W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

No 30. Make Description Work ard

THEORY

If dialogue moves the plot forward, then description should flesh out scenes. Description puts readers into your story while engaging their senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, feel).
Victorian writers over described scenes giving credence to the statement "That's more than I needed to know." However the selective use of details (See earlier W3 www.wisewordsonwriting.com/newsletter-0202.html ) adds to the description.

The most common things writers describe are: character's physical appearance, clothing, neighborhoods, housing, furniture, scenery, weather. W3 will deal with writing about emotions and interior thought at some future date.

New writers often break into the story creating author intrusion especially when describing people. The reader is subjected to a litany of details about height, weight, hair color, etc. Slightly more experienced writers use the overworked mirror trick, letting the character herself describe how she looks - She watches herself in the mirror as she brushes her "long black shiny hair and puts a touch of pink lipstick to her full lips, etc..

Showing not telling is a better way to introduce appearance. Shortness could be shown when a character has to stand on a chair to reach the middle cabinets in a kitchen. Overweight can be shown by struggling into an outfit that refuses to zip, a man can rest his hand on the stomach that overhangs his stomach.

My pet peeve is the statement "she didn't look 45," which I've read in any number of books. I am not sure what 45 looks like nor 32 or 55 for that matter. At a high school reunion my classmates had aged at such different rates that there could have been 20 years between us instead of the real 12 months. Perhaps a better way to describe someone appearing younger than their years might be - Her face was unlined and she moved with the energy of a young woman. Then he looked at her hands and saw raised veins and age spots. - By adding the details the reader does the work instead of having to figure out what X number of years look like. We also get the reaction of the observer assuming he is a major character. Or if the woman is a major character she could hide her hands as a tell tale sign of her age if she were ashamed of it, or flaunt them if she were not. How we manipulate our description changes the story we are telling.

Likewise when describing a room make the description work - The cracked red leather was molded to his shape from countless hours of watching the boob tube. Although there was standing room only at the mandatory after-funeral feed, no one dared sit in Papa's spot, even though he would never sit there again. Instead they stood crowded together with their plates piled with baloney sandwiches and potato chips. My brother watched from the sidelines. Then he walked over and sat down in the chair. Everyone stared. The king is dead, long live the king, I thought. - That description tells a lot more about Papa, the son, the economic class of the family and the speaker than it does about the room.

The same goes for exterior description. A playground with brightly colored and innovative equipment built by a committee of parents is different from a playground with a netless basket rim, cracked cement and a broken swing. Each fleshes out the economic status and condition of far different neighborhoods with out giving the professions and incomes of the people who live there.

Personal perspective makes scenery more than scenery. In Switzerland I love looking up at the mountains and feel they are opening to eternity, but they mentally imprison a Swiss friend. They are the same mountains: an Alp is an Alp is an Alp. Which way a character reacts makes scenery work hard for your story. Does the person love the sea? Is it frightening because of an accident that killed a relative? Does sailing a boat through a storm represent a (wo)man vs. nature challenge?

Weather gives chances for all types of descriptions, but it shouldn't always rain at funerals or when characters are in bad moods. Describe cold to give readers a feeling of temperature without saying it is below freezing - Jenna's cheeks were bright red as she unwove the long hand-knitted scarf, unzipped coat. The smell of cold rose from the wool as she tossed it on the chair nearest the fire. "Thank God, you lit it," she said holding her aching hands out to the flames.

Noises and smells in a neighborhood can flesh out a story - the cock from the other side of the village went off about five minutes before her neighbor's alarm gave a ping ping ping that floated up from the window below. The street cleaner's broom scraped the pavement, followed by the village's new street washing machine that chugged and released a water scented with so much lemon that she wanted to vomit.

EXAMPLES
Notes on the samples: two novels both have windows. One character wounded in war recovers by looking out. The other with a woman wounded by love looks inward. Frazier doesn't say Inman sees a road, a wall, a tree, etc. but says it might have been a painting of the same yet we know the objects are within Inman's range. Rees, on the other hand, mentions looking out the window, but her description of everything is what is happening around her and more importantly for her novel, in her.

That summer, Inman had viewed the world as if it were a picture framed by the molding around the window. Long stretches of time often passed when, for all the change in the scene, it might as well have been an old painting of a road, a wall, a tree, a cart, a blind man. Inman had sometimes counted off slow numbers in his head to see how long it would be before anything of significance altered.COLD MOUNTAIN Charles Frazier.

She turns the bed against the other wall, under the slope of the roof so she can look out of the side window, moves the sofa to the wall opposite, settles her blue Indian cotton wrap over the table and arranges the fruit she brought on her way home in a china bowl. The two novels she plans to read she stacks on the floor by the side of the bed. OVEN HOUSE by Lynne Rees

EXERCISE
For the next few weeks keep track of HOW you write, WHAT you write, WHAT HAMPERS your writing, WHAT WORKS with your writing. Then look it over to determine any patterns that will help you plan your writing in the future.

NOTES
More on people writing in their second language. If anyone looking for a partner writing in their language wants to register with me, please let me know your email and the language you are writing in. I wish I had the resources to pair writing mates in English, but I don't. However, I recommend that highly. I would have not made the progress I did without mine, not just because her critiques were so valuable, but because it made me critique another person's work.
http://www.wakeupwriting.com/ For people who need help in doing daily writing. There's a daily assignment.

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