Monday, February 1, 2010

Description and Descriptive

We've had several requests to talk about ways to handle description. It seems there's some anxiety out there about this topic. How do you incorporate description without slowing the pacing? How do you layer description into the text so that it doesn't interrupt the action? How much is too little, and how much is too much?

Before we can really tackle this topic, though, we ought to take a look at a related matter that might prevent you from ever needing to contemplate these questions. Let's start with definitions.

Narrative which sets out the details of setting and the sensory impact of the characters and environment.

Descriptive Prose
Narrative which, although its primary purpose is to convey action, interior monologue, dialogue, or exposition, achieves a descriptive impact through word choices and sentence structures.

Before you can begin to assess how much description your narrative can (or should) include, you need to assess the overall descriptive impact of the prose. Do you write,

The woman ate a bite of cake.

Or do you write,

The cook-off judge tasted the caramel fudge torte.

Or do you write,

The cook-off judge dipped her fork into the caramel fudge torte. A strand of amber filling stretched across the pathway to her lips, and the spectators leaned forward to stare. She tasted, and almost as if unable to help her reaction, her eyes temporarily drifted closed and she lost her blank, stiff judge's posture.

Now, there's a lot more to these passages than additional text. The length does matter, of course, because you want to grant actions as much weight as their relevance requires. If the pov character baked the cake, then the third passage might make more sense. If the pov character is a cop searching the crowd for a suspect, maybe not so much detail about the gooey goodness.

Now, here's about as close to a rule of thumb as you'll ever get. Relative to the total narrative, you want to spend enough visual space on relevant details as is necessary for the reader to understand their relative importance.

In other words, if your text is very fast and light and streamlined, a very small relative amount of descriptive prose can shine a big spotlight on a moment. But if you write detailed, leisurely prose, you'll need to grant even more space to important details if you want them to register with the readers as important.

(Some of you right now are thinking, But if it's not important, why include it at all? This is where art comes in. Otherwise, all romance novels could be printed as, "These people fell in love. The end." And mysteries could be printed as, "A guy died, and another guy caught the killer. The end.")

The question is not whether a detail is important at all, but whether a detail is important enough to warrant the amount of space you assign it.

Other than the amount of space given to this moment, though, look at some of the other changes. We have highly specific nouns -- not just a woman, but a cook-off judge. Not just a cake, but a caramel fudge torte.

We have precise and vivid verbs -- not just ate, but tasted. And look at the additional verbs in the third passage. Dipped, stretched, leaned -- all verbs of motion that convey things we can see with the mind's eye.

Finally, in the third piece, we've broken down the act of tasting a cake into several separate steps, each described not just in terms of the visuals, but in terms of the impact on the people involved. The crowd reacts. The judge reacts. These reactions enhance the impact on the reader.

Let's try one in the comments. Here's a plain jane sentence -- your task is to do two new sentences, one light but more descriptive, and the other more developed for greater impact.

The man walked through the snow to get his mail.

Have fun with it!


Riley Murphy said...

The young man walked briskly through the blinding snow to get his mail.

The old man shivered, his nostril hairs hardened, and his eyes watered, as he walked into the snow laden gusts of wind to get his mail.


Dave Shaw said...

The minister trudged through the wet, heavy snow, intent on retrieving the parish mail.

The elderly trapper snowshoed the five miles from his winter lodge to the country road where his mailbox stood, watching for fox tracks as he enjoyed the fresh powder and brilliant sunshine.

Leona said...

The muscular body of the man traipsed through the snow on his way to get the mail.

Pulling his coat closer to ward off the wind, he marshaled his courage and began to gingerly move through the snow in his patent leathers to get to the rusty mailbox at the end of the muddy driveway.

Livia Blackburne said...

The blond man trudged steadily through the snow to the mailbox.

The stumbled through the snow, squinting into the wind and wading through the drifts with a determination born of desperation. He had to get that letter.

I once read a short story that had a really great descriptive passage. The author realized it was an important event and slowed it down descriptively so we could see every detail.

Lisa_Gibson said...

The snow flew in his face, making his eyes close to the freezing bits of ice pelting them, he trudged to his mailbox. There were moments, the man's body appeared more perpendicular to the ground than upright. As though walking through oatmeal, he forged ahead, determined to retrieve the mail.

Jordan McCollum said...

Lovely description, all!

Here's a question: a while ago we were talking about burying clues. Let's say it's important (a big clue/the ID of the murderer/etc.), but you don't want readers to focus on it too much. Do you place it somewhere in the middle?

Jordan McCollum said...

(in the middle of the continuum of generic/descriptive)

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Jordan! *waves*

I tend to bury clues of a possible weapon in a list. Or, I like to have the Murderer mentioned up front when there's a sudden interruption. That way the reader is distracted and the main character can go back and explore possible suspects. Even mention the murderer name again, but not go into details.

Murphy - who could scrounge some examples if she had to... :D

Tere Kirkland said...

He flipped the collar of his coat up to keep the sleety wind from biting his neck, wishing he'd worn boots to get the mail instead of his dress shoes. Each step down the snowy, spruce-lined driveway soaked the leather and their slick bottoms found little purchase. What he discovered in the mailbox makes him forget all about his ruined shoes.

Tere Kirkland said...

er, made. yeah

I've been writing too much in the present tense lately. ;)

Anonymous said...

The man walked through the snow to get his mail.

The pensioner trudged through the snow to get his mail-order package
(don't need to say it is a man if i have 'his' in the sentence, do I?)

The pensioner trudged through the snow. The cold seeped into his bones, making each step a mission in will. Wind and snow swirled through his rob, chilling him to the core. The pensioner shivered and shook, but he settled his mouth into a thin line and pushed through to the mailbox. He'd been waiting eight weeks for this. He wasn't going to let nature stop him now.

Jordan McCollum said...

Hey Murph!

I was there for the burying clues discussion. I'm just trying to bring that into this dimension of writing. :D

I'm inclined to say we don't want to give a full-out description of a clue (anything; a writing desk, a raven, etc.) the first time we show it (i.e. option C here) because it would draw more attention to it than it would normally merit there. But we may want to give it more than just a passing mention (i.e. option A here) so that our readers can remember it when it does become significant later.

So should we err towards option B (depending on precise context, of course, and probably balancing/burying it with things that aren't as significant, as you mention) the first time we come across the clue, and save option C for when we get to examine it further? Or go for option A and hope the readers remember when we get back to it?

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, probably the easiest thing to do is include the detail in a passage focusing attention on other information. In the cake tasting example, the fork might be the clue -- but the reader's attention is placed on the caramel and the judge's sensory reaction to the taste of the cake. So, make it small if you include it with something big.

Before, we hid the clue by burying it in the middle of a list. This time, we're hiding the clue by throwing the weight of the passage in a different direction. In both cases, the clue is plainly stated but it's presence is diminished because we surround it with other things.

You could also hide the clue in a transition. That's usually a throwaway spot in the narrative.


Riley Murphy said...

Jordan, I see what you're saying. And those options are all viable, depending on story progression. I do like T's transition option. I've done that on occasion. It's a smart choice and gives the writer a chance to introduce something, one thing, at a good drop-off point - where the reader is anticipating the next chapter start or the next topic intro and isn't paying close attention- but enough to remember later. :D


Jami Gold said...

The young man hopped over the snowdrifts to see if he'd received a reply to his college application in the mail yet.

He pulled his bare hands out of his jacket pockets to turn up the collar against the wind. With a swing of his arms, he leaped over the snowdrift at the edge of the road and skidded to the mailbox. His fingers trembled, whether from the cold or nervousness, he wasn't sure. To break the suspense, he yanked open the mailbox door. Had he been accepted into Harvard, or not?

Andrew Rosenberg said...

The man walked through the snow to get his mail.

The gnarled man trudged through the shifting snow to retrieve his weekly insulin delivery.

The gnarled man, his coat wrapped close to his craggy features, crawled through the raging blizzard, intent on reaching his buried mailbox, desperate to read the newspaper to learn the winner of the Colts/Saints game.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

The old man trudged through the shin deep snow to get his mail. His cane skidded on something he couldn't see, and he nearly lost his balance. He was getting to old for this.

rachel said...

The leather-faced man slipped his way through the gathering snow on the sidewalk to reach an old, rusty mailbox.

The leather-faced man squinted through the stinging flakes of sleet to the end of the sidewalk where an old, and severely rusting mailbox patiently waited. His lips curled into resoluteness as he gripped the railing and began stomping his way through the gathering snow, which he was sure hid a sheet of ice beneath its tuffs of innocence. That was all he needed-to break his other hip. And over what? A letter from her?

Anonymous said...

The man walked through the snow to get his mail.

Jeff pulled on his boots and the heavy winter coat. Maybe today there'd be a letter. He lowered his eyes against the stinging wind and shouldered his way through the blowing snow. He reached the mailbox and scanned the bills. Then plodded back to the covered porch.

Lisa's brother saw the mailman, but he waited until the little scooter pulled away before pulling on his boots. "I'm already dressed," she said. "I'll get it." But Jeff shook his head and shrugged into his coat. Ever since Elle had left, he checked the mail for some word. Every day. Even when the snow covered his ankles and blew drifts against the porch. Word never came with the mail.