Today we have a guest blogger:
Danielle Ackley McPhail is the author of Yesterday’s Dreams and Tomorrow’s Memories, as well as the head editor on the Bad Ass Faeries series, of which I am an assistant editor. Also, she has a Live Journal at Sidhe na Daire. Here are some words of wisdom from her on the subject of writing description.
Description in fiction can be tricky. There are several different ways to approach it, depending on the situation.
For the most part, I prefer to weave my descriptive in among the action:
The room was dark as Kristy entered. She moved cautiously, running her left hand against the rough, papered wall, shuffled her bare feet carefully across the wood of the floor. The dust was gritty and harsh on her soles.
A few feet into the room she encountered a pole lamp and fumbled for the switch, not quite correctly anticipating where it would be, but finally finding a dangle cord descending from the domed shade. A sharp tug sent weak light tentatively into the dark, not quite pushing it back. She could make out the curve of an old-fashioned chest nearby, to her right, and on her left, a straight, spindle-backed chair, everything else was no more than vague contours.
This makes it immediate and from the character’s perspective, rather than the author’s and reveals things in pace, but it is for situations where the character takes precedence over location. Another thing it does is engage the senses in a way the reader can relate to, in effect, walking them bodily through the scene. Engaging the five senses is very important to making a setting real and three-dimensional for the reader, as well as for the character.
However, there are times where the scene is what is important, for impact, and not the character’s interaction with it, times when the character is a mere observer:
Katon came over the ridge, relaxed in the saddle, unsuspecting. As he crested the rise, the view before him struck him like a hammer blow to the skull. He sat back hard. His horse stopped abruptly, first shying back, then rearing a few inches off the ground in response. Katon hardly noticed as he observed the valley in stunned silence.
Below the verdant acres of his childhood were replaced by tracks of nightmarish landscape. In the foreground, trees, shattered and blackened, loomed over land furrowed by violence where once it had only known the plow. In the mid-distance he could see what was left of the farmer’s cottages, shattered like walnuts until only husks remained. Katon closed his eyes against further sight, but the tiny ridges of muted color scattered on the ground before those houses were etched in his memory.
Rough examples, but you get the idea. How much detail you provide and the way you provide it depend on the impact you need from the scene and the pacing of the story. If the point in the story you are working on is more about character development, always break things up with character-specific observations. Everything should be filtered through them as they are experiencing it. I’m not into setting a scene first and then engaging the character. A paragraph or two of straight descriptive always feels like an info-dump to me, kind of like a play script rather than fiction. "dressing" a scene before any characters come on the page slows things down and draws attention to the fact that things are staged, whereas experiencing the setting as the character does makes things more immediate, personal, and quick-paced. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for both, but pick and chose carefully/
To figure out what to add first determine what is important. What terrain will the character have to move around, what information does the character need to learn here. Think of the video game Myst. There are rich, lush landscapes, but only certain elements can be manipulated and have relevance. Others are just distractions or window-dressing. You spend more time on what is important either to advance the story or understand the character.
Now, for character description, that can be tricky. Some will say you can’t describe a character in details they are not able to observe: for example when you are in the POV of Katon, it would be considered wrong by some to say: Katon looked up, his brown eyes smoldering until they were nearly black, and took a step toward the villain responsible for the devastation. See, since Katon cannot see what his eyes look like at that point in time, it is reasoned how can he know? It is information available only to the author and thus it is considered to draw the reader out of the character’s POV and into the author’s head, removing them from the story.
The opposing viewpoint is this is fiction, the reader knows they are reading fiction, so just write the character as you envision them even if the character themselves are not in a position to actually see what you are describing (ie there is no mirror or other reflective surface around) and move on with the story. Most readers will not even realize this is "wrong", and it is less contrived than trying to work in ways to convey the information such as having the character observe themselves in a mirror or giving their description when you are in the POV of a different character.
Really, it is what you are comfortable with. You just have to realize that some professionals you submit your work to might disagree and see it as a flaw in the story, and submit or revise accordingly.
Now, I write fantasy and science fiction and I find that character description is by far more important when I am writing fantasy. I just naturally add it in and incorporate it into what is going on, but with science fiction, or more specifically, military science fiction it seems unnatural to go into what people look like unless it is directly relevant to what is going on or will be significant in a future point in the story. I am told I am not alone in this, most military science fiction is slanted to a more military viewpoint, where the individual as an individual isn’t the focus, but in relation to the team. There physical condition is more the focus, rather than physical description.
In either case, as with my scene description, unless I am making a point of something, character description comes in bits and pieces woven into the action of a scene, rather than all at once in a laundry list of points.
35 thoughts on “Wright’s Writing Corner: Guest Blogger Danielle Ackley-McPhail”
Thanks for having me, Jagi.
I should have mentionedthat, for those interested, I have a blog of my own at http://damcphail.livejournal.com.
Oh! I’ll edit it to add your blog.
Thanks, lady :)
on the POV question
I think what is crucial is being consistent. Don’t occasionally slither in bits that the POV character can’t see.
Re: on the POV question
I most definitely agree. Consistency is very important. Whatever method or viewpoint the author choses to follow they should not switch back and forth. Such changes become obvious to the reader, distracting them from the story itself.
Thanks for reading.
So many of the classics used the omniscient point of view in storytelling that I’m very comfortable as a reader in accepting it if it is consistent.
I’m with you. I actually like omniscient POV.
I certainly agree, as long as it is consistent, though some of the more formal writers decry it as poor writing. I look at it like this, though…a character knows what they look like, even if they aren’t looking in a mirror. They know the color of their feature and their physical shape, etc. Also, they very likely know what they look like when they experience certain things. As long as you maintain the continuity throughout, I see no problem approaching fiction with that understanding in mind, particularly if it helps your writing to flow more naturally.
Writers often want to include details the character can’t see in that moment and to do so incorporate awkward and disruptive mechanisms to enable this involving mirrors or reflections or spectral views ;) when quite likely most readers wouldn’t have thought twice if they’d just come out and wrote the passage in a way that felt more natural to them.
Anyway, thanks for reading!
A paragraph or two of straight descriptive always feels like an info-dump to me…
THIS THIS THIS. I know that I’m guilty of white-room syndrome on a fairly regular basis (and it’s something I’m constantly striving to overcome), but when people go too far the other way it drives me nuts.
I love how you’ve woven the description into the narrative in the first example and smacked the character in the face with the second, and I’m going to steal both these techniques with both hands. Thanks!
“white room syndrome” … I didn’t know it had a name. If I wrote more, I think I would definitely be a white-room-syndrome writer. I automatically skim past descriptive paragraphs in books. I usually have little or no idea what the characters are really supposed to look like. I think this may be tied in with the fact that I have poor observational skills in real life.
Now see, I have noticed that myself…the skimming, particularly when I’m reading historic romance and the author goes on for three pages about the food eaten at one feast…I think this is a particular reason why I dole out the details. If I weave them in among the dialogue, introspective and action, they are a part of a complex tapestry of words. If I grouped them together in bundles they would either draw the reader out of the flow of the story, or they would be lost in the rush to find out what happens next. Thank you for mentioning this and giving me an opportuntity to expound further. So hard to remember everything I wanted to say when I was actually writing the blog! LOL
You’re welcome. :)
LOL…definitely, feel free ;)
I find it is easier and more natural for me to gradually introduce details as if the character is experiencing them so the character remains the focus and everything is filtered through them. Makes it less likely for info-dumps to happen and gives the reader the feel of walking along with the character rather than viewing things from a fixed, static point. Almost all of my writing is charactersentric which makes this all the more important.
I am glad that what I have written is of use. Good luck with the writing!
Excellent stuff, as always, Danielle :)
Thanks for sharing :)
Thanks Jon. I think I have had to consider so much of this I really could write a book on that alone off of just those things I learned by mistake as I’ve gone along! If only there weren’t so many other things I have to get done! LOL
If you ever decide to do that, you could call it ‘Writing Mistakes What I Made’? ;)
:::groan!:::: Jon, you are too much!
Oh, that’s funny!
It reminds me of high school when I used to amuse my mother by declaring “I did well in English and good in everything else.”
LOL…you are so bad!
Great post. Good advice and good examples. So many times I just skim over a long paragraph of nothing but description without any reaction or “seeing” it through the character’s eyes.
Glad you liked it. It can be hard as an author to know how much you should put in and where, particularly when writing speculative or historic fiction. We spend so much time creating this world that we want to share with everyone, but too much background detail slows things down and makes it hard for the reader to keep track of the relevant details. It is quite a balance building a world while still keeping to the point. That is one of the reasons I almost always use the characters as a filter, a bold reminder that keeps the reader focused.
Hope my post was useful to you.
One thing I always find interesting is the huge range of difference in how much description people like to read. I know guys who don’t read any and guys who complain if there isn’t bags of it…I suppose this means that there’s a right readership for any of us, once we figure out how much description we want to put in.
Very good point, Jagi. Of course, whichever you choose, do the best you can. That is what is important. Always strive to improve, but stay true to your own self, your own style. There are ways to put in lots of description without tying an anchor to your story, and simplicity works just as well, as long as you make what description you do include count, going for impact rather than immersion.
I read this and thought it was a perfectly good comment…then, like an hour later I suddenly burst out laughing because I thought:
Yeah, not only can any amount of description be done well, but any amount of description can be done badly, too.
LOL…if you’re good, you’re good, and if not, it shows! (we, of course, are among the former ;)
>(we, of course, are among the former ;)
I think the sort of description that kills me most is stuff like this:
With the gangsters hot on my trail, I jumped into my hovmocycle and fumbled around trying to get the key into the ignition. The hovmocycle is similar in some ways to a small 20th century automobile, but made for a single occupant. It rests on two antigravity generators, which were invented in the late 23rd century, and serve the function that was once performed by toxic rubber tires. I was so nervous I dropped the keys on the the floor.
“With the gangsters hot on my trail, I jumped into my hovmocycle and fumbled around trying to get the key into the ignition. The fit was tight, as the vehicle was so narrow. I was glad that I had not taken anyone with me this morning. There was not room for two.
I was so nervous I dropped the keys on the the floor. Precious seconds went by as I hunted for them, grabbed them, started the hovmocycle up. The two antigravity generators surged into action, causing the vehicle to bob drunkenly. They had that distinctive late 23rd century hum that told me that I was not going to get half the speed I would have expected out of old-fashion toxic rubber tires.”
Don’t know if that helps. Of course you could have made the facts different…23rd century antigrav generators might go faster than tires, for instance, but it’s a start.
You have so little faith in me…
It actually took me some degree of effort to write such a awful paragraph; my teeth ached with every word. Especially one that stops you dead in the middle of some frantic action.
But it’s something I see in stories that come across my desktop for crit, sometimes, and alarmingly often in SF from the 50s from otherwise excellent writers.
Awe! I had such fun rewriting it, too.
Well, we can consider the two of us having performed a nice demonstration for the general audience. ;-)
>But it’s something I see in stories that come across my desktop for crit, sometimes, and alarmingly often in SF from the 50s from otherwise excellent writers.
That is a style thing.
Back then, they were reading for the science and the audience actually wanted the science highlighted. Nowadays, we read for the story, so we don’t want the science slowing the story down.
Still, there’s ways of doing the science bit that don’t break credibility. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books come to mind. There’s quite long passages of scientific diversion, but it all works / makes sense in the context of the story, because it’s describing things that are new science to the characters. Like… someone from 1981 getting an iphone would spend a lot of time describing the iphone because it’s cool/new/etc. Someone from 2009 wouldn’t. So if I’m a SF writer in 1950 wanting to go into detail about this iphone thing my character has – well, it’s just a common everyday tool to the character, so I’d need to contrast it against either something newer and shinier or some old tech that the character runs across (like having to use the rotary dial phone sitting – and still in use – in grandma’s house)
…and. The critical piece then is to know WHEN you can take a moment to slow the story down for a bit of exposition. It ain’t in the middle of a car chase.
Yes! We are both agreed there…and that the method of blending in the description makes for much more enjoyable reading.
Sure, there are…but back then, not breaking the narrative was not a big concern. It’s true that if they had written it our way, we’d enjoy it more now…but it would not necessarily have improved readership then.
Styles really change. Some things that are “right” and “wrong” are always that way. But a lot of what is considered “wrong” today is what the modern style calls for. We’ve discovered how to make things flow really quickly, and now we think of the slower way of doing things as wrong. Kind of like discovering moving the camera in movie making, then everyone has to do it…but really old movies can still be good, even though the camera stands still.
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