Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 15 – The power of selection

In my high school chemistry class, one of the first exercises was to write down our observations of a lit Bunsen burner. Most people's lists were small, as I recall. They concentrated on the colors in the flame and the shape of the flame itself. I filled more than a page with everything I took in — the smell, the sound, and even the distortion of visuals beyond the flame caused by what I came to know was the schlieren effect. All this was fine as far as being scientific, but the best literary descriptions are limited. By making the right choices, images can be conveyed that are vivid and convey emotion and mood without being exhaustive.

This is not to say that it's always important to be succinct. In moments of tension, stress, and high emotion, our real experiences tend to include more details. Time seems to slow down. And it's perfectly valid – indeed desirable – to emulate this in writing some of the more important and engrossing scenes in stories. Also, if you are writing something that is closer to poetry (Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes is a great example), more complete descriptions can build and sustain experiences that are both more subtle and multidimensional.

In general, however, a writer who leans toward including everything will wear out his or her readers and drive them away. Not only does it lead to unbalanced storytelling, but it makes it more difficult for most readers to participate in creating fictional worlds. Usually, a better choice is to select a few evocative elements to include, possibly supplemented with an apt metaphor.

How do you make the selections? Primarily, you look toward who your audience is. You don't want to choose elements that are presented with words that force them to open up their dictionaries and care must be taken with going into territories that are unfamiliar.

By the way, it's fine to have descriptions that are good enough for you in early drafts. These can be setups for revisions, providing enough information to narrow the choices, establish the right mood, and fashion strong prose later on. (This deals with all descriptions – of locales, objects, characters, actions, and what goes on inside your characters' heads.)

So, when you are drafting your story don't feel compelled to make your selections immediately. Feel free to include as much as comes to mind without editing yourself. While your muse may help you to find elements that delight you and may end up in the final draft (and even presents you with good metaphors) don't expect it to. Just get the words down.

During revision, focus sharply on your audience and on the larger context for the description. This is particularly important if you are presenting material that must be remembered, such as clues.

Then, you might want to follow three principles:
  • Fix anything that doesn't feel fresh. One thing that usually happens during drafting is clichés and "so what" elements come to mind quickly. Challenge these. Make the effort to think about other ways to convey what you want in your description so it can have the maximum impact.
  • Trust your gut. For those elements that matter most, your tastes and sense of what is most important is likely to provide the best guidance on what you should select.
  • Ruthlessly cut. Especially if you but down a lot of description, it may be tempting to keep it around. It's easy to get charmed by your own words. Keep the overall goal in mind, which is telling your story in a powerful way. My rule of thumb is to highlight three elements in a description and see if the rest can be cut. Often it can't, but striving for the minimum number of words will help you to add punch to your prose.
You might want to take a second look at your work to see if you have included all your descriptions for analysis and revision in this way. Many writers tend to have a limited view on what description is, focusing on describing locales or what strange (such as a monster or an unfamiliar device). But some of the most important descriptions are of what your characters are feeling or what they notice about another person or activities. So don't miss these.

What to try at home? I've included a photograph of Abraham Lincoln. As a first step, you might want to write as complete a description of the picture as you can. Include everything you notice. Feel free to add a metaphor or two.

Then step away from your description for a bit. When you come back, try to convey what you see in the image and what the image means to you in a few sentences. (You might try to describe Lincoln within the context of historical fiction from a specific point of view like a political rival. Or see what description would, if you wanted to presents your emotional response to the photograph. Or even consider how you would present Lincoln as the hero of a romance.)

When you've done this exercise, look to see what you left out and see if you can discover some of the reasons why you made your choices.

Even working with images, emotions, and activities in isolation can make your story stronger. But, if you find your way to consistency and description from scene to scene, making the best choices for your reader in terms of vocabulary, clarity, and emotional hooks, you can put your readers inside your stories in ways that make what you write more memorable.

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