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Description and Imagery: How?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by weechlo, Oct 22, 2017.

  1. weechlo

    weechlo Scribe

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    So it's been... about three years since I've done any serious writing (and by serious writing I mean any writing beyond bare-bones synopses and note-taking for DnD campaigns), and I'm trying to get back into it for NaNoWriMo this year. And I've started writing something and noticed a problem almost immediately.

    I cannot figure out how to describe anything.

    All my stuff is "and then this happened, and then this. He did this. Blah blah blah, he said."

    And I'm like "This is not how good writing looks."

    So if you guys don't mind, remind me how to add descriptions of emotions and surroundings and such in your writing. Just help me out here real quick, just a quick refresher on... you know... writing gud.
     
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Fun question! Here are my top tips:

    1) Don't think of story sequence in terms of "and then... and then... and then...." Instead, think of your sequence like "So.... but.... so.... but.... so....." This way you always have a scene/sequel continuum which will make things more interesting for your readers. So instead of a paragraph going along the lines of:

    "and then this happened, and then this. He did this. Blah blah blah, he said."

    It would look more like:

    "This happened, so he. But then this happened. So he... "

    2) Use Chekov's advice for describing settings:

    “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

    Basically, show don't tell. Don't tell the reader "the moon shone bright in the clear sky." It's too vague. Focus on small, intimate details that only the narrator would notice.

    It might be helpful to post a passage of your writing if you want specific advice :)
     
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  3. weechlo

    weechlo Scribe

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    I'm working on something right now, actually; a little probably non-canon passage with the express, specific purpose of working on imagery and description. Nothing like writing a passage about your MC being trapped in an eldritch abomination's home turf and having his brain picked apart for 'secrets' to work on showing rather than telling and describing emotions.
     
  4. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Cool. Well if you felt ready to post it then it might gives others specific thoughts on what you may want to focus on, or points to consider :)
     
  5. It is time now to turn to one of my favorite tools for understanding description, the Pyramid Of Abstraction. This pyramid shows that the more concrete your descriptions the richer, deeper, and easier to understand the prose becomes. For example:

    To understand when something is concrete I'll write about love and the word dog. Love is an abstract concept. It's different for everyone and has a different meaning within s given situation. It's fuzzy and it can cause confusion.

    The other term, dog, is also abstract. We don't know anything about this fog. When I hear the word dog I think of Yorkies since I interact with that breed the most. A k-9 officer would probably think of whatever breed they use for drug sniffing. And yet another person might think about a golden retriever. Yet another might think of a Black Russian Terrier. And even if we had a consensus as to breed we would still differ on age, temperament, size, coloring, state of being, and so forth. To understand what this dog is we need to use concrete terms like baring teeth, growling, wagging its tail, having its color be black on its back and golden brown on its face, and explaining what it's fur or hair is like (trimmed short long and debris strewn etc).

    So, how to make something more "descriptive" go concrete. For example, let's suppose you want to describe a punch, you'd talk about the clenched fist and the motion of the body, straight, looping hook, uppercut, and also body positioning and the puncher's physical state. Then you'd want to concretely describe the punchee's state of mind and physical state after receiving a punch. For example:

    John clenched his fist and growled. Without thinking, he shifted his weight from back leg to front, throwing his arm straight forward, connecting with Bill's nose. John smiled as blood rushed down his friend's face. Bill tumbled backwards, eyes rolling into the back of his head, he wouldn't be waking any time soon.

    This isn't a great example, but we see that John is angry and reacting and throwing a punch with the intent to injure. He know that injury did happen and that Bill was knocked out cold. Furhter, we know that this was a jab since it connected on the nose and he threw his arm straight forward.
     
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'm going to combine and add to the advice HeliotropeHeliotrope and Brian Scott AllenBrian Scott Allen have given.

    First, a caveat:

    Often when we begin to put words on paper, we're dealing with two or more perspectives, the narrator's and at least one character's. Unless you are writing in first person, there's always a narrator and a separate character. And for me personally, this is where a lot of the trouble comes, when these two perspectives war with one another.

    So for example, saying "He did this, He said" is the narrator (who may be the author) looking at the character, from a distance. I suspect "this happened" also arises from that perspective of the narrator. So these passages can appear or feel aloof, separate, kinda out of the scene and story rather than in it.

    If we are writing in third person, using those third person pronouns is unavoidable, heh. But we don't have to stay so aloof. We can use both the narrator's perspective and characters' perspectives together to create a sense of closeness, of being really in the scene.

    The first step is to imagine yourself in the scene, either as one of the characters whose POV you are using or as a kind of disembodied narrator standing alongside them.

    So how to do that? Brian's mention of the Pyramid of Abstraction points at one way to avoid aloofness. Abstraction is aloof, a perspective from above what's happening. So...

    1. Use concrete nouns to describe what is in the scene. Lots of them. You are not looking down at the scene; no, these concrete things are all around you (if you are in the scene...)

    2. Don't write as if you are separate, looking at those things. Rather, those things just are, of their own accord. What I mean by this is that when you are writing what a character sees, hears, feels, smells, you don't use those words but instead just write what's there:

    Not this: John saw a large crow flying toward him. He could hear the flapping of its wings as it appeared to be struggling to stay airborne. He could see something large and dark dangling from its talons.

    But this: A large crow flew toward John, its wings beating at the air furiously as it dipped and rose, dipped and rose. A dark shape swung below it.

    I make no claims for the greatness of the last quick example above, heh. But it illustrates what I mean. When you say, "A large crow flew toward John," then the fact that "John saw" is a given, you don't need to say that he saw.

    3. MRUs help tether the/a perspective to the descriptive elements in a scene. Helio's "So.... but.... so.... but.... so....." is another way of describing MRUs: motivation-reaction units. In this term, motivation isn't a character's inner motivation but rather some external, concrete, objective thing or event that motivates a reaction from a character or from other things in the environment. This series of cause-effect will make the descriptive elements more real, more important, and will help interest a reader. Characters don't just do this, then do that, then do that; no, this exists, prompting a character to do that:

    A large crow flew toward John, its wings beating at the air furiously as it dipped and rose, dipped and rose. A dark shape swung below it. John crouched and raised his shield. What new devilry approached ? He drew a slow, deep breath to steady himself and waited.

    Just a final little note. Mary Kowal on the podcast Writing Excuses often distinguishes short stories from novels by saying that readers want the quick, emotional payoff from a short story but want immersion from a novel. Immersion in a world. Being there. This idea of immersion as a goal struck a chord with me. For me, it helps when I allow myself to immerse in a scene while I'm writing it. I know I can sometimes get in a hurry to reach a plot point, but sometimes letting myself relax, be present in the current scene, helps me to see around me, take it all in, and write what's there.
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2017
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  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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  8. Mytherea

    Mytherea Minstrel

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    So. I can't tell you the why's of description or the reasons why one description works better than another--I'm not that smart--but I can give you a few exercises that might help. I'm assuming the issue you're having is describing things vividly so that they feel real, right?

    1. Grab one of your favorite books or favorite writer's work. Scan through till you find a scene or description of a place or character that's particularly evocative, that summons the movie or the pictures in your head, that feels, for whatever reason, real. Got it? Right. Now, transcribe it for yourself. Take your time. Really dig into the meaning of that description. Now, put it away. Hide the book. Hide your transcription. Go make yourself some coffee or take a walk or a nap, something meditative to occupy your time for five, ten-ish minutes. I wouldn't recommend doing anything tied to story, though. Now, come back and write that description again. The focus isn't so much to get it "right" and have it word-for-word the same, just to try and capture the original description's meaning. It's like with acting, how an actor will memorize lines, but also memorize the meaning behind those lines, so in case they forget the actual wording, they can ad-lib and have it still mean what it's supposed to mean. Sometimes, you'll get the exact same wording as the original, sometimes stuff will deviate, sometimes you'll forget things, and sometimes you'll add. Which is all valid. Just focus, as you're writing, how the--oh, crap, I'm going to go down the emotional side of it but--how the description feels. Like, the shape of it. The construction behind it. The texture, the size, how long the writer dwells on one detail or how many details there are. Maybe there aren't any. Why?

    2. Watch a movie/TV show. Pick a scene. Summarize it: what happens? How does it happen? Cool? Good. Now, novelize it. Write the scene out as if you're writing for someone who's never seen it. What details do you need to build the scene? Focus on those. Where is it happening? Who's it about? Who's involved? What's it sound like? Do a bit of extrapolation, what might it smell like? If someone is drinking, what's the container feel like? What's the drink taste like? Then, slowly, start building your novelization. It might take more than one pass through. Just keep adding details. Then, look at this overwritten mess and ask, what can I cut? What's the absolute core of this scene? Does the library really need to be described in such detail or can I get away with just saying "library"? Do I need to describe that veggie-shake or can I just say, "kale shake" and rely on a reader knowing what color/taste/texture kale is? Now, chop it down to half its size.

    3. Go someplace you're familiar with. Spend half an hour observing it. Jot down notes about the place. Size. Color of the walls. What kind of place it is. People. Noise. Is there music playing? Smells. Now, start trying to play with contradictions. Is it a big place but only has a couple people in it? Is it an old place but has a very modern charging station sitting in the middle? Tall ceilings but squat furniture? Now, snag a character and stick 'em in the place. What're their first impressions?

    4. Google up some pictures of people. Pick one and describe the person. Now, describe them as a character. Okay, describe them in one sentence, trying to capture both what they look like and who they are (try to keep the sentence under thirty words). Now, describe 'em in three sentences. Now, five. Describe them as if this is a person you (or a character, whichever works better for your internal visualization) are meeting for the first time. Now, describe 'em like you've known them for ten years.

    5. Pick one of your locations from your story. Describe everything you can think of. Build the place in your head and take a leisurely stroll. Maybe go browsing through Google till you find locations that look somewhat like what you're aiming for. Steal stuff from that, put it in your place. Make it this massive amalgamation of images. Right. Now, pick a character from the story and choose three details that character would probably notice about the place, then write a description using only those three details. Now you've got a description that's doing double duty, showing the place but also building the character.

    6. Emotions tend to be tied to impressions and character, and how close the narrative perspective is to the viewpoint character. There are quite a few ways to go about weaving in emotion, and it's hard to give you pointers without knowing the stylistic approach you're using. Like, I use either first person or third person close (sometimes very, very close), so my narratives are almost always colored with the character's thoughts. Some might say this is a lazy way of working in emotion, but it's what works for me. If you're writing with more narrative distance between the narrator and character, the emotions tend to be conveyed differently, either relying on the situation and character actions/reactions to imply the feeling to the reader OR coming right out and telling (though the latter is less common now with a third person narrator; first person is different, and you can use this technique more frequently, imo).

    7. As for describing a sequence of events, others (Fifthview and Heliotrope) have given really concrete advice and pointers. My only thing to toss in would be to slow down. Really dig into what's happening. Play around with the narrative distance and character perception.

    These are just some exercises that have worked well for me. They're not prescriptive, and though I sound like I'm ordering you to do things, I'm not, I promise, and I'm sorry if it comes off that way. Good luck and happy writing. :)
     
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  9. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Sometimes, it helps to go slow. The easiest way to learn how to describe things is by using the weather.

    'It was a stormy night...(describe the storm) Winds, feel of the wind on the character's skin, is it cold? Warm? Rain? Flooding?

    It's about using your imagination and the more you practice writing the easier the descriptions will become.
     
  10. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    FifthView said a lot of what I wanted to say, but I will add what helped me most in understanding how to describe things was understanding the part POV plays in it. How things are described depends on what POV character the scene is being told from. No two characters will describe things in the same way.

    For example, a character walks into a tavern. If that character is a thief, they may describe all the patrons as marks, and take note of all the pretty, shiny, and vulnerable valuables everyone is wearing.

    If that character is cobbler, they may describe each patron by the type of shoes they're wearing and how the shoe and the wear on them tells the story of who these people are and what they've done.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Chessie2 has the key, imo: slow down.

    I totally get what you are saying. I suffer from the same problem. When I am writing the first draft, I'm just trying to get the action sequence down. Walk the character down the street. Move the army across the mountains. I'm completely preoccupied with this, then that, then that. I've done this so many times, I can catch myself at it, even on the first draft.

    The only fix I've found is to slow down. If I'm really worried that I have a sequence whose details I'm afraid I'll forget, I'll make a quick outline--hardly more than a list, really--just enough so I'll remember that the orcs jump down from the trees, not from the side of the road, and one of the characters gets captured. Something like that. Many times, I don't need that.

    However I approach it, I try to put myself into the scene as thoroughly as I can. Sights, sounds, smells, internal thoughts, taste or touch once in a while. These apply to the character, the other characters, the landscape or room, all of it. No, I don't try to describe everything, but I try to "look" at all of it for bits that enhance the mood of the moment (action, suspense, romance, whatever). I look not only from the POV character, but from multiple angles, like setting up multiple cameras to film a scene.

    It can be really painful. I just want to get on to the next scene. I still "sketch" scenes more than I should, especially where there's a lot of dialog. I'll come back to it. And I do, but here's something worth considering. The me who comes back to it--later, tomorrow, next week, on the third editing pass--is not the same me as I am at the moment of first heat. Something is happening during the first draft that I can rarely capture again. I'm trying to school myself to let that heat suffuse not only the actions, the plot moments, but also descriptions. I'll still come back and edit, but when I'm able to slow down *during* the first draft, I find I conjure up turns of phrase that escape me when I'm in rewrite or edit mode. IOW, I believe slowing down, getting at least some description in on the first draft, is worthwhile, however difficult it proves to accomplish.
     
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  12. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    This was huge chunks of my first draft of this sequel. No joke. Three rewrites later, it's starting to feel like a book.

    As for descriptions, my rule is to envision the scene, and then write what the observer -- narrator, POV character, whoever's eyes you're writing through -- would see first, then second, then next. Think about the time that it takes to notice those things, and then pace out the timing of the scene and figure out what the POV character would have time to notice between each bit of dialogue or action. (This is also where you introduce Chekhov's Gun if you need it.) If two people are having a heated argument right in front of you, you're not going to take note of the steam rising from their teacups or a spot on one of their sleeves; at least, not if you're paying close enough attention to know exactly what they're saying. Just my $.02 and what works for me.
     
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  13. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Can I play devil's advocate for a moment here and say that slipping in omniscient while writing a book from 3rd is also a convenient way of describing things? Okay, okay...so we're not supposed to do such things, right? Mix povs. I can already feel the tomatoes hitting my body. But it's something I like to do when I want to give the reader a bit of space and room to breathe. Js.
     
  14. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I think I heard Brandon Sanderson say he does a little of this. I think it was specific to the opening of a book or scene, but regardless, I think I've seen it pop up in a few books I've read. The only reason I probably noticed was because of being a writer.

    But otherwise, if it works for you, then it works for you. Know the rules, break the rules sort of thing.
     
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  15. weechlo

    weechlo Scribe

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    One writer, John Flanagan, shifts between character POV in the middle of scenes. Either that or it's the weirdest omniscient POV I've ever seen.

    Love him but it's the weirdest thing.
     
  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    It's head-hopping third omniscient.
     
  17. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Yeah I agree it's only something I've noticed from writing as well. To be honest, it's not something I use frequently either. I actually just wrote a paragraph in omniscient just recently for my WIP during a transition scene where the hero is overlooking a valley. Then I brought in the heroine through that transition. I could have used his pov but it felt right doing it the other way.
     
  18. I'm very good at both description and imagery--perhaps a bit too much. If you can imagine events in the story happening as if filmed for a movie, that might help. [At least, that's how it is for me.]
     
  19. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    "Head hopping" isn't a problem as long as the author has a solid grasp on voice. Read through The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or The Princess Bride, and you'll see that some scenes change viewpoint character in the middle of a paragraph, or even for just one line. Once you have your characters' voices and perceptions dialed in and clearly different from each other, it's a wonderful technique. There's a lot of misunderstanding about omniscient third, though, and since it takes most authors literally years if not a lifetime to develop awareness of voice to the point where they can shift voice seamlessly, most new authors don't use omniscient, or they try it and botch it. Botching it is when you get "head-hopping." (I also think that many fledgling authors don't understand the difference between POV and voice, but that's another issue entirely.)
     
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  20. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    I think we discussed this ages ago but if I recall correctly, POV=closer to the character and voice=further away from the character.
     
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