Saturday, February 6, 2010

Your Embellished Sentences

In our last substantive post, I asked you all to embellish a sentence. We presented a few key concepts in that post.
  1. Action, dialogue, interior monologue, and other narrative elements can be rendered descriptive by word choice.
  2. These elements can also be made descriptive by slowing down the speed at which the events are related.
  3. These elements can also be made descriptive by demonstrating the way the characters respond to or interact with the details
  4. This form of "descriptive writing" is not the same thing as "description."

I also want to frontpage one of the ideas in the comments. We discussed what might be called the Mystery Clue Exception. Think of it this way. The general rule is to allocate space in the narrative which is roughly equivalent to the importance of the detail being presented. Important details get more words or lines. But if we did that with clues in mysteries, we would give it all away. In those cases, we want to minimize the space (and downplay the presentation) of the important detail and throw the reader's focus onto other matters.

With that said, let's take a look at some of the embellished sentences. The original sentence was,
The man walked through the snow to get his mail.

The Man
Some of you chose to embellish the man with an adjective:
The young man, The old man (Murphy)
The blond man (Livia)
The young man (Jami G.)
The gnarled man (Iapetus999)
The old man (Dominique)
The leather-faced man (Rachel)

And some of you chose to substitute a different noun, something more evocative than plain old man.
The minister (Dave Shaw)
The pensioner (John Harper)

In general, which is better? That depends. The substitute nouns are genderless, so if the sex of the character is relevant (or if it hasn't been previously established otherwise), using a plain noun like man or woman will be a good choice. If you do this and add an adjective, remember that descriptiveness is the goal. Which of those adjectives gives you a fast, unique visual impression of the man? I lean toward gnarled and leather-faced, both of which are strongly evocative and concrete.

But if the gender has already been established, tagging the character with a social role such as minister or pensioner will give the reader a way to understand the nature of the character in a slightly less visual way. There may still be visual elements -- pensioners are generally elderly, and ministers tend to wear those collars. But in this case, the descriptive element is about the nature of the character rather than the strict visual presentation.

Special tip of the hat #1:
The elderly trapper (Dave Shaw)

Here, Dave combined both approaches, using a role-based noun and padding it with an adjective. It's a trapper -- a job title that carries connotations of outdoorsiness, maybe burliness or other indications of physical strength, maybe jeans and flannels and boots. The adjective is the right kind of adjective, too, providing a layer of detail not implied by the original noun. It's a strong combination.

Special tip of the hat #2:
Lisa's brother (Suelder)

Here, Suelder used a noun that states a relationship, brother, and then created the relationship with the use of the possessive. It's not just any brother, it's Lisa's brother, and now we all know who we're talking about. So this is something like the social role nouns of trapper and minister, but it's enhanced by the stated relationship to another character. It might not be a highly visual subject, but remember that we're not talking about pure description but about "descriptiveness." By presenting this relationship between the characters, we know something we might not have known before. So this is a very effective subject, but it should be used sparingly. Once the relationship is made clear for the reader, we wouldn't want to keep seeing it detailed in the narrative.

Before we move on to other aspects of the exercise sentences, I want to toss out a question for discussion. Let's say that generally we have the following choices for our subject:
adjective + generic noun
"social role" noun
adjective + social role noun

Let's also assume that a proper name is not an option. How does the context influence which of these three options to choose?



Erastes said...

I have to be honest, I absolutely LOATHE "the young man" "the green eyed man" etc etc - epithets in general are poison. I think it's probably because, in fandom, they were so rife it was not funny. There'd be a sex scene between Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter (for example) and the scene would be entirely made up of "the green eyed wizard" "the blond youth" "the blond wizard" "the dark haired man" etc etc and never once mentioning their NAMES. Stick to the names once you know them, or "him" or "he" if it's not confusing - don't think you are being clear by using epithets because you aren't. I thoroughly agree that before you know that person's name - e.g. "The elderly woodcutter wiped his brow and said, " my name is..." but after that. NO NO NO. don't do it.

Edittorrent said...

That's exactly why I said that we have to assume a proper noun is not an option. This kind of writing can get very twee very quickly. But it does have a purpose, too, and this is what I'm trying to get at with my question. :)


Dave Shaw said...

If the social role matters to the plot or to how the character appears or behaves, I think it should be brought in as early as possible. The social role may or may not be enough to establish the character in the reader's mind's eye, though, in which case that adjective can be very helpful. If the social role is irrelevant, it may be better to skip it as being too distracting--unless it's being used to obscure a clue, of course.

I guess I'd ask questions like:
'How important is this character?'
'What is his role in this paragraph? Scene? Story?'
'How vividly do I need to describe him for the effect I want?'

Once I know all that, then I can pick my words. They might even work. ;-)

Deb Salisbury said...

The amount of description I'd include would depend on how important the character is, and what the reader needs to know for the scene to make sense.

So, I might say "the younger waiter" to imply two waiters, or "elderly trapper" to imply frailty in a formerly strong man. I'm not fond of generic nouns if I can find a specific one, but I'd only add an adjective if 1) I plan to use the character for more than one scene, or to avoid confusion.

I have a suspicion I just restated part of your post. :-}

Leona said...

Im not getting the time I need to read my blogs, but I'm trying. Still, I think this post may need a re-read by me.

I think, again, that I'm the wrong person to ask this. Any time my husband helps edit my books, he says I don't use enough descriptive words. So I may need to look at this from a different point of view :D

I agree with everything I understood, however, sometimes I think people are too general and emphasize the wrong thing because they are too lazy to look at a better way. "the green eyed wizard" was a good example.