Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Writing Descriptions or Descriptive Writing

Usually, when people discuss descriptive language they refer to one of two types: One is the kind of description that is intertwined between dialogue to help in conveying emotions and actions. The other is description that is independent of the dialogue and helps in making the setting more vivid. (I tried to follow my friend Vivian's advice in writing this).

I think that most of us don't have a "problem" with the first type of descriptive writing. We do it almost automatically. Robert J. Sawyer gives excellent examples of this on his web site - On Writing: description. Here's one:
It was almost midnight when McTaggart made the decision.
    "I think," he said, "that we should go closer."
    The others stared at him.
    "Maybe fifteen miles away."
    Nobody said a word.
    "Force their hand."
Even though the other characters do nothing, their inaction communicates their nervousness, their failing resolve, their fear that their leader has gone over the edge. Try it without the description:

    "I think that we should go closer. Maybe fifteen miles away. Force their hand."
Nothing. No tension. No suspense. Description isn't padding — it's the heart and soul of good writing.

Rob (who incidentally started his own blog) has more examples, go read.

As for the other type of description, that's the tricky one, at least for me. I'm never one to follow techniques, so I'm just going to take some of principals that apply to descriptive essays and try to adjust them to fiction writing:

As in all writing, in order to write good a description we must know what we're describing.

  • First, the details - that means we, writers, depend on observing, memorizing and later recollecting the moments/scenes/people/views we wish to describe.

    To help in the memorizing process, we can think of our senses, draw on them for help: what did we see, hear, smell, taste and feel (physically and emotionally)? What did we think?

    Of course, not everything we describe is facts or memories. Many times we describe things from our imagination. The details should be as specific.

  • Second - the impression, the feeling we wish to convey with the description. Say, we want to describe a park. In describing the park, we can show the park as a pleasant place or an unpleasant place.

    In the first instance we might describe how enjoyable it is to walk the little paths under the canopy of trees (that give the walker shelter from the sun) while hearing children laughter from the playground.

    In the second instance, we might describe how scary it is to quickly walk the littered paths that lie among the big ominous trees (that seem to be closing in on the walker) while eyeing the homeless that is sprawled on a bench.

  • Last - editing: Are there enough details? Are the words specific enough, correct (thesaurus)?

  • If we do this right and choose the right details along with the right verbs, adverbs and adjectives, the reader will be able to walk in the park with the protagonist, visualizing it through our details.

    Many of us bloggers actually write descriptive essays daily. Easywriter hasn't been very active lately but her posts are fictional descriptive prose gems. Go through her archives to see what I mean.

    I think that just writing this post already helped me in understanding the importance of descriptive language and how to do it better. Any more advice, comments on the matter?

    Categories: , ,


    ME Strauss said...

    I would describe your post as :)

    I hadn't really thought of two kinds of description before, but I think that you've pointed out something important. Most of us not only like to write one more than the other. We also like to read on more than the other.

    That's probably because the other usually done badly, but also even when done well requires more of us to write or read--more engagement of senses etc. like you talked about. BTW your description of descriptions was more thorough than most that I've read in most textbooks.

    The coaching I would give is stick with your senses and feelings and go for the words that fit them perfectly--even when you're making things up. Don't try to hit on an "impression" that's outside of you, but rather try to get inside the description. If you stay inside the description--with your senses and feelings--the writing will be easier and your readers will find it more believable. Does that make sense?

    PS There's a drink waiting of choice for you in Chicago.

    Melly said...

    First, thanks Liz.
    When I write these posts, I write them first for me, to help me out in my writing process, so I try to be a thorough as I can without getting into techniques. Don't much care for them.

    Second, I think you nailed it when you said "Don't try to hit on an "impression" that's outside of you, [...] If you stay inside the description--with your senses and feelings--the writing will be easier and your readers will find it more believable."

    Third, where's my drink?
    Oh, Chicago you said? Wait for me, I'll be right there.

    Carter said...

    A very sound essay. Staying grounded inside the description is good advice, usually. But every now and then, a little piece of poetry floats up, and you have to be ready to recognize it and run with it. My current favorite (from a Tanith Lee story that I unfortunately can't remember the title of) is: "Thunder was the color of her eyes." That one hit me hard and stuck.

    The Phoenix said...

    I've read a lot of writing that does the description overkill thing. They spend paragraphs upon paragraphs giving me a historical and sociological background on the setting, for example.

    It totally just kills the plot movement.

    Melly said...

    Carter, oh, when that happens, when the prose becomes poetry , that's when you know you've made it. It rarely happens to me, but when it does, I savour the moment.

    Phoenix, I totally agree with you and this is exactly what caused people to be automatically turned off of descriptions, but good descriptive language can, like Carter said, be poetic and exhilirating to both writer and reader.

    rdl said...

    Melly, thanks for this great post. will have to come back when i have time to delve and explore.

    Melly said...

    No prob, rdl. I knew it was a bit on the long side. Quite alright :)

    Trée said...

    Thanks Melly. I really enjoyed this post.

    ME Strauss said...

    To clarify: drinkS as in plural

    Melly said...

    Thanks Trée :)

    Yay! DrinkS... many of them...
    Oh, don't worry Liz, I'm a cheap date ;)

    Pat Kirby said...

    Description for me is anything that grounds the characters in the setting.

    Regarding the first: Maybe because of my acting background, I like props. When I'm talking to someone, I'm often fiddling with something--picking up a pen, tapping my foot, etc.--or my eye might catch something and follow it. Alternately, something might be going on in the background. All of which can be used to infuse the dialogue with rhythm.

    And the second: I know that some people love long description, using words like "lush" and "I felt like I was there." Long description, for me, is like long exposition. It gets between me and the character/story.

    Mary walks into a room and then...the author goes into room inventory mode, describing everything from the curtains to the dust on the dresser. Meanwhile, poor Mary stands in the wings, waiting for the author to remember her. Even if the language is lovely, Mary, the character has disappeared. And nothing is happening.

    This kind of description is too much for me. First, do most people really take in that much in a new (or old) setting? No, our senses fall on the most interesting or strongest things in the room. The first impression is a generalization, followed by focus on the certain elements.

    My favorite writers pick out elements of the scene that are immediately relevant and filter that description through the characters senses and opinions. The opinion, IMO, is what really makes the description "punchy." It isn't enough to just tell me that there is a portrait on the wall. It's much more interesting if I learn that Mary loathes that old painting, hating the way the eyes follow her around the room.

    Melly said...

    Oh, Pat, wonderful!
    You added and reiterated in much stronger words how much the details the author chooses and the impression the author gives is so important in descriptions.
    I love the way you put things.
    Wow, thanks :)

    Carter said...

    Just a quick comment on Pat's comment:

    Most readers' eyes skip right over that kind of description to the next piece of dialogue. I know mine do. Long paragraphs are automatic eye-glazers and a quick way to lose a reader.

    I have always been fond of writing large amounts of description. It's easier than action and dialogue. Now I'm moving into the more difficult territory of figuring out what's necessary to the story and throwing the rest away.

    It's too easy to fall in love with your own words and forget about poor Mary twiddling her thumbs and the reader nodding off on the couch.

    Melly said...

    Carter, I read what you say and I'm amazed at how diverse people are. Some like to read and write dialogue and een find it easier, while others prefer descriptions and find writing that easier. Seems that most of us, though, despite of our strength and weaknesses really look for a balance, for what will make the story good.

    Elmer said...

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