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March 2017

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harebell

Description

First, because I always love a book giveaway, I'll let you know that Kate Messner's "pre-owned" ARC of Linda Sue Park's KEEPING SCORE is up for grabs.  Follow the link for details.  Now for our regularly scheduled programming:

I'm thinking about description today, since that will be the focus of my next editorial pass through my WIP.  The current pass is focused on plot and pacing.  During this pass, I've decided that my pacing is much better, but I could use more description.  This has always been a weakness of mine.  I'm something of a minimalist; if you liken my writing to visual arts, my stories would be more like sketches than photorealist paintings.  I like to put in the details that matter, the few and telling details, and let the reader use those clues to fill in the rest. Only sometimes, especially in early drafts, I tend to skimp too much.  While I do cut when I edit, I'm one of those writers who has to add more than cut during revision.

It's not that I don't admire the deep, lush, rich descriptive passages that many writers do so well.  I've mentioned Updike's THE CENTAUR a few times before, and since I've just reread it, this example is uppermost in my mind.  Updike's descriptive passages are not just evocative of setting; they relate to plot and theme as well; they include symbolism and help with characterization.  And boy, are they beautiful (even when what he's describing is not beautiful).  I admire them; I just can't write that way myself.

Of course, description can be done badly, too.  There are books in which chunks of description are just plopped right into the text, bringing the narrative flow to a standstill.  As a reader, I tend to skim or skip when I hit those snags.  That may have led to my disenchantment with long, detailed descriptions.

So here are my best thoughts on description:
Description should not only be evocative; it should matter somehow to the characterization, theme, or plot.
Details should be relevant.  Only tell the reader what s/he really needs to know.
Only tell the interesting parts: the quirky, or funny, or chilling, or repugnant.  Whatever it is, it should be fascinating.
Don't rely on stereotypes.  Tell it the way it is, not the way everyone thinks it's usually supposed to be.
Appeal to all five senses.
Read poetry for great examples of how words can be used for maximum effectiveness and depth.  Pay attention to the sounds of words as well as the meanings.
Allow the reader room for imagination. 

That's what I aspire to, anyway.

Comments

I struggle with description, too -- but I never realize it until I'm repeatedly told! I see the story SO CLEARLY in my head that I can't believe it's not translating onto the page. And then I need to make sure that I don't overdo it. Yeah, description of place seems so easy, yet why do I struggle with it? Good luck with your revisions!
Me too--that's where critiquers help, pointing out when they don't know where the characters are or what they're doing. (Dialogue in a vacuum!)
If you discover any useful tips on description, please share!
It's nice to see I'm not the only one who writes this way! My second drafts are always longer than my first drafts.

One thing I have been trying to incorporate when adding description (besides including the 5 senses) is to concentrate on describing what the specific POV character would notice. This allows me to personalize the description or choose even what gets described.

This personalization of description comes in handy as a tool to show how a character evolves throughout a story based upon what he or she learns to notice.

I would imagine a character, after returning home from a life changing adventure, would describe his home with very different eyes.
Great ideas! Thanks!

(Anonymous)

I love alice hoffman's descriptions. Also, if you haven't read Sold --- pick it up. Beautiful descriptive passages of dreadful conditions.

Coll
Thanks for the recommendation.
As a creative stretch, I should probably try some writing exercises that are ALL description. Actually, I did one once--the challenge was to write a descriptive passage without any adjectives or adverbs (to encourage the use of strong nouns & verbs).
Great pointers, and an excellent description of your process. (And you know how much I enjoy process posts.) Thanks as always for your thoughtful post.
Thanks. People have been giving me so much food for thought on this!

(Anonymous)

Wow, this is a good one. Thanks!
Glad you enjoyed it!