Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rewrite 6 - Getting Descriptions Just Right

I struggle with descriptions in rewriting. It's feast or famine. Either I have an avalanche of details that buries a reader or a scene so spare it leaves readers wandering in a void. This is such a persistent problem for me that I've created lists to help me move quickly in cutting or reimagining descriptions.

When there is a feast of description:
  • Setting - Here, the biggest problem is what I call throat clearing. When I want to get going on a scene but my brain doesn't, weather becomes very important (especially clouds). Every stick of furniture in the room needs a paragraph. I worry about linoleum scuffs and pet hair on the couch. Readers don't care. Cut, cut, cut. Instead, which words anchor me in space? What does the setting tell me about the characters? What do I need to know so the plot makes sense?
  • Characters - I often have something that could be used by the police to identify a suspect. This slows things down and leaves little to the imagination. I highlight telling and memorable details, the minimum needed to create interest, raise questions, and distinguish this character from the others. I also make sure that the number of words used are proportional to the character's role.
  • Something unique - I get carried away here, especially in something like science fiction. You probably don't care what the exact dimensions of the time machine are and what color the paint job is. If I force ranked the elements of description, which ones would be at the top?
  • Mood - Cutting to the bone can make description functional, so sometimes I need to go back and see if my trimming has destroyed the mood. Providing that mood is appropriate, I may give a reprieve to a sentence or two.
  • Overall - Length is important.  White space is important. Pages in a story cannot have too many big blocks of description. I love delectable prose, but it presents dangers. Unless it is done to make the passage memorable, too many language tricks (alliteration, metaphors) can distract and weigh down your work. Kill your darlings? This is what Faulkner was talking about.
By the way, detailed observation is your friend. In my first chemistry class, the teacher had us write down everything we could about the flame of a bunsen burner. Some people wrote down the colors they saw and the shape. I started there, but I went on to fill a couple of pages with temperature at different distances, changes over time, the heat distortions (schlieren effect), sounds, and smells. I collect observations, especially when I am in strange places or emotionally charged situations.

They are good to draw upon, but they are raw material. I would never cut and paste my observations from a visit to morgue into a detective story. Details on that level, according to Stephen King, are for instruction manuals, not stories. Writers need to be selective.

Cut, but don't erase. Save your trimmings to a notes file. They may be useful later on.

A fill-in-the-blanks approach to description will not work. I really need to put myself back into draft state with the internal editor turned off. But questions can get me going when I'm telling myself to let the reader figure it out.

When there is a famine:
  • Setting - I begin with a minimum of space, light and texture, something I learned from Script Guru Max Adams. I took her Visual Writing course (highly recommended). She has a short article here.
  • Characters - I make sure I have identified one distinctive feature (a suggestion from Kristan Higgins). His rough calloused hands. Her sleepy eyes. If one doesn't stand out in my mind, I choose one based on the inner state of the character. In "Chinatown," Evelyn has a flaw in the iris of her eye.
  • Something unique - When I write about strange worlds (SF, fantasy, or exotic locales), there may be objects or species that readers have no reference points for. I need to provide what they need 1) to get oriented and 2) fit it into the story.
  • Mood - This is always the toughest for me. It often emerges from building up the bits from scenes, characters, and objects. But sometimes I need to force myself to think about the emotional arc of the scene or to read a scene from another work and see what the mood is and how it is created.
  • Overall - I need to evaluate how the description contributes to the logic, pacing and emotion of the scene and the work as a whole.
Of course, after I have released these descriptions from my brain, they are often overdone. I'm forced to go back to the feast questions to bring them back down to size. (Both of these are really different sides of the same coins, so my shuffling back and forth is unsurprising.)

With all of these, attention to audience makes a difference. Kids need an approach to description that that offers more about things that are obvious to adults and less in total. SF and fantasy readers tolerate more description than thriller readers. So keep specific readers' needs in mind. Readers are the beginning and the end of the rewrite, and this includes description.

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