Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Description and texture

I'm the worst person to talk about description. I hate writing it, and I don't much like reading it either. I'm lamentably un-visual, and so reading what the scene or the room or the world looks like doesn't register for me, and writing it is just an ordeal, as I don't "see" well, and so I almost have to mentally invent the visual aspect of a scene.

However, I think if we think of description as merely description, we might be missing an opportunity here. Description is useful for deepening a scene, for making it seem more real and authentic-- books without much "scene-setting" often seem thin. We are, after all, the children of a visual age of cinema and TV, and we might need the additional details of the setting to make this feel real to us.

Another way we can use description-- perhaps the other important one-- is to create a tone.  A straightforward description of a room ("As he entered, on his left was a closet door, and on the right was the entry to a gleaming modern kitchen. Ahead were two leather couches set in sequence in front of a big screen TV. The effect was that of a tiny movie theater.") accomplishes that goal of making the scene seem real-- the reader can visualize this place.

But the straight description doesn't create much of an emotional atmosphere-- a tone.  I think a lot of us just fall short at this point. We describe what we want the reader to see, but we don't go further to create what we want the reader to feel.  This is a lost opportunity. We've wasted a few paragraphs on something many readers will just skim because it doesn't add much to the experience of the scene. I'd just like here to suggest some ways that you and I (especially I!) can use those paragraphs to deepen the texture of the scene.

1) Description can vary with the genre or the scene purpose.  That is, the same scene (a park, say) might be rendered in a romantic way in a romance or in a scary way in a horror film. It might just be a matter of emphasis, on what details we select. For example, in a romantic scene, what about this park would enhance the romance?  Maybe the sun filtering through the trees and casting beams on the velvety lawn. A lone park bench facing the pond, a pair of swans floating serenely by.
Now take the same park and make it "horror-fying"-- the wind is blowing the fallen leaves around. The sky above the pond grows ominously, paradoxically still.  The park bench is still empty, but now a few of those fallen leaves are trapped against the benchback.

If we can isolate details that help create the genre tone, that will put the reader in the right mood to accept whatever romantic or horrifying or suspenseful event is going to happen momentarily.

2)  Vision isn't the only sense. Describing the sound of the wind or the smell of the stagnant pond or the feel of the grass under the character's feet-- those can individualize and flesh our the description, while giving us more details to select from in order to create that mood or tone.  Most of our sensory information does come in through our eyes, no doubt, but the depth of our understanding of the world probably depends on the addition of our other senses.
Some writers will laboriously tick off each sense and make a line in each paragraph about that sense:
He saw the sun filtering through the leaves, and beyond in the clearing, the campfire. The smell of woodsmoke filled his nostrils. He could almost taste the roasting marshmallows. The crackle of the leaves under his feet woke him from his reverie.

That's sort of dull, and it doesn't add up to much. Think instead about starting with a little topic sentence that might put this in context, like:
The grotto was ancient and long-forgotten, the mossy ground soft and rotting underfoot. The tiny pond was filmed with algae, and the air stank with the smell of the stagnant water. Even the rustle of the wind over the water was hushed and abashed.

Another option is to have a sentence of visual (can't escape that), but then really zing into the most imperative sense.  If this park abuts the town dump, then the smell is probably going to overwhelm the pleasantness of the visual. If there's a bagpipe band playing in the bandstand, then very soon the visual will give way to a recounting of how the lonely music wails across the still air.

3) Don't forget the character. If she's hungry, then no matter how picturesque the scene is, as soon as she sees and hears that ice-cream truck blaring out "Bicycle Built for Two," her mouth is going to start watering and she's going to "almost taste" the creamy ice cream and the nuts on the top of the Drum Stick and the sharp tang of the orange popsicle.

Her emotions might also distort how you describe it.  If she's worried, she might see even the most pleasant scene in a pessimistic way-- those kids on the merry-go-round look hysterical, not excited.
Also consider the character goal. Why is she in the park? If she's frantically searching for her lost wallet, she's not going to notice how pretty the flowers are in the rosebeds. If she's dallying there, waiting for her boyfriend to get out of work and meet her for lunch, she might see everything in a rosy glow of anticipation... or be scoping out the area for a place to sit and picnic.  How she apprehends the scene will vary depending on why she's there, so describe it as she experiences it.

4)  Don't lose the emotion, but use it. What is he feeling when he enters this setting? How does that change what he experiences through his senses? How does the setting change his emotion-- that is, he might grow more agitated if he sees disorder (overflowing trash barrels, cracked sidewalks), or more calm if the breeze is soothing. But show the emotional transition happening, show the setting details that affect his mood.

5) If the character interacts with the environment, the description becomes integrated with the action, and takes on dual purpose. So rather than just describing a muddy playground, we could have our character cross it, trying to pick his way from dry spot to dry spot, worrying about his shiny shoes, stepping accidentally into a  puddle, grabbing for the pole of the monkey bars to extricate himself.

6) One of the most valuable techniques I learned in graduate literary criticism class was to reveal what's not there. Yeah, I read all that impermeable Derrida stuff about deconstruction, but here's what I took away-- what isn't there is as important as what is.  So describing the absence of something can increase the emotional quality of the scene.  An empty swing, creeking eerily in the wind, suggests loss-- of a child, of childhood, of hope. You can mention what's missing ("empty") to add a subtext. As MacLeish put it:
For all the history of grief
 An empty doorway and a maple leaf

Anyway, no need to moan and groan as I do when I realize I probably ought to describe this room where they're going to have the big argument. Stop thinking of it as a "place" and start thinking of it as a "revealer," and describing it might come easier.



Stacy McKitrick said...

It's so nice to know I'm not alone when it comes to writing description. Thanks for the tips!

Julie Harrington said...

I adore sensory description. I love weaving in all the senses to make something come alive. Smell is, imo, the most universal one; the one tied closest to emotional memory and yet it's the one used the least. You can show/reveal so much through textures and touches and sounds and scents... This is one of my favorite topics to talk about with other writers. :)


Jody W. and Meankitty said...

I love writing description myself! Though it's true...when the description doesn't do double duty as a character / atmosphere / etc revealing device, as a READER I tend to skim it. I find it fascinating when the descrip is filtered so strongly through a viewpoint character that it's even a little 'unreliable'.

Edittorrent said...

Julie, I've always found smell hard to convey because there are so few words for the sense. A few nouns-- smell, fragrance, odor-- but very few verbs!

I wonder why there are so few words for this.

Wes said...

Bingo!!!! Or slap me up the side of the head. Yeah, describing the absence of something would be very powerful!

Tamara Hunter said...

I read this at the perfect time! I tend to write dialogue first because that's what flows for me. I always worry that I'm putting in too much description or not enough. You've given some great tips to help description flavor the story!!

Chemist Ken said...

I have a question about the sample text you wrote beginning with:

The grotto was ancient...

Would that sentence or series of sentences be considered telling? I'm still confused by the concept.