When a good description turns into bad writing

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation
I love reading the winning entries for the Bulwer Lytton contest. It’s a contest devoted to writing the worst possible opening sentence of a novel. Deliberately bad writing is not as easy as unconsciously bad writing, in my experience. I’m great at writing badly when I’m not paying attention. But reading deliberately bad writing is not only funny, it’s often useful.

Writers are told to include sensory detail. I’ve had a contest judge ding my writing because in one scene I only included sensory detail from three senses (sight, sound, touch) instead of all five. I don’t think the reader notices or cares whether you use all senses in describing a scene. Writers get so focused on including the sensory details that they miss the reason for including the details in the first place.

One day—though this was no average day, it was gloomy; uncharacteristically forecast for mid-July, yet not extraordinary considering the geographic location, on the northern coast of Germany, where drastic changes in weather are indeed quite common although not so common that they were expected yet common enough to leave no one shocked by the small gathering of clouds above their heads—Linda went on a walk down the street.
— Benjamin Matthes, Founex, Switzerland Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

I’ve read stories where the writers devote a page or more of meticulous description in precise detail, for example a clinical description of the taste, sound, scent of eating an apple. The problem with that? Clinical detail, by its very nature, is detached from all emotion. I don’t need to know what eating an apple is like. I need to know what this character feels about it.

Description is an elegant way to tell the reader how the character views their world. It slips information into the scene subtly, providing details in the background while the main action is going on.

She was the most desired object in the room, not unlike the last deviled egg at an Easter Day potluck.
— Christine Hamilton, Atlanta, Georgia
Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

Description is also a good way to set the tone. If you want your readers to know you’re writing a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, an opening sentence like the following would definitely work.

The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.
-Kat Russo, Loveland, Colorado
Winner, 2017 Bulwer Lytton contest

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