Lannister", and they're eating some food, wearing some clothes.

You're fine, many people do this. If you want to go back and read again for greater detail, that's fine too, any good book is worth rereading.
posted by skewed at 4:10 PM on April 27, 2012

I love good visual descriptions, but even so, if I need to know what's going to happen next oh no is soandso going to die??!, then I skim them. I've happily reread books more than once or thrice just for the pleasure of the descriptive stuff I skipped or missed the first time in when I was in pursuit of what was going to happen next.
posted by rtha at 4:19 PM on April 27, 2012

I have a similar reaction to some books not written originally in English, or with a lot of 'non-familar'' names - I discovered trying to read Dostoevsky in highschool was much easier when i decided to call characters x and z and j, rather than sounding through their names in my head every time, and keep those all straight. I say go with 'ok, dark woods, got it' and get on with reading the story.
posted by pupdog at 4:50 PM on April 27, 2012

I used to find descriptive passages a tedious slog, and generally skipped them. But I realized I was probably missing some important and worthwhile stuff (local flavor, important symbolism, some detail that will be key to the plot), so I started putting some effort into appreciating them more. Two particular things helped:

1. I slowed down. When I come to a chunk of descriptive text that I used-to-woulda skipped, I read it slowly, deliberately, phrase by phrase. If the writing is good, this is rewarding. If it's not rewarding, then why am I reading this anyway? Sometimes I get the feeling that the writer is just showing off or wasting my time. Then I skip the descriptive stuff, or skip the book entirely.

2. Look at pictures. If the setting that I'm reading about doesn't present itself vividly in my mind, I look up photos of some similar place, and maps. This makes the reading much more immersive, and I get a lot more out of it.
posted by Corvid at 5:11 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a similar problem; the most recent example of my spatial illiteracy was at the climax of Reamde, where I had to keep turning back a couple of pages to reorient myself. I think part of the problem is that I'm an impatient reader, like a kid who runs headlong into a forest and several minutes later comes to the realization that they don't have a clue where the hell they are. Seconding the suggestions to do a quick image search, etc., for descriptions of unfamiliar settings.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:16 PM on April 27, 2012

Count me as another impatient/fast reader who skims over descriptions. I pay enough attention to get a basic visual sense of the setting, but I move on if the prose isn't especially gorgeous or important to plot/character. I get a basic sense of the setting, then let my brain fill in the details. If I find I'm having trouble doing even that, I do what others have suggested upthread and look up images online. I'm generally terrible at imagining really detailed buildings or something like large scale naval battles, so I tend to just accept that I'm not going to be able to create a clear visual image for myself and move on. Your mental image of a book does not need to be cinematic in scope and detail.

And if you're reading for leisure, then there's no test you have to worry about, no professor to impress, etc., and there's no reason you can't take a little more time to re-read for clarity, or just skim and miss out on a bit. Don't make your leisure reading into a chore!
posted by yasaman at 5:29 PM on April 27, 2012

I tend to read through descriptive passages pretty quickly, and just build a stage set rather than trying to hold every piece of rock in my head. You'll notice that physical description is most common in fantasy novels—this is because the author is in love with his world and may be bloviating just a little. Ironically, it's this type of book where the landscape matters least (Martin, for example).

What I tend to do is just use images from places I've been before, or movies I've seen, or video games, or paintings. This is my vale, for example. My meadow (or something close). My train car.

Most of the time, these "drop ins" are sufficient.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:29 PM on April 27, 2012

I am a careful reader. I love reading and feel that an author's words deserve to be savored and fully digested. When I hear people boast that they read a book a day, I always think that they aren't really reading.

And...I kind of skim over long passages describing landscapes. It just doesn't penetrate my brain. I can read the whole thing carefully but have no idea what the author really wants me to picture.

When I recently re-read Tolkein's description of Minis Tirith, and how it's set into the mountain, I had no idea idea what he meant. It was all basically gibberish. And I'm not a particularly dumb person. My brain just doesn't work like that.

(And I think it has nothing to do with being a visual or a non-visual thinker. I am a very visual thinker)
posted by zachawry at 5:50 PM on April 27, 2012

I have a problem with directions and have a compulsive need to know which direction they are marching, or which way the patio looking over the forest is facing because I need the n/s/e/w direction so I can set up the visual elements in my mind. It's very uncomfortable when I realize every front of every building in my mind faces north. I have to go back and consciously rearrange (and remember) the layout. I am so grateful for maps at the front of books.
posted by Vaike at 5:52 PM on April 27, 2012

...But what I have found that works is letting the places fall wherever they do in my mind. If I do that, I find I move on without the stress it can give me.
posted by Vaike at 5:55 PM on April 27, 2012

So as someone who used to teach literature to college students, and who has labored in the word mines of the publishing industry for years, this is just something that varies hugely from person to person. I have had students and fellow writers in writers' groups and editing clients who feel that if there isn't tons of visual detail, the story doesn't feel real to them. I have had students and fellow writers in writers' groups and editing clients who feel that all of that stuff is just static, and can we please get to the characters and dialogue and action please right now okay?

I'm sort of in the middle path as a reader. I tend to be interested in worldbuilding in worlds that are different from mine (both science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction--I love reading about plasma drives and phaetons) and incredibly bored by visual detail in novels set in the modern world (yes, I am looking at you, pink books with martini glasses on the cover, I do not give a metric lark's fart for what this expensive pair of shoes looks like, especially when it's the seventeenth pair of shoes you describe, and that goes for you, too, military thriller, there is way too much stuff about how guns work in this start fucking shooting someone already).

I think of all the things one can skim over without missing the point of a book, lengthy sensory descriptions are the least risky. When I taught Moby Dick, I used to give students a handout of the core chapters in which the plot and characterization are actually advanced, and tell them to read those chapters at least, and I'd fill them in on what they missed in between in my lectures. Now, I love Moby Dick and have read every word over and over, even the stuff about whales and shipbuilding, even the sermon in the Seamen's Bethel, but tbh I think my students who just read the plot chapters "got it" as well as I did the first time I read it all the way through.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:12 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tolkein was just DARK in my head because I could never get a picture of what was going on from his descriptions. I liked the books a lot better after I saw the movie, because then I could picture it in my head, and it was so much less muddled. Seeing the movie really did help. Sometimes an illustrated edition, or even just the picture on the front cover, can help!

Also, it's okay to just not like those authors. GRRM's work is boring to me, and I've never liked Dickens. This makes me feel a little bit like a bad human being, but there are so many, many authors I do like, why waste time with ones I don't? We don't all have to like the same things. If excessive description makes a book boring to you, that's okay!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:26 PM on April 27, 2012

I find George R. R. Martin horrible for this sort of thing. Not because he describes too much at the expense of plot, but because the descriptions of landscapes and other visual "setting the scene" elements are the weakest aspect of his writing. They're just not evocative, at all.

It wasn't until I watched the show and saw how the designers ran with his (lame and poorly described) ideas that I was really interested in the world-building aspect of Song Of Ice And Fire. Until then, he'd mention someone wearing a helmet in the shape of a dragon's head, or the fact that this one place was really mountainous or whatever, and I'd think, "yes, but what does it LOOK LIKE?" I don't know if this makes sense, but to me GRRM tells rather than showing when it comes to setting and descriptions.

So maybe just chalk some of this stuff up to "not that good at writing" or "not my cup of tea" or whatever, and move past it. If you don't get something, it's not necessarily your fault.
posted by Sara C. at 7:10 PM on April 27, 2012

The best thing about reading for fun is that you can read however you damn want to. That means it's okay to skip description that's really just stopping you from reading, no matter how hard you try to slog through it. I don't know if you're a re-reader, but I am, and find I have *much* more patience for imagery when I'm going through something the second or third or fifth time around.
posted by smirkette at 7:14 PM on April 27, 2012

I have the same thing but with character's appearances. If I feel like I can't get a handle on what they look like, then I get kind of anxious while reading. So ever since I was a kid, I've always pictured actors or people I knew when reading books, and this has worked pretty well. Every once in a while I will "cast" someone wrong, and it's jarring to read about the blonde hair of someone I've pictured as brunette or whatever, but for the most part it works. You may want to try something similar with landscapes and costumes.

And yeah, GRRM and Tolkien are SUPER descriptive writers. But with GRRM at least, I feel like if a detail is important enough, he will remind you about it later. He's usually pretty good about that.
posted by lunasol at 12:36 AM on April 28, 2012

Writers, myself included, ought to listen to Elmore Leonard's droll rule: Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:17 AM on April 28, 2012

I tend to skip through description too, I don’t like it, and I have a hard time following it. I never really realized this until recently, I thought everyone was this way. I’ve realized that if someone is describing a space I can’t put it together in my head at all. Zork makes my head hurt. I got the door to the South, Ok picture to the East, but past that I’m overloaded.

Strangely, in the real world I think I have really great spacial skills, and can pack a truck or rearrange the refrigerator better than anyone.
posted by bongo_x at 10:16 AM on April 28, 2012

When I was on a nautical books kick (Moby Dick, Treasure Island, Master and Commander) I got frustrated by all the nautical vocabulary, so I got a children's book (The Visual Dictionary of Ships and Sailing) that had different types of ships with all the parts labeled. It was really helpful. If you're willing to make a project of it, you could hit the library or bookstore and get some picture books on geography or medieval life and sit down with those and A Game of Thrones. (I don't work for DK publishing, I swear. They just have a lot of good stuff along those lines.)

Also, for me, the killer app for PDAs and smart phones has been a dictionary. I consider it one of the true wonders of the modern age that you can carry an unabridged dictionary around in your pocket. I love, love, love the fact that any time I come across a word I don't know, I can whip out my iPod Touch and have the definition and pronunciation at my fingertips.

Not to mention Google and Wikipedia. I was reading REAMDE last week, and there's a woman described as Eritrean and had no idea what that meant, so I did a Google image search of eritrean people and badabing, there you go—exactly the visual reference I needed, and I didn't even have to budge from my comfy spot.
posted by BrashTech at 10:38 AM on April 28, 2012

Some readers connect with the words. The book literally "speaks" to them.

I've noticed some readers see the words as a means to describing a situation they can picture in their head.

But that's exciting, isn't it?? Such a variety of ways people read.

I don't think there's anything particularly "better" about being one way than the other.
posted by kettleoffish at 10:41 PM on April 28, 2012

some picture books on geography or medieval life and sit down with those and A Game of Thrones.

Enh, SOIAF is inaccurate/invented enough to make those irrelevant. In fact, I find that it's easier to enjoy the books when you divorce it from any real life setting and just go with whatever is stated. Or just imagine whatever in your head.

Seriously, one of the main settings is "a part of the country where there are a lot of rivers", which is not actually at human scale at all. There is no way you can imagine that as a landscape within a scene. I've traveled to parts of the world that are famous for having a lot of rivers, and you would never know that from looking out the window. So whatever is fine, really. There's no quiz. You're not a location scout.
posted by Sara C. at 11:38 AM on April 30, 2012

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