Blah, Blah, Blah: Overdescription, Exposition, and Stage Direction
by John Robert Marlow
Have you ever attended a lecture, or sat in a classroom, or watched a video where the speaker droned endlessly on about what should have been an interesting topic? After a while, the eyes and ears glaze over, and all you really hear is “Blah blah blah…” Don’t let that happen to your writing…
Overdescription is a common malady. The primary symptom is a tendency to OD on description, going into endless detail about things that ultimately don’t matter. The author may “see the movie in his head,” even if he’s writing a book.
Driven by a desire to convey this vision to the reader in its purest form, the writer mistakes quantity for quality—and embarks upon a frenzied attempt to describe every factual detail of each scene, no matter how small.
From the color and style of clothing worn by each character to the year, make, model, color, and general condition of their cars, to the wallpaper, floorboards, carpet, furnishings, knick-knacks, architecture, temperature and humidity of each room, to ongoing descriptions of every street, sidewalk, building, lamppost, passerby and blade of grass—it’s all there in excruciating detail; a frenzied minutiae. Some writers do this nonstop, from first page to last. Others suffer from occasional bouts of descriptitus.
Instead of ODing on overdescription, realize that your purpose is not simply to record people, places, and events. A camera can do that—better, cheaper, and faster than any writer who ever lived. But that is not the function of the writer.
The writer’s purpose is to convey emotion. You can write description thick as a phone book, and fail to make a real impression. Facts—alone—are devoid of emotional content. A tree falls in the forest. So what? A tree falls toward a tent occupied by someone we care about—that’s an emotional event.
We don’t need to know who made the tent, or what color it is. Nor do we need to know how many leaves are on the tree. What we need to know is this: that tree is about to kill someone we don’t want to die. That’s it.
What you want to focus on is emotional content. Not: Is this room well- or dimly-lit? Rather: Is this room cheery or depressing? Inviting or forbidding? How do the bare facts relate to human emotions? You can say (as part of your description) that a room is dimly-lit, but you must also set a mood. This doesn’t mean you have to say “The room was cheery;” instead, you use words that evoke an image of cheeriness in the mind of your reader.
Consider: you can factually describe a room without conveying a shred of emotion. You can also describe a room emotionally, without conveying any factual description at all. The best writers blend fact with emotion.
But when you come right down to it, the emotional description can stand alone; the factual description cannot. Because when you’re telling a story—fiction or nonfiction—emotional involvement is what keeps people going.
You are not a recording device; you are a chronicler of emotional journeys.
Expository writing is what happens when an author needs to get information across to the reader, but can’t figure out how to work it into the story. What happens is this: the information is clumsily dropped into dialogue or narration, creating an “infodump;” critical details that appear out of nowhere, and exist for the sole purpose of transmitting information from author to reader.
Writers who do this believe that readers will simply absorb the information and move on. What actually happens is similar to the effect described in Hey, Look at Me! Intrusive, Chatty, and Explanatory Writing.
Instead of guiding the reader experience, the author is now inserting himself between reader and story—redirecting the reader’s attention to his own kludgy attempt to graft out-of-place information onto what should be a smooth-flowing narrative. The writer’s intentions are good; his technique, not so much.
There are two solutions to this problem: integrate the information into the story in such a way that it seems “organic” to the tale being told—or drop the information entirely.
Excellent examples of technical information smoothly presented include The Terminator (where Reese must educate Sarah on the nature of the threat they face) and The Matrix (where Morpheus and his crew must educate Neo about “the desert of the real”). Note that the same technique is employed in both of these stories: the mentor relationship. A character unfamiliar with the territory is guided by one who is; as the student learns, so too does the audience.
In True Lies, a humorous approach is taken. Taken hostage by terrorists and dragged before a stolen nuclear warhead, secret agent Harry Tasker is ordered to identify the device for a camera. His response? “I know what this is… This is an espresso machine… No, no wait. It’s a snow cone maker… Is it a water heater?” Finally, when his wife’s life is threatened, he spills the technical details. The wife—who had no idea he was a spy—punches him.
Narration describing character action—that’s stage direction. The term originated with playwrights, who had to tell the actors what do via instructions—directions—written into the play. Today, stage direction also appears in books and screenplays. It’s rare to find too little stage direction in either format, but extremely common to find too much.
There are two basic ways to go wrong here. Sitting behind door number one, typing away, is the writer who’s not quite sure what his characters should be doing. Instinct tells him that ten pages of pure, uninterrupted dialogue isn’t working; something more is needed.
And so he gives his characters something—anything—to do: gaze out the window; arch, furrow, or scrunch their brows;, smile, frown, giggle, titter, scowl—or (ever popular) eat. The problem is always the same: the actions being described are inconsequential or meaningless, and exist for one reason only: to provide filler for a scene that is missing something.
Inevitably, this leads to passages brimming with information that is both irrelevant and distracting: instead of having two “talking heads” chatting for ten pages, the reader must slog through a conversation that is constantly interrupted by long thoughtful gazes, arched brows, slurped soup, and masticated meat.
Sitting behind Door Number Two is the author who applies overdescription to stage direction—detailing every slightest motion, gesture, breath, shifting glance, and sigh of one (or every) character. The end result is the same: a choppy, distracting read.
Ideally, everything means something, and nothing means nothing. And while that ideal cannot always be achieved, you can strive to minimize meaningless character actions. Look to see what can be eliminated, but also what might be recast and given meaning.
In The Usual Suspects, Verbal stares ahead during his interrogation. At another point, he gazes up toward his interrogator. Neither action seems particularly significant; both turn out to be crucial. Stage direction is both necessary and inevitable. Your job is to make it count.
Of the many sins a competent writer might commit, the worst by far is boring the reader. Technical perfection does little good if the reader’s mind wanders from the story. Even a mild case of the blahs can be damaging. Severe cases can be fatal. Overdescription, exposition, and stage direction are leading causes. Guard against them, always.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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