The three key factors to successful description

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about three key factors when using description.

It was a dark and stormy night, when I was awakened from a comatose sleep with a phone ring tone so sharp it could slice coconuts. I snarled like a lion at the chirping device, and muttered something that had the caller really been listening might have upset them had they cared anything about the reputation of their mother. Which at this graveyard silent hour, I was having serious doubts.

Ok, enough of that. Description is important  but not as an end. Description should serve the plot, the characterization, the setting but not supplant these things.

1. Remember that less is more. If I have a monster, and I go into great detail describing that monster, I may or not create a scary monster. Think back to the  1920’s and 30’s style monster movies. They were not very scary at all because the monster just looked hokey. Special effects were not all that great, and directors had not yet mastered the less is more. In fact, many modern movies fail in this regard as well. They are special effect driven, and after a while 30 minutes of continuous explosions, fireballs, and smoke just get tiresome. Instead, ratchet up the tension by holding back.

2. Do I really care if the character has blonde hair, blue eyes, and  … well whatever? No. In fact, I might not think that blonde hair, blue eyes, and whatever are all that attractive. In a writers group I was in, a beginning writer described all of his female characters as blondes. When asked about this, the writer did not even know he had done it. His answer, “I just like blondes.” Personally, I tend to skip over long descriptions of characters. In general, I don’t care what they look like. If a particular character is supposed to be attractive in the story, then why not consider showing how other characters react. Are they deferential, condescending, or whatever?

NOTE: It is always a good idea to show, not tell. This goes for description as well as action.

A meal arrives at the dinner table. The writer can go on, and on, and on about the steak, potato, lobster, gravy, dinner rolls, salad and so on and so forth. And you know what? Maybe the writer just lost half of the readers. Why? Because maybe they are vegan, or have other food restrictions. Instead, show don’t tell. One character rubs his hands together, another places her face over the plate, and uses her hands to waft the aroma of the food while she inhales deeply. Another character, licks his mouth, then takes his napkin and wipes his face because he realized he was beginning to drool. In this instance, by showing three different characters reaction to the food, I not only tell something about the meal (it is obviously great) but I also provides insights into the type of characters – one is more of a coinsure, one is rather crude, and one is a rather foolish chow-hound. Now, the meal may consist of meat and potatoes, or it might be gourmet Cuisine … who knows. Indeed who cares what the characters ate – it will become important later on in the story.

3. Remember that readers today want the story to move along. I recently read Ivanhoe, and while it is an awesome story, with a great plot, excellent action and so on, I was shocked at how long it took me to read. I mean, the book was just over 500 pages, and I really thought I could knock it out one rainy Saturday … but such was not the case. It ended up taking me three days to read. This is because the writing was densely packed with description. One of the great things about Sir Walter Scott, is that he took great pains to get details correct. He put a lot of these details into his novels, AND if that were not enough, he even added footnotes for the details he was not quite able to fit in. As much as I loved the story, I am afraid that poor old Scott would be quite unable to find a publisher now days. Readers do not mind reading longer books (especially from their favorite established writers) but the writing must flow naturally, and the descriptions must serve the story. I am convinced that one reason Scott put so much detail in his writing is that he did not have a Facebook account, a Twitter account and a cell phone. Therefore, it really did take him a thousand words to describe what nowadays we get in a single picture. 

I hope you have a tremendous day.

Join me tomorrow when I will talk a bit more about description.

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