Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A conversation about description

I met with a couple of writers this afternoon for a make-up session for last month's support group. Vicki had an excellent question about description. How do you know what to include and how much is enough and how much is too much? Flaubert used an encyclopedic amount, Hemingway very little. They're both considered master story tellers.

Of course, there are no simple answers to these questions, even though there are writers on writing who may try to sell you a formula. Lots of factors come into play. But there are some guidelines I use.

1. How much does description fit into your writing style? Many of us have writing styles or voices that are a reflection of how we live. Your style may be sparse in true minimalist fashion or it may be complicated and baroque in its detail. Take a look around your living space and you'll get an idea of how much detail you want to live with and write with.

2. How can description of a character or a setting assist your story? Description for description's sake almost always comes across as lame. It needs to serve a purpose. If your character is wearing a mini-skirt and a tank top to a job interview, we know a lot about her without you having to tell us. Giving your teenager girl an immaculate bedroom will go a long way to underscoring her anorexia without you having to tell us. That's right. We're back in the land of "Show, don't tell." Physical attributes can reinforce a character's personality in a few words. Even when the attribute goes against the moral grain (a thug in an Armani suit), it works without you having to tell us that he has expensive suits or is trying to hide his true nature.

3. How can description assist your scene? If I'm writing a scene that focuses on two characters breaking off their relationship, I probably don't want a lot of physical description. Instead, I'll want to describe what the point of view character is feeling and how she's responding to her lover. I'll want to focus on emotional description and how I can convey that without saying "she was sad." Maybe "she bit her lip and began to take things out of her purse." Actions can be description.

4. When is enough enough? This is a tough question to answer. As a reader, I want enough detail in description to paint a picture in my mind of the character but I don't want too much, because I want to use my imagination as well. I don't usually want specifics. I don't want to know that a character weighs 112 pounds and is 5'4" tall. Those kind of measurements are the mark of the amateur. Instead I want suggestions so that my mind can play. I want to know that she has one of those baby-girl voices that sell records these days or that she is chicken-bone thin or has been spending most of her paycheck on ice cream and brownies.