Friday, June 1, 2012

Description Tips

By Jill Williamson
I talked about describing characters last week. I wanted to expand on that a bit. Editors and writing instructors vary on their insistence that setting and characters be described fully. Some say leave it and let the reader imagine everything. Others say you need to paint the scene for the reader so they can see it.
If you describe nothing, you have what’s commonly referred to as talking heads, which is a string of dialogue coming from people the reader can’t see. And if you describe too much, you can pull the reader right out of the story.
I think somewhere in the middle is best.
My editor, Jeff Gerke, in his book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, explained it to me like this. Imagine yourself in a dark movie theater. The screen is black. Then some people begin to talk. But there are no faces on the screen. If this goes on for too long you would become really frustrated with this movie.

Now two faces appear on the screen, but their heads are just floating there on a black background. This might be tolerable for a moment or two, but soon you'd want to know where these people are. What the setting is. If there is anyone else around.

Jeff says to think of description as if you were attending a play. You sit in the audience, the curtain opens, you see the set. The characters walk on stage. And everything you see is part of the story. All the props are there if the actors need them. And readers deserve no less in a novel. They should be able to picture the set in their mind at the start of each scene, and if someone picks up a chair and throws it, the reader should have been told about the chair already.
Another thing Jeff taught me was to start big and general, then give details, as if your point of view character's eyes are a video camera that see something and zooms in to get a closer look. Here are two examples from my book, By Darkness Hid.
The boat slowly rounded the rocky cape, and the land ahead came into view. Vrell gasped. The rocky coast on her left came to a point where it nearly met the flat, grassy land that curved down from the right. Two colossal pillars—clearly man-made—rose from the land on either side, each one wider than three redpines. An iron portcullis stretched across the sea between the pillars, its black bars woven in a tight, intricate pattern.
Beyond and slightly to the right, she could see the second set of the Reshon Gates standing sentry, looking much smaller from her position. Further right, in the distance, the stone city of Mahanaim sat like stacked yellow, brown, grey, and orange blocks against the velvety backdrop of Darkness.
And here is a shorter example from the same book.
Achan followed Sir Gavin to the fourth floor and down a dark hallway to the knight’s bedchamber. It was a nice room with a bed, a sideboard, a fireplace, and a chair by a window that overlooked the tournament field.
A boy Achan’s age stood near the fireplace, two stools beside him—one empty, the other holding a basin of water.
I'm not the best at description, but if we tear my examples apart, you can see that both descriptions start out broad and narrow in. First, what they see: A rocky cape or a bedchamber. Then the details. Vrell, because she is a girl who notices more detail, goes on longer than Achan, who points out the need to know facts.
Writing good description takes practice and many rewrites. I tend to ignore description in my first draft and add it in during the rewrite stage.
So when you go back in, try to start general and zoom in. Give us the type of place first and use simple words: alley, classroom, gym, girl's bedroom, hallway, office, sea. And then go into your details using specific words or phrases that provide easy visuals: oily street, rocky cape, black bars woven, piles of trash, grassy hill, cluttered desk, colossal pillars, velvety backdrop of Darkness. 
Try to avoid using lots of “ly” adverbs. And use metaphors and similes whenever possible because they provide your reader with an instant visual. For example: Mrs. Daggett was huge, a wrinkled lineman in an Eagles green housecoat. 
What do you think of Jeff's example of the movie theaters and looking through a camera. Do those examples help you visualize what it is your readers need to see?

18 comments:

  1. Cool comment about the theater and the talking heads. A lot of my first books tended to be like that.
    Isn't that how people notice stuff in real life, the general stuff and then specific details?

    I have a question, though: What if you can't figure out how to describe something?

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    1. LOL Tough question. I think you can always figure out how. Your first attempt might not always be the best attempt. But even if you start out with a list (He saw this and this and this), you'll at least have it down. Then, when you go in to rewrite, you can work on fixing it. Try to incorporate at least one of the five senses on every page. Alternate them. Give us a smell here, a sound there, and you can always give several visuals too.

      So many people get stuck rewriting their first chapter again and again, changing how or where the story begins, that they never get that first draft finished, let alone get to the point of going back in to rewrite and look for places to improve your craft. The more you write every day, or as often as you can, the better you will get and the easier things like describing something will come.

      Hope that makes sense.

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  2. Excellent post, Jill! Description is always necessary to a good book, but I've found myself rambling on and on about something that's not that important. I find it's important to describe all of the major things - setting, main characters, action - really well and kind of describe-but-not-overly-much on the things that are there but not a part of the story. This is partly because I've read a book where the author went into great detail on the most unimportant things and it really pulled me out of the story.

    Overall, detail is good! I've also read a book with no detail and it was boring...Isn't that how we learn a lot though? Reading books that weren't that good in a certain aspect?

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    1. Yes! Reading other books is a great way to learn. And if you're the type of person to over-describe, that is definitely something you can weed out during your rewrite stage.

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  3. Thanks Jill! I love the theater example.

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  4. I love reading and writing description, but I think there should be a balance. (but that's with everything in life, isn't it?) Sometimes I wonder if I am even good at it. My favorite line from my first draft is when I describe a handshake as holding a dead fish :)

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    1. Love that description!

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    2. @Princess
      That is awesome!

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    3. Everything must be balanced, you bet!

      And that's a good one, Princess! Don't doubt yourself. Just keep plugging away. That nasty voice telling you you're no good is bad! Ignore that voice and trust that you can do description just fine! :-)

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  5. Great post!

    But how much description is actually too much?

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    1. I think the problem with too much description is that while you're describing a setting, there isn't anything going on. People have short attention spans. Basic description needs to give them the picture they need to understand what's going on. More detailed description needs to be interesting. If they want to know what the villain does next, they don't care about the history of the castle they are in - unless it's really relevant. So if it's cool (ie, the readers want/like to know it), relevant to the story goal/what's happening right now or says/infers something important about the place the characters are in or the people they meet, keep it in. Otherwise, cut it out, because nothing is happening, and that's boring. At least, that's the guideline I use.

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    2. That's good advice, Anonymous.

      Chanelle, it's a difficult thing to learn at first, which is why it's helpful to have a critique group. But the idea is to give just enough description without pulling the reader out of the story or making them skim over your description to get back to the action.

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  6. WOW! This advice is so helpful- thank you! I love the "floating talking heads" example- makes sense!

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    1. Yeah... they're funny when you imagine them, huh?

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  7. I've been learning about showing vs. telling, but have always had a hard time telling the difference (no one ever gives enough examples), so I want to share with you something I discovered while working on my WIP yesterday. I can write a passage like this: "The path was narrow and overgrown. Branches and twigs caught at my face and hair. Clearly the path had not been used for some time." Or like this: "I edged along the path after Landon, trying and failing to avoid the branches and twigs that caught at my face and clothes. I paused for a moment to rescue my hair from a sticker bush. "I take it no one has used this path for awhile?" I said." I think the first example is mostly telling, while the second (which happens to be straight from my WIP, so please don't steal it : ) is mostly showing. We actually experience the trail in the 2nd, whereas we only hear about it in the 1st. What do you think?

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    1. It's great, Anonymous! And I love how you turned the narrative assumption into dialogue. Good job!

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  8. Oh, those floating heads on a dark background in a movie theater reminds of Snow White with the Mirror on the wall the Queen is always talking to (the Disney version not the recent one).

    I've never heard the camera analogy. Wow! Narrowing in will be so fun to do! Thank you, Jill!

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