Saturday, March 03, 2007

Using Description

Just a little post for those interested in writing techniques.
I love a good descriptive passage in a book, but they're hard to write. Some are too long and lose the reader's concentration. Some are too short and leave the reader unsatisfied. Some of my favorite writers are character writers who give concise descriptions.
Agatha Christie gave us a pompous, curious, intelligent little detective with a ridiculous mustache and a soft heart. Hercule Poirot is a complete character, his picture springing to mind thanks to details that Ms. Christie was careful to give us in small doses. His shiny shoes, his pursed lips, his flicking dust off his coat all give us the image of someone fastidious.

And some writers use adjectives like paint, making deep, vibrant, and rich passages:

"It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway. " (Excerpt from 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy)

And yet, you can overload on details. Description is hard to get just right. Even now my editor sometimes circles things with a red pen and says, 'unnecessary!' So I cut it out. It's easy to get carried away with description. Often, a few well chosen words can say more than a whole page of description. It's easy to get bogged down. Here is a passage from a book I'm working on. It's a fantasy, and has an enchanted unicorn in it. A young man is trying to catch the unicorn. He's never seen one before.

First, I set the scene:

The first sign of the unicorn glade were tiny, pale green ferns curled like baby fists in the shelter of ledge and root. Snow sifted through the branches, but it didn’t reach the ground. Instead, it turned to small droplets of water. Underfoot, the frozen ground suddenly thawed and became mossy. As Sylvain advanced, he spotted bare branches sprouting green leaves. Soon, overhead, there was a canopy of dappled greenery and sunlight.

Then I show the hero and what he's feeling:

A balmy breeze tickled Sylvain’s nose and his horse arched its neck and whickered. In a patch of sunlight, water sparkled. Something moved, reminding Sylvain of a white curtain blowing suddenly in the breeze on a hot, summer day. He was a small boy again, sitting in his room early in the morning, with no worries, his only thoughts about what he would do that day; pick blackberries, wade in the stream, catch butterflies in his new net. For a second the world seemed to tremble, poised upon the knife-blade of his memories. He glimpsed the quick movement again, but he was too slow to catch it. He heard no sound, but scented a faint whiff of lily of the valley. He dismounted, looping the reins over his arm. The air grew warmer. “Leonie?” he called softly. “Are you there?”

Then I describe what Sylvain sees:

The unicorn stepped out from behind a pine tree. Each step was as light as a falling feather. For a moment Sylvain felt blinded, dazzled, and he could not take in the whole creature at once. Instead he saw her in flashes; a tall, spiraled horn the color of sea-foam, shy eyes that darkened or grew pale as she turned her narrow head, a mane and tail as fine as silk floss, a coat like frosted white velvet, and strong, nervous legs. A unicorn. He hardly dared draw a breath.
“Why are you here?” The words sounded in his mind. Her voice. Leonie’s voice.
The unicorn only stared at him with eyes as deep as the ocean.

Maybe five or six sentences each time. All of it description, but about different things.
The setting, the character's feelings, and the unicorn.

I've been reading chapters from the slush pile this weekend, and one thing that jumps out at me is when the author uses too much description or when description is unnecessary. One went as far as to name the make of the car (in parenthesis) in the middle of a chase scene. If you're writing a tense chase scene, don't break off to tell what kind of car the hero is driving. Or the color. Instead, see the scene from the hero's eyes. Feel it with his whole body. Is the steering wheel vibrating with speed? Is the engine screaming? Does he catch a whiff of burnt rubber as he slams on the brakes, his seatbelt digging into his chest? Probably all of the above. But don't write - 'He stepped on the gas and his car (a light blue 1986 Thunderbird) took off with a roar.'
Don't write, 'Jessica Olander thought that the whole things was just silly. She tossed her silky blond hair out of her eyes and peered at the map with a sea-green gaze.' If you're in the characters POV (point of view) she's not going to think her own hair is silky or her is gaze sea- green. Don't describe the character whose POV you're in. (Unless the character is staring in a mirror, but mostly that device is over-used, or if you do use it, make it intrinsic to the story.) Both mistakes (but not exactly the ones above) were in one of the submissions I read yesterday, and although I thought the idea was terrific, the writing told me that the author needed to work on his craft a little more. Working on description is important. It's a small effort to make, but well worth it.


Bernita said...

Oh, nice, NICE post, Sam!
"Don't describe the character whose POV you're in" - that sums it succinctly. Thank you.

Sam said...

Thanks Bernita!
Sometimes it's good to go back to the basics, lol. I'm always learning something new - right now I'm working on pacing a thriller, comparing how different authors pace a mystery book.

spyscribbler said...

Great article, thank you! I found your post via Bernita. :-)

I struggle with the balance. I usually don't have enough at first, and then I color it in later. I don't know if I ever have too much!

Gabriele C. said...

I use description mostly to convey an atmosphere, and that is connected to the POV, of course. The sinister German forests a Roman sees are shelter and home for the Germans.

Sometimes I give the camera angle in a few sentences, and then zoom into the scene, but those descriptions should not be too long because they lack the POV connection that grounds the reader in the story.

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

Wonderful post, Sam!!

Sam said...

Thanks Spy scribbler - and glad you popped over!

Gabriele - I love description of forests. The POV point you made is a good one.

Daisy - Thanks!

Wynn Bexton said...

Once, because I knew I tended to over-describe, I read and wrote haiku and Chinese poetry for about a year, just to practice honing my descriptions down to simple imagry.