Dear Gather Archetypes:
Itâ€™s Amateurs Week!Â I mean Prose Week!Â Each week, SunWinks! alternates between a topic on poetic technique and a topic on prose style.Â Todayâ€™s topic isâ€¦Description!
Of the three main components of fiction writingâ€”action (plot), dialogue, and descriptionâ€”the one readers tend to feel they can skip over, and the one inexperienced writers tend to neglect, is description.
Yet, if you donâ€™t describe your characters, your readers will experience them as intangible talking heads.Â If you donâ€™t describe your setting, not only does the action seem to take place in a fog, your character doesnâ€™t have an environment to interact with.
Description, action, and dialogue are the three-legged stool of the craft: without any one of those, the stool doesnâ€™t hold up.
Description should move the story forward just as dialogue and action do.Â If itâ€™s not crucial to the dynamics of the story, description is staticâ€¦
Begin to think of settings as characters in your story.Â A character plays against other characters, increasing tension, creating drama, and advancing the plot.Â A story about a man in a hurricane is about two characters.Â A story about a stepfather and a boy and a toy store is about three charactersâ€¦.
[Jerome Stern: Making Shapely Fiction; NY: Dell Publishing, 1992.Â Emphasis mine.]
There are two broad categories of descriptive writing:Â objective and subjective.Â We will consider subjective description in more depth in two weeks.
Objective description puts aside feelings, evaluation, and point of view, and concentrates on factual detail.Â The truth of objective description is in its accuracy, its relationship to fact.
(Subjective description is about feelings and evaluation.Â The truth of subjective description is in its honesty, depth, and authenticity.)
Successful description, objective or subjective, depends on three things:
1) details that are sharply defined images, appealing to one or another of the senses;
2) details that are selected according to a guiding principle;
3) details that are clearly organized.
[Thomas S. Kane:Â The Oxford Essential Guide To Writing; NY: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2000.Â Emphasis mine.]
- Good description recreates sensory experience.Â It consists of accurate, evocative images, usually but not necessarily visual.Â To the extent that your prose deals in abstractions and generalities, it becomes exposition, not description. (And you thought images had only to do with poetry?)
- Good description is selective.Â You canâ€™t include everything, otherwise it becomes confusing and unfocused and bogs down the momentum.Â Ask yourself:Â what details do I need to include to give the reader sufficient understanding of the situation, or my character, or the situationâ€™s impact on the character?
Give a strong general impression if you can (â€œthe vaultlike room was full of echoesâ€), and then a few salient detailsâ€¦If they are well chosen, the reader will fill in the rest.Â The same goes for characters.Â Donâ€™t try to describe them so minutely that an artist could paint their portraits; detailed description actually irritates many readers because it interferes with their own image-making.Â A word or two about each character when she first appears or shortly thereafter will doâ€¦
[Damon Knight: Creating Short Fiction; Cincinnati, OH: Writerâ€™s Digest Books, 1985]
3.Â Â Good description flows according to a logical order.Â Putting aside technical descriptions, which may be organized according to some scientific principle, most of the time you can think of this as a camera movement: panning from left to right, zooming out from foreground to distant background, or starting with a broad overhead view, then drilling down like a crane shot.
Good description follows natural physical movements.Â The single sweep of the eye from head to foot, from basement to roof, from left to right.Â Otherwise you get confusion or unintentional weirdness:
The ratâ€™s whiskered nose, gray body, long hairless tail, and glittering red eye.
[Stern: op. cit.]
Choose a character you 1) want to write about, or 2) have already created in a piece of yours.
The curtain goes up.Â We see the stage set; itâ€™s your characterâ€™s living room or bedroom or apartment or similarly revealing living space.Â Write a one- or two-paragraph objective description of the room or space. Describe the furniture, knick-knacks, dÃ©cor, age, state of (dis)orderliness or (dis)repair, pictures, even smells.Â Without going into exhaustive detail down to the last dust-bunny, give us a specific and comprehensive enough description that we feel like we know who your character is before she enters.Â Do it without making any generalizations about the character (e.g. â€œLizzie is a packrat.â€)
*Acknowledgment to Damon Knightâ€™s Creating Short Fiction.
Find a passage of description in one of your favorite books.Â Answer these questions:
1. Is this objective or subjective description or some of both?Â Why?
2. What are some of the images and what senses do they appeal to?
3. What is the principle of selection in this passage (in other words, the author selected these particulars for what purpose?)
4. What is the scheme of organization for this descriptive passage?
- PutÂ SunWE in the title and tags.
- Share your post with Gather Writing Essential group.
- Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to. Â (If responding to todayâ€™s, put Description in the title field.)
- This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.Â If your piece isnâ€™t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.Â This is supposed to be fun.
- I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
- If you would like a little more academic critiqueâ€”but still very friendly and positiveâ€”include the word "rigorous" in your post (e.g. "rigorous critique wanted").
Responses to previous prompts below. A wondrous response this week, thank you all!Â Let me know if I missed yours.
Â© 2012 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Â Please share this on Gather.com, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy. Â Doug's latest book is The Depressed Guy's Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.
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