Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Behold, my powers of description!

Of all the different aspects of writing a story (character, story, plotting, theme, pace, suspense, what-have-you) by far the easiest to get on the page is description.  You may not know who Jack is, what he’s going to do or how he’s going to do it, but you can still get 400 words down about the boots he wears and the view from his window.

Describing stuff is a necessary part of any story, but it can also go on for quite a while. Certain genres suit a more flowery style (romance, fantasy, historical fiction) and literary fiction in general can tend towards a more deliberative use of language. But it's not enough to describe something well, you also have to know why you're describing it.

Describing something so that the reader can see it for themselves isn’t difficult if you do it in great detail. To give an idea of how someone is dressed by listing every single item of clothing that they are wearing would certainly do the job, but it would be extremely tedious to read. That's not to say you can't make a virtue of it, where a character like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is obsessive about the clothes people wear and it is used to satirise a certain kind of consumerism, but generally a skilful writer can sum up a page and a half of description in a single line and completely nail it.

That ability to reduce an image to a single line is an important tool in the writers toolbox. It's okay to expand on certain areas of the story as you see fit, but it shouldn't be because you can't do otherwise. Those people who write long-winded descriptions of sunsets and lonely moors are well within their rights to justify their choices based on their own taste and preference, but if they don't have the ability to capture a moment in less than a zillion words it makes that choice rather suspect.

Detailed description of something is a bit like a close-up in a movie. If the whole movie is in close-up it becomes disorienting.  If a man walks into a room and there’s a close-up of his desk, that suggest the desk is of some significance . If it turns out there is no special significance then it will feel odd that it was brought to the audience’s attention. Similarly if a man walks into a room and you describe the desk in great detail, it will have the same effect. Your intention may only have been to show us the kind of environment the man lives in, but that isn’t how it will be interpreted.

The writer needs to know why they are writing what they are writing.  They have to have a reason. Hoping the reader will come up with a connection, or that they will so enjoy immersing themselves in the language that they won’t care, isn’t really going to work. Writers don't need to explain their reasoning, or even put it on the page, and often their intentions will fail to be realised, but they need to know for themselves.

Relying on a feeling, instinct, or it coming to them in a dream is fine as a reason to put it down on the page, but it isn't enough of a reason when it comes to rewriting. Editing requires a cool, detached mind and a degree of ruthlessness. That's why other people are much better at seeing mistakes in the writing that the writer cannot. And also why, if the writer puts the work aside for a few weeks and come back to it, he will see things he had previously missed. Because distance is freeing.

Murder your darlings – this doesn't mean take out the things that you like. It means take out the things that you like that are only there because you like them, and serve no other purpose. If a man owns a large business and places his unqualified son at the head of it, that is generally seen as a bad thing to do. He's putting his personal interests ahead of that of the company. But if the son turns out to be good at the job there is no need for him to listen to anyone, it’s his company, the hell with everyone else. However, if his son turns out to be terrible job but he insists on keeping him there, then you can see that that will turn into a problem for the company.

In terms of writing, a writer can become fond of a well turned out phrase or a piece of eye-catching description. Other people may also become fond of it, but that doesn't mean it is in the right place. Cutting it can be hard, but once the decision is made and times passes, it won't seem so unbearable. And it can always be used somewhere else more appropriate.

It’s not always easy to tell where description is excessive or inappropriate. The easiest way is to look at what is happening in the scene.

If you have a man trying to subdue a wild horse, and the battle of wills is written with pace and tension, the reader won’t really mind if you forget to mention what colour the horse is. If you describe the fuck out of the horse’s glossy coat, write a short poem on its flaxen mane and an ode to its chestnut eyes, and the horse is just stood in a field chewing on some grass, the only interested parties will be those with an uncommon fondness for horses (equuphiles?).

There's a big difference in how a piece of information,  whether it's description of back story or exposition, is taken by the reader depending on the context. Never mind what you are describing, why are you describing it?

If a man walks past a house and you go into great detail about what that house looks like (it may be a very interesting looking house) and then the man keeps walking and the house is never mentioned again, it's going to seem a strange thing to have mentioned in the first place.

If the man stops outside the house, you describe the house, and then he walks up to the house and knocks on the door, it's going to make a little more sense but still, if the description of the house goes on too long it's going to affect the pace of the story. Yeah, it’s a house. So?

If the man stopped outside the house and you describe the house in terms of the man's perceptions, meaning that in showing how he views the house it tells us something about him and his relationship to the house, then that becomes much more powerful. Say, for example, it's his grandmother's house which he has inherited but he always hated his grandmother and the state of the porch is decrepit and dangerous, then a description of the porch can not only give us an idea of what we're looking at but also of his state of mind.

So, linking description to plot and character makes it much more engaging. Keeping it brief and concise gives it greater impact. Tone and voice and language can all be used as effectively in short bursts as they can in long unwieldy passages.

The temptation is to go for the grand portrait because it’s enjoyable to write and fun to feel like a writer with epic scope. Consider though, it is possible to sketch a picture using lots of charcoal scribbles and it's also possible to draw it with a few clean lines. Both can work. But, it's easier to get away with a rough looking sketch than it is a picture drawn with a couple of strokes. That's why the insecure artist tends to go for the messy and the abstract. It still looks like art and you can make up any number of excuses for its missing qualities. And there are, of course, plenty of great artists that work in that style. But choosing to work in a style and having no other options are two separate things. And it's not particularly hard to spot the difference.

Paring back excessive words to reveal what's at the heart of your story can expose that story as having nothing at its heart. In fact more often than not. The difference is that if you do it yourself you can discover that and take the necessary steps (by chucking it or improving it), whereas if you put it forward as a finished product any experienced reader will see it for what it is.

Description tends to be static and one note.  The emphasis is on a state of being rather than a state of doing.  One way to overcome that effect is to put the description in and around action. If a man is standing looking at his garden, describing the view, it gets old fast. If the same man is hunting a mole in that garden, and in order to show what he’s doing with hose pipes and digging equipment, you happen to mention the flowers he tramples, the turf he destroys, the fence he knocks down, then you can still give a full description of the environment without the reader even noticing.

On the simplest level, just connecting the description to the action can make the world of difference.

A) It was a dark and stormy night. Thunder shook the clouds and rain splattered across the driveway in fat globs. Lightning flashed across the purple-black sky. Dave opened the rusty garage door and pushed his bike out into the wet night.

B) It was a dark and stormy night. Thunder shook the clouds and rain splattered across the driveway in fat globs. Lightning flashed across the purple-black sky. Dave opened the rusty garage door and pushed his weather machine out into the wet night.

In Summary:

1.  Link description to plot and character. Make it relevant to the story and show it through the filter of a specific character.

2. Don’t stop the action to look around. Put the emphasis on what‘s happening, and sneak in what things look like.

3. More description means it’s more important. So, how important is it?

4. Why are you describing whatever it is you’re describing? If you don’t know the reader won’t care how beautifully written it is, they’ll get bored (apart from the equuphiles, obviously).


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