Author Topic: Writers discuss Writing: R. A. Salvatore on Description  (Read 1115 times)

Aen Elderberry

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Writers discuss Writing: R. A. Salvatore on Description
« on: January 05, 2007, 12:34:41 AM »
From the Dungeons and Dragons Podcast, "December: R.A. Salvatore"  (I got it off iTunes but it's also available at

Salvatore says that not everyone likes the same thing and writers do things in different ways.  He speaks with admiration of  a brilliant multi- page description of a door in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.  Then he says:

I don't do that.  My style is much more sparse.  What I try to do is give enough hooks to the reader that the reader will conjure up his own image of the door and put it into the story.  I know I've succeeded when someone comes up to me and says: 'You're so vivid in descriptions.'  No, I'm not, at all.  But that means that I've latched on to those common shared memories, themes, whatever, and they've brought it forward. . . .

I really believe that back in the day, pre-TV, when readers were pre-TV, Tolkien's readers, you had to give more information because we had less common, shared images.  If I say 'dragon' now, everybody knows what a dragon looks like.  If I say 'goblins,' or 'orc,' everyone conjures images whether from the Peter Jackson movies or from the Monster Manual.  When you go back to Tolkien's time, or back when Melville is writing Moby Dick there were a lot of people who never saw a whale.  How many people today have never seen a whale?  I don't mean in real life, you've seen it on TV.  It doesn't matter.  You know what it looks like.  If I say 'whale', you've got an image in your head.  If I say 'killer whale' you've got an image in your head.  If Herman Melville said 'whale' half of his audience would say 'What's that?' . . . . So back then it required a lot more description whereas today it requires a faster pace.

He has a good point but it leaves me with some questions.

Does the modern reader of fantasy require such "shared" images?  If so then where is there room for originality?

Is Salvatore's comment apply mostly to new readers that don't want lots of description so they relay heavily on what they have seen at movies or on TV?

In his class didn't EUOL say that lots of new writers say something like "I've got this great idea for a new fantasy race.  They're like elves only they have blue skin."  Seems like that is too much reliance on the 'shared images.'  How does one strike the right balance?
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Re: Writers discuss Writing: R. A. Salvatore on Description
« Reply #1 on: January 05, 2007, 11:05:23 PM »
It seems to me that Salvatore can get away with that because his worlds are stock fantasy worlds.  "Dragon" means dragon, yes.  On the other hand, a new writer trying to create a new world needs to do more work, in my opinion.  It's easy to just fall back on the standard fantasy fare, but if you put the effort in to creating new creatures or new races or whatever, you can be rewarded.  Of course, "new" means more than "just like X, but with Y."

That said, I definitely agree that pacing and description have changed tremendously since Melville's time--and even Tolkien's.  But I don't necessarily think it's due to the shared images concept Salvatore describes--I'd say it has to do with the heavy filmic influence on novels.  People are more used to having things thrown at them quickly, and a lot of description can bog things down, especially in the fantasy Salvatore writes.


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Re: Writers discuss Writing: R. A. Salvatore on Description
« Reply #2 on: January 05, 2007, 11:48:59 PM »
I don't really see Salvatore as advocating a shared image concept, because the image isn't shared so much as imagining is shared.

I see him saying that two people could have a completely different mental image from one of his descriptions, and Salvatore doesn't care. When he says dragon, one of his readers could be picturing a purple kitten with red shoes and as long as the reader is satisfied, Salvatore is satisfied. In way, Salvatore expects the reader to be as creative as the writer. Thus the the writer only provides the framework and the reader fills in the details allowing both to have a part in the creative process of imagining.

It seems collaboration is really big in almost all contemporary arts. It seems, audiences might be less satisfied with having the writer do all the work for them. More precisely, they don't care to let the writer have as much control over their thoughts.
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Re: Writers discuss Writing: R. A. Salvatore on Description
« Reply #3 on: January 06, 2007, 12:24:57 AM »
It seems to me that Salvatore is approaching the difference between descriptive language and evocative language.  There is no communication without shared imagery and concepts.  What is different from writer to writer and from reader to reader is the version or flavor if you will of the thing described.  Someone from Norway will have a very different picture in their head from the description "sun-soaked doorway" than someone from Egypt.  But they both know what a doorway is and they both know what the sun and its effects look like.  The norwegian will probably think happier thoughts about that sun-soaked doorway because the sun is a source of warmth for him, but the Egyptian might associate sun-soaking with dehydration and death.

So for the Norwegian, happy summertime is evoked while for the Egyptian grim death by the elements is evoked.

So how does this affect one's story?  If the doorway needs to be a happy one for the story to work, it might not work for the Egyptian and he'll stop reading.  But if the story goes into great detail on the door it will probably bring how the two readers feel about the door into closer alignment.

Reading a story that relies on description rather than evocation is a very different experience than vice versa.  One is usually much faster paced than the other, as someone else has already pointed out.  I enjoy some stories in both camps.

Seems to me that deliberately choosing one or the other in any given situation is simply another tool in the well-rounded writer's toolbox for manipulating the reader.
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Re: Writers discuss Writing: R. A. Salvatore on Description
« Reply #4 on: January 08, 2007, 02:53:56 AM »
The whole problem is after reading at least half a dozen Salvatore books, I've never thought of any of his descriptions being particularly vivid. Generalities is about it. I've met these guys who think his books are vivid. they're the same guys that think you'll be very interested in hearing about their 500th level bard and how he managed to annihilate Waterdeep in one round.

Maybe it's cynical, but I think Parker has the right of it. When SALVATORE says "goblin," everyone pictures something appropriate because he's talking about a D&D goblin. It doesn't work for other texts. When other people say goblin, I've absolutely no clue what they're talking about.

The case in point is that when he talks about orcs or trolls or elves, I know what *that* is supposed to look like. But his set pieces are universally non-descript and immemorable. Even when he does a scene that sticks in your head, it's very difficult to even remember what the lighting was supposed to be like. I don't think his trick ideas are worth copying at all unless you're planning on writing RPG novels.