2 min read

Dense description

I've often read that description (in prose fiction) should be dense to be interesting. It's a good rule. I often struggle to write concisely, so this seems worth studying.

I've mostly been looking at Terry Pratchett books, and today is no exception. From Guards! Guards! again:

It wasn't only the fresh mountain air that had given Carrot his huge physique. Being brought up in a gold mine run by dwarfs and working a twelve-hour day hauling wagons to the surface must have helped.

He walked with a stoop. What will do that is being brought up in a gold mine run by dwarfs who thought that five feet high was a good height for a ceiling.

He'd always known that he was different. More bruised for one thing. And then one day his father had come up to him, or rather come up to his waist, and told him that he was not, in fact, as he had always believed, a dwarf.

It's a terrible thing to be nearly sixteen and the wrong species.

"We didn't like to say so before, son," said his father. "We thought you'd grow out of it, see."

"Grow out of what?" said Carrot.

"Growing. [...]"

There are five things you learn about Carrot from this:

  1. Carrot is huge.
  2. Carrot has a stoop.
  3. Carrot has lived with dwarfs his whole life up til this point and in fact believed he was a dwarf.
  4. Carrot is not happy to be not-a-dwarf.
  5. Carrot is a human.

Really we learn more than these five things, but these are the five you need to know up front. The first four are explicit, and the last one is both implied here and spelled out later in the scene.

Besides these facts, we also learn about the setting, which is also where he grew up. This is a gold mine in a mountain somewhere rural – there is "fresh mountain air." He works twelve hours a day there. They use wagons. They bring the gold to the surface, presumably to trade it. It's run by dwarfs. Dwarfs are short and he is not. Also dwarfs may be more durable than humans, given he's more bruised, unless that's just from being tall.

That's about twelve things, by my count, over eight sentences. So, one and a half pieces of info per sentence on average. That's a pretty good density. Every sentence tells you at least one fact. Some tell you more. One each might be a good target.

It's interesting to me that Terry never actually describes (as far as I noticed) the specific room in which the conversation takes place. And the scene works just fine without that. You can imagine your own dingy too-short mineshaft.

The whole exchange is great and you should read it if you can. Actually, the whole book is great and you should read it if you can.

(This is the... third time? out of eight that I've drawn Guards! Guards! from the nine Pratchett books I've read. I like the book but this is ridiculous.)