Friday, March 22, 2013

Perception --> conclusion

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. 
Elmore Leonard

That's a really harsh edict, isn't it? As a reader who tends to skip most descriptive passages, I find myself wanting to skip writing the whole look/sound/taste/smell part of the narrative. But it's so boooooring, I say! I hate describing! I don't see the point!!!

Much of this resistance is me being lazy. But then again, the point is... what's the point? If we don't like writing description, and if after hours of labor we present this paragraph or passage that the reader is just going to skip.... what is the point?

Exactly. What is the point? We're not just writing to fill up pages. So... what's that descriptive passage there for?

Actually, sometimes a description of the setting is needed, to set the stage for action, to outline the context of the conflict, to reflect some aspect of the character. And I think if before I start, I can figure out my purpose here, why I'm describing this, maybe I won't hate writing it, and the reader won't want to skip it.

In deep POV, or in first-person, the essential purpose of description is to show something about what the POV character perceives... and maybe to show what's changing in the character-- what this all means to him/her, how he or she interprets this.

Here's a short passage (end of chapter) in Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. (Very good book, "boarding school thriller," I'll call the genre.) It's in dual first-person (the good guy and the bad guy). This is the good guy, an old Latin teacher at the boarding school. He's been there forever, and at this point, things are starting to change in ways he doesn't like. So the author uses this "change" to provide an opportunity to describe the place:
     As I said, it's hard to explain St. Oswald's: the sound of the place in the mornings; the flat echo of boys' feet against the stone steps; the smell of burning toast from the Refrectory; the peculiar sliding sound of overfilled sports bags being dragged along the newly polished floor. The Honors Board, with gold-painted names dating back from before my great-grandfather; the war memorial; the team photographs; the brash young faces, tinted sepia with the passing of time.

Okay, notice how very much this is in HIS viewpoint-- the description is filtered through his memories, his values, his affection for the place.  And notice how the beginning perceptions are very sensual, very focused on the experience of the senses in this place. But then, the 'summary" becomes something more personal (my great-grandfather) and poignant (the brash young faces). The nostalgia and sadness of that last (this is in Britain, so the names of many of those "brash youngsters" probably are etched onto the war memorial) leads into the deep feeling of the POV character. This is the paragraph that ends the chapter:

Gods, I'm getting sentimental. Age does that; a moment ago I was bemoaning my lot, and now here I am getting all misty-eyed. It must be the weather. And yet, Camus says, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Am I unhappy? All I know is that something has shaken us; shaken us to the foundations. It's in the air, a breath of revolt, and somehow I know it goes deeper than the Fallow affair. Whatever it may be, it is not over. And it's still only September.

Notice that he is commenting on his own description, analyzing what his own choices of perceptions mean. The movement in the first paragraph from pure sensual description to nostalgia and sadness creates a slow accumulation of emotion. And the POV character is the one who, without using the word, identifies that emotion-- dread. Something wicked this way comes.

Description should never just be description. It should be there for some purpose. It should somehow advance the plot, or develop the character-- something that deepens our experience not just of the setting but of the story as a whole.

Why not look at some descriptive passage you have in the last scene you wrote, and tell what the purpose is, and how you furthered that purpose with the sensory description?



Anonymous said...

Okay. A fun experiment. I went back to the scene I declared 'finished' yesterday, and extracted a snippet that has some description in it (I rarely do pure description - for the obvious reasons of not getting it skipped over):

Dana caught a cue from the producer on the sidelines. “And you’ll all have to wait, folks—time for a word from our sponsors. When we come back, novelist K. Beth Winter!”

The camera rolled back, the monitor switched to commercial.

Dana stretched her neck, cracked her vertebrae. “It always gets me, the tension.” The shark smiled at him unapologetically. “Four minutes. Need anything?”

“Nope.” Damn American smoking laws. He deposited his mug on the table, shifted gratefully in a chair that had become a prison. He was the momentary eye in a hurricane of frenetic activity. Privacy—versus the publicity clauses in his contract. It left a metallic taste, as if he’d had a gun in his mouth. Since Roland—offers to be sifted and winnowed. Bianca Doyle directing Dodgson was but a faint possibility. She was one of many in the Hollywood firmament: competent at women’s emotions, sleek, taut-bodied, sexually free, available—interchangeable.

In the wings, the woman from the greenroom sat bowed over a book.

Stage fright? Prayer? What did she have to hide?

Now for your questions:

The purpose is to show the wrapup of an actor's TV interview segment, show what the physical layout is, give us his attitude toward the TV show's host, the medium, publicity tours, a previous (Roland) and a possible future (Dodgson) movie, directors, Hollywood, an actress (a second pov character), and the woman waiting in the wings for the next interview (the third pov character).

All in a paragraph where he has a moment for introspection after the host's attempt to link him romantically with the actress.

To give the impression of noise, busyness, and many other people, I describe it by saying he's in the eye of a hurricane - frantic activity around, but not involving, him.

The sensory description consists of 1) smoking mention (he's not American and could really use a cigarette now), 2) the mug he deposits on the table which he's been using to keep his hands occupied (motion, nerves), and 3) the thought that the armchair has been a prison - showing he felt trapped. 4) The camera moves (a visual detail) and switches to displaying a commercial.

Further, we get his attitude in summary toward three women: Dana (the TV host); the actress who may or may not be a future director but is a stereotype of a replaceable Hollywood nymphet; and a woman he glimpsed as he passed the greenroom 'bowed over a book' in what might be prayer, which he finds intriguing (this goes with a previous thought: knowing they'd be on the same show, he tried to find out something about her before - with no success).

Thanks for the exercise! You always make me think.


(the whole scene is at

Edittorrent said...

>>Dana stretched her neck, cracked her vertebrae. “It always gets me, the tension.” The shark smiled at him unapologetically. “Four minutes. Need anything?”>>

I was a bit confused about the "him" there, I think because "Dana" could be a man or a woman's name? Maybe that's all clear in the paragraph before?

I like that inserted mental question-- Stage fright? Prayer? What did she have to hide?

>>That shows something about him, a suspicious mind, a visual sense, and a uniqueness of vision-- not "She was hawt" but "praying?"


Anonymous said...

Sorry about Dana possibly being a 'him' - yes, it's clear from the beginning that she, the glamorous host of a NY talk show, is not only female, but good at getting stuff out of her guests they might not let out elsewhere (hence "shark" and "piranha" and "bite").

Hard to know exactly where to start an excerpt.

After I posted, I realized I had also forgotten to mention another sense: the discussion - and the issues of privacy vs. the publicity required of actors - left "a metallic taste, as if he’d had a gun in his mouth."

I like the many nuances of the image - since it also has a literal side.

You got my point: he thinks differently - his first thoughts are not automatically about 'attractiveness' - since it is practically a given - 'interchangeable' - in his field, acting.

I always enjoy your exercises - thanks!