Today in the Dojo: Preventing your tales from being buried under steaming, stinking piles of unnecessary description.
I open with a clock striking, to beget an awful attention in the audience – it also marks the time, which is four o clock in the morning, and saves a description of the rising sun, and a great deal about gilding the eastern hemisphere.
-Richard Brinsley Sheridan
A long, long time ago in a Death thread far, far away, Glynis posted the following question:
I wonder if there is a way to stop before doing in cases of over description?
And I said I’d write a column on the subject someday. I keep my promises. Eventually.
I’ve been thinking about it for a few months now, and the reason I hadn’t put fingers to keyboard is simply this: I’m not sure. My first drafts tend for the most part to be fairly Spartan, sometimes to the point where Wise Readers yell at me for not describing things thoroughly enough (which is a problem when you’re writing SF and supposed to be describing things beyond mortal ken). This wasn’t always the case. My early writing suffered from the verbal diarrhea: long-winded descriptions of buildings, ships, trees or what have you that stopped the story cold; inventories of characters’ appearance, flowery landscapes…. Let’s just put it this way. When it annoys even the writer, it’s too much.
Being the offspring of an Indiana farm boy, I don’t get mad, I get even. I spent a couple of years reading every book on writing I could get my hands on. I practiced varied techniques: describe the character/leave it up to the reader, remove every other adjective, etc., until I found my happy medium between too much and too little. My first drafts got leaner and meaner. I don’t have to do as much slash-and-burn in the revisions. I find myself editing as I go, automatically, as if there’s an alarm that goes off when the description creeps up to dangerous levels and the narrative auto-corrects. Usually. When I’m lucky, anyway. No matter how good you get at this, description will probably never be easy.
That said, I’ll attempt to give you some pointers on hooking up the Over-Description Warning System, and keep it running smoothly as you’re in the throes of prose writing.
Exorcising the Demons of Obsession
A good rule-of-thumb in description, though not an infallible one, is this: if it sticks out with blinding clarity in your mind, it’s probably important to the story. There’s a reason why you’re obsessing. However, we all know from those eons-long conversations with the bore at the bar who shares his passion for the complexity of insect mouth parts by describing each similarity and difference in excruciating detail that obsessions can overwhelm.
If you want to keep that obsession out of your first draft, open up a fresh document or turn to a blank page in your notebook and blurt it out. Whether it’s a person, a place, a thing, or an event, describe it in it’s entirety. Go ahead – this isn’t going to end up as part of the story, so let loose!
Now you’ve got a page or dozen of pure description. You know absolutely every detail. What now? You can’t drop it into the story whole hog. As Inigo Montoya would say, “No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”
You can use several methods here. One is simply to ignore it and go write the scene. I do this sometimes on the theory that I now have the temptation to describe every little thing out of the way, and so the only thing that’s going to end up in the scene is what belongs there. Look at it this way: it’s like telling your best friend all about your horrible breakup, beginning with when you first met and escalating through every hurt, barb and accusation over the last eight years. When your coworker asks how things are going the next day, you’ve let go of the minutiae and can now answer, “Not too good. My spouse ran away to Bangkok to become a transvestite prostitute last night, taking all of my underwear and leaving me with the dog, the Visa bill, and this lousy t-shirt.”
Another method is to sort through what you just burbled all over the page and pick out the telling details. That goes something like this: Everybody fights over money, we can axe that… axe the interfering mother-in-law, she never said anything interesting… not many people can say their spouse left for Bangkok to become a transvestite prostitute, guess we’ll keep that in… definitely need to mention the underwear theft… punchy line, this dog-visa-t-shirt… get rid of the ten hours of blubbering, I want to look cool and collected here… Done! In other words, look for the unusual, for things that speak to character, theme or plot, a nice turn of phrase or appropriate summary of a situation many people deal with. Then work those things in to your scene, being careful not to feel obligated to use everything on the list. You’ll find yourself cutting out some of your chosen details as you write because they don’t flow with the narrative. No matter how much you liked a particular bit of description, don’t force it back in. It’s artificial and you will almost always axe it in the second draft anyway.
If you’ve done this exercise in the advance planning stages, you can see what turns up a few weeks/months/years later when you go back to write the story. Chances are, if something stuck in your mind that long, it will stick in the readers’ as well and needs to be there. Most everything else can be safely ignored, or if appropriate used in later scenes.
Walk Through the Scene
This is one of the techniques I constantly employ. If I find myself describing too much or too little of a scene I’m in the midst of writing, I’ll stop and do a walk-through from the viewpoint character’s perspective. I open up all of my senses and try to notice everything. I run through it mentally a few times until every detail becomes clear. Then I ask which ones are needed to flesh out the scene. What’s really grabbing that character’s attention? What aren’t they paying attention to? Does it matter how their feet are sinking into the plush carpet, or are they too focused on the bastard behind the desk to care? Their attitude helps me shape the scene: I might care about the Dali portrait behind the desk, they might care more about the Cuban cigar this guy’s just removed from the case on the desk – stolen from MY shipment, thanks so much! Both details speak of wealth and privilege, which is what I want to get across, but the cigar adds to the character and the emotion of the scene, too. It helps drive the plot forward. And the scent of that expensive tobacco isn’t a detail any longer, it’s a knife being constantly twisted.
This is also a useful technique when you have to describe the same thing many times, like when you’re using the same location repeatedly. You’ll want some detail to show where we’re at, and preferably you’ll want that detail to add to the reader’s experience of that place without bombarding them with dry description. So walk through it in the characters’ shoes. If you’re using the same viewpoint character, they’re attitude might be different, and that will affect what they notice this time around. If a different viewpoint character, that Dali painting might have some meaning now – you can add it to the mix. But again, since you’re in the character’s mind, you’ll be less tempted to stop the story dead to describe the tassels on the curtains and that little worn patch on the Persian rug – unless, of course, this is a mystery and a tassel and Persian carpet fibers were found on the victim….
Remember, You Don’t Have To Get It In One Go
While I’m writing, I’ll deal out just enough description to put the reader in the scene with me (hopefully – this is far from an exact science). I don’t front-load, even though the temptation is sometimes there. Depending on the scene I need to set, I’ll dole out a few words to a few sentences, but I almost never dump a block of pure description in. I’m writing SF, not travelogues.
So when I come across a location or creature my readers aren’t likely to have seen before, I’ll ask a few key questions and describe from there. This technique can work for any genre: remember, the African Bush is as alien to a suburbanite as Mars, maybe more. And instead of presenting it as a chunk all-at-once, I’ll pay out those details as the scene progresses, based on the answers to the following:
1. How unusual is it? A house is a house is a house. I don’t have to explain that it has walls and a roof – nearly any dwelling has those things. It’s the differences that make it outstanding and that will interest the reader. They won’t care if it’s made of wood and is rectangular, but they’ll probably be interested to know that the walls are woven from Silly String.
2. What Stands Out? In describing a scene most readers are apt to be familiar with, such as an alpine vista, I’ll reach for the stand-out features: a particularly high peak, a very disfigured tree, an overwhelming smell, or a bird of prey sweeping down on the innocent travelers…
3. Where the Hell Are We? Back to the house: I’m not going to describe it in its entirety, including contents, all at once. I’ll let the reader see it as my character sees it, and there will be some places they never do see, like that very odd shed in the back yard….
Some Further Useful Questions to Ask As You Go Along
1. What’s the Pace? Do I need to slow things down a bit? Has my character come through a near-miss and is now appreciating the ordinary a lot more? Or are they fleeing from the Evil Bald Eagle of Doom? If so, I doubt they’ll be noticing that gorgeous little bunch of flowers they just trampled underfoot, unless they’ve landed on top of them and are thinking that this is the last th
ing they’ll ever see.
2. How Captivated is my Character? We’ve all seen things that arrest our attention. Could be a person, place or thing. If your character is suddenly paying rapt attention to the details, go ahead and slip in the description. If it’s important to the character, it’ll probably be important to the reader, too.
3. Is This The Language This Character Would Use? My favorite. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had an epic description going that would have Professor Tolkien weeping into his hanky due to its sheer beauty and grace, and then I remember whose mouth I’m speaking from. Oh, dear. Billy Bob Jenkins isn’t likely to go from “Them’s sure purty” to Byronic poetry. Adrian would look at the Dali (let’s call it Persistence of Memory so you guys can look it up if you like) and think something like, “The richness of Dali’s color palate blended perfectly with the George II desk and the Ming vase standing with false modesty on the teak table by the window.” Chretien, however, would be more apt to see it this way: “Figured that fucker would go for drippy clocks and antique bullshit. And that vase looks like something he picked up in Chinatown for two bucks. If this is the best money can buy, all hail poverty.” Remembering whose voice you’re writing from helps keep you from getting lost in your own immortal prose.
4. What Does the Reader Need to Know? The single most important component here. If you’re one of those people who likes to hang up bits o’ advice by the computer, add this to the wall. You have to decide what’s best for your story, but you need to be honest here: does the color of the bedspread really add to the readers’ experience? Do they need to know exactly how many steps lead up to the door, and how many cracks are in the concrete? Does an inventory of the characters’ appearance enhance their mental image or get in the way? Have I assumed they know something they don’t and skimped the detail, like forgetting to tell them that a venomous snake in the bed is considered a sign of high esteem among the Klang tribe, unless of course it’s the pink Goober snake arranged in the shape of a tongue, in which case that’s a deadly insult and explains why my character stomped out to avenge his honor?
5. Is This Just Plain Ol’ Description, Or Is It Supporting Other Elements? If your description tells us something about the characters, enhances the plot, speaks to the theme, focuses us on the action, or affects the mood, it’s in. No problem. But if it’s only description without added value, it probably needs to be changed or cut down. This is why, in my someday-to-be-finished novels, you will see many rather detailed descriptions of Luther’s house and grounds, and only the bare basics about Ray’s home. Luther’s house offers insight into who he is, in a way it is him, and it’s a different experience for every character who enters it. Ray’s house is just a typical Mercer island dwelling, and it’s not stamped with his personality.
6. What Kind of Story is This? Some kinds of stories, like milieu, need more description than others. Some, like action, need much less. Knowing that from the start will help you take control over description as you write.
Ultimately, how much or how little description a story needs depends on you. It’s your choice whether you’ll be as minimalist as Hemmingway or as detailed as Tolkien. And that may not be a judgment call you can make until the story’s done. If you find the above advice is making you trip and damming your rivers of prose, set it aside. Those tips and tricks will still work if you don’t use them until the second draft.
When all else fails, remember what Hagrid said: “Better out than in!”