Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writing Advice 22 — Applied Description

I’ve already covered the basic aspects of description which works fine, but it can be taken a step further. I mentioned how you don’t want to sit down and actually describe things as if you were a scientist recording an experiment, or a coroner working up a report. Such clinical approaches to description is very boring.

The subject was male, five foot, eight inches, twenty-four years old. He was Caucasian, with black hair, and blue eyes. He wore a single-breasted dark blue suit with a white collared shirt and a red tie.

The first impulse is to clean up the data-speak and turn it into something more casual.

He was average height for a white male in his mid twenties. He had black hair and blue eyes, and wore a dark blue, single-breasted suit with  a white shirt and red tie.

This is easier to read but still dull, so the next impulse is to dress up the description using more sophisticated, artsy language.

He was of median height for an anti-chromatic male in his newly minted adulthood. He had raven hair and cerulean eyes, and wore a dark single-breasted suit that enveloped him like a dark shadow, with a red tie like a line of blood slicing down his alabaster clear-buttoned chest.

This is where a lot of aspiring writers get stuck, lost in the clever wording and surprising imagery. It can be like a drug. It’s fun to play with words, to think of new ways to say old things. It is also easy to delude yourself into thinking this is great writing. It has to be, it’s beautiful, and it’s hard to do. It takes a lot more work than just saying something bluntly. A sense of mingling poetry and prose can soon follow and the effects become dramatic.

Mediocre this bleached pedestal of western dominance, this man newly stamped and licensed—legal to drink. Inky black, his raven’s wrath of hair perched indomitable upon his crown shading two cerulean marbles sucked in rolling sockets. His fascist uniform of the new national socialism, blood on snow, on black of death.

This then brings me back to the point of my original post where I suggested describing things using tiny details and general impressions. Here is the same description distilled down to one sentence using the impression method:

Jimmy Davis looked like an insurance salesman, already doomed at the age of twenty-five.

This sentence also uses a bit of something else, which is the real point of this post, and that is involvement and real value. A paragraph of description should never be just a paragraph of description, it should be part of the story, and provide real information that the reader can use. This helps prevent readers from just skipping that large block of descriptive text in which they know nothing will happen—it’s just description.

Too often a writer will introduce a character and feel obligated to describe them. Sometimes however you’ll read a book where the writer offers no description at all to most of their characters, and strangely, while reading it, you don’t even notice until someone points it out. In fact you thought they had, because you have a pretty clear idea in your head what they look like.

How do they do that?

They manage it by building impressions through events in the story. People’s brains are wired to look for patterns, and we have a strong tendency to settle for stereotypes. This is unfortunately why all too often people generalize about whole groups of people, picturing them as having the same attributes. So if a person acts a certain way, or talks a certain way, a visual image forms, and if that is how you want the character to appear, then you really don’t need to waste time describing them. If you portray a character through events as a nervous, sniveling, greedy, fast talking, thief, the visual of a small thin, dirty, beady-eyed, rat-like face will emerge. And then there are subtle hints. If you describe all the other characters as “looking up” at the him, you don’t need to say he’s tall.

Setting-description is a bit more complicated. Failure to provide imagery will leave your reader feeling blind, and in my previous post on description, I mentioned how focusing on just a few precise elements will cast a bigger picture, but this is still just description, and readers find description to be boring. What they like are stories. The answer is to describe the setting through stories that provide real value to the reader—that tell you about the characters or that move the story.

In the middle of the killer’s room was the exact same Wal-Mart coffee table that Detective Gifford had in his own living room.

In this sentence, you are describing the room, but you are bringing the description back and showing how it has personal meaning to the character observing it. You learn a bit about his past as well as the present setting and this makes it more interesting to both the character and the reader. This can be pushed further.

On the table was a stack of souvenir shot glasses, each painted with the names of states. When he was a kid Gifford’s mother used to bring those back to him. He would search through her purse the moment she walked in the door; feeling around like it was a treasure chest and he was Indian Jones. Some, like Florida had oranges on them, and Hawaii had a grass-skirted lady. Gifford was twenty-eight before he thought to wonder why his mother was gifting a ten-year-old shot glasses.

In reading this, no one is going to miss that this killer has souvenir shot glasses on his cheap table because that point was rolled into a little story that was far more entertaining than straight description and also gave you a huge insight into the main character’s past.

This is especially important to do with significant points. I’ve read stories by new writers and I’d have no idea how old the character is, or where they were, only to find out later they said right in the first sentence. The problem is, readers miss things all the time. So if you really need the reader to know something, you need to reinforce it. You don’t want to out-right repeat yourself, or the reader will think you just forgot, which writers often do, and why editors need to watch out for this. If a year, or an age, or the name of the city is mentioned as part of a sentence, it can easily be missed.

It was her first time in New York and she just dumped the contents of her suitcase on the hotel room dresser and then ran for the phone.

It’s not that the reader doesn’t read the words, they just don’t register them if the focus of the sentence or paragraph is elsewhere. That bit of data was just not burned into the reader’s consciousness. In the above sentence, the focus in on this woman in a hurry to unpack, not on her destination.

It was her first time in New York, in fact it was her first time anywhere, and it was amazing. The skyscrapers, their tops hidden by the clouds, took her breath away. And the sidewalks were wide enough to support a two-lane highway, and still not big enough to hold all the people walking. Passing the Empire State Building she eventually entered Times Square, but in the daylight it was disappointing. Still there was the ball perched on top of the building—the one that always dropped on television. Finally, lost in a daze, she reached her hotel room and just dumped the contents of her suitcase on the dresser then ran for the phone.

There is no way any reader will not register where this woman is now, and again it is not just description. Her perspective, her excitement, comes through. This is a place she had dreamed of.

So rather than spending hours creating poetic prose to spice up dead description, that some readers might be inclined to skip, you might find it more effective to write clearly, but make what you write interesting to read by way of the content.

Remember, if it’s boring for you to write, it will be boring for the reader to read. 


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