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WRITING DESCRIPTION

Greetings and Salutations,

Welcome back to the swamp.  We’re cleaning up around here today so don’t pay any attention to the mess.  It seems the zombie horde had a party on Tuesday to celebrate the release of ‘The Return Of The Living Dead’, in 1985.   Of course anyone in the know will tell you they never left.  But Hollywood is Hollywood and we know they rarely get the facts straight.  So while the undead are milling about trying to identify stray body parts we’ll move on to the topic at hand.

Writing description in fiction.  Without getting bogged down in technical jargon, I break description into two main categories.  Phrases that accompany dialogue conveying the characters response to the scene around him or her.  These include actions and emotions.  We’ll save that one for next week.  The other type is the exposition that sets the scene.

This is the tricky one in my opinion.  If you bring Bobby Sue through the door of the honky-tonk and leave her there fussing with a frayed thread from her cut-offs while you go into a room inventory, you’ve left me at the door with her.  Probably wishing for a drink to ease the pain of plodding through page after page of what the inside of a bar looks like.  This is where I get into disputes with my fellow Evil Dwarves.  If you go into a description of the scarred table with uneven legs causing it to rock back and forth, my mind drifts to the hundreds of tables I’ve had to prop with matchbooks and napkins to keep from getting seasick during dinner.  And I’m long gone by the time you describe the torn felt on the pool table and the less than clean glasses stacked into the back-bar.  Unless we’re spending the entire 300 pages of your novel in that honky-tonk, I don’t need to know what your honky-tonk looks like in detail.

You see, IMO, the reader can create a honky-tonk even more vivid than yours.  If the detailed description of the honky-tonk forwards the plot then of course you must include.  On the other hand if you’re caught in that famous writers trap of incorporating everything you know into your story, you must break out.  MY favorite example of allowing the reader to fill in the blanks is The Cubists Attorney, by Peter Atkins.  In it identical triplets come into the attorney’s office for the reading of their father’s will.  He marvels at “three editions of exactly the same person, “stunningly beautiful, young women.”  Later he states that they are “gorgeous, absolutely drop dead gorgeous.”   And finally  “All three of them, beautiful, arousing and as barking mad as their fu–ing father.”

When I first read the story I never asked what color is their hair, what are they wearing, ect. ect.  You see I had a perfect image of a drop dead gorgeous young woman, I didn’t need Peter’s help.  My imagination down shifted into the hairpin curves of the road ahead.  Raven haired beauties with big dark eyes, pale complexions and full red lips.  I could go on but I think you get the idea.  So how much is too much.  When is it not enough.

Jim Williams said, ”   The amount and type of description needed in a story is in direct proportion to how familiar the setting or character is to the reader.  The problem is there may be many things familiar to the writer, but not to the readers–or the other way around.  

If the story takes place inside a medieval castle, then a fair amount of description is justified, as most people are not familiar with castle layouts, features, or the surrounding facilities.  The writers of romance typically spend pages and pages painting word pictures of their ‘hero hunk’ (how could the readers proceed without knowing he has green eyes or dimples on his butt?)

If the story takes place in familiar territory such as a major modern city, then less description is required.

My preference is to go with a sparser description and let the readers fill in the blanks to fit their own world view.

Okay here’s my cent and a half:  How much description works or is just too damn much?

Jami Gray said; For me it all depends on the story.  I’ve read books where character descriptions go on and on and on and on… until I want to commune with the porcelain god in voracious fashion.  I’ve also read stories where one or two lines paint an entire world. 

Description is an art form.  There are times, mainly in world building, that description has its place.  It’s a good place, one where you paint with words so your reader sees what you want to show them.  Then there are other areas, like character description or some really cool animal  you created, and suddenly you find you’re hammering your descriptions into your readers’ faces.  Not nice, not nice at all.  

So what’s a writer to do?

Don’t know, I’m not the Magic 8 Ball for writers (no matter how much that would rock) but here’s what I’ve learned through the judicious comments of my editors:

Character description: do it once in the beginning then LET IT GO. No one wants to be slapped around by the shimmering waves of blonde hair or the crystal clarity of sky blue eyes through out the whole story, it may cause some serious brain damage.  If you find you need to use character description, use it with intelligence, make it an important part of the scene. Otherwise-enough.

Setting:  Build your world but if you detail it too much (down to the last grain of sand) your readers are going to be so frustrated because you’ve left nothing up to them to imagine, and that’s just mean.  You write stories to share with others not just because those voices in your head demand attention, but because you want to share those worlds–let your reader find their place.

Remember, you can spout endless adjectives to get your point across but sometimes, simple really is best.

What do you prefer to write and or read?  Let’s hear from you.

This weeks quote comes from Elmore Leonard,

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Write on,

Eerie

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