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Let's talk about descriptions

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Svrtnsse, Aug 18, 2018.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    In a recent thread I mentioned that it might be time for a discussion about writing descriptions. This is a topic that's dear to me, and which I find fascinating. How do you put images into the mind of the reader?

    I'll start us off with an image from a blog post I wrote for my own blog a while back:
    [​IMG]
    I believe that within the fantasy genre there's a fondness, not least among writers, for vivid and intricate descriptions that dazzle the reader with visions of worlds beyond time and dream. You know, the cool stuff.

    It's fun to write descriptions like that, but it can also be difficult. It's easy to lay it on too thick, or to miss something important, or distract from the story.

    We often talk about how to write. Whether or not to use certain kinds of words. How to achieve a consistent voice or a tight point of view. Should I write in first person or in third? Past or present?

    Only rarely, I find, do we talk about how we read.

    Specifically, how does the human mind transform words on a page into stories in our minds?

    Imagination. Association. First impressions. Expectations. Pattern recognition. Creative thinking.

    There's some crazy stuff going on in that warm squishy mess behind our eyes. Science doesn't know half of it, but that doesn't mean we can't wonder about it, or try and put it to use when writing.

    Make the reader do the work.

    Can we write in a way that encourages the reader to create their own image of what we're telling them? Should we? How?

    My opinion is that we can. My opinion is also that you should do what you feel like and take my ramblings on the matter with a pinch of salt.

    How then?

    Well, that's a good question, isn't it?
     
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  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'm sure I'll return to this thread many times.

    Three questions.

    Can we? Yes.

    Should we? I don't know. This question seems more complicated after a little thought than it might seem at first. The question turns on a continuum. To what degree should we show? Which items should be shown; which, left to the imagination? Even if the answers to these questions are different for different authors and/or different stories for any author, I suspect they'll broadly be relevant. One story might require a bit more description of the particular sorts of elves in that world, whereas a different story might not need to describe them much at all; so, should? It's very vivid question, itself, heh.

    How? While the second question might get more attention in this discussion, this question might ultimately be the best and deserve even more attention. But as I said, I think I'll be returning to the thread many times.
     
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  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    OMG, love this. I'm going to be a frequent poster here too. Great post Svrt!

    Oh gosh...

    I believe we should be writing in a way that encourages the reader to create their own images. Some new writers go way too far, IMO trying to describe every detail of a scene. Why? To what purpose? Do I care, as the reader, that the bedspread is pink?

    I think we should give enough that our goals as storytellers are met. It think it is important to think about your goal for the scene. Do you NEED the reader to know that the character is poor? Then a few, choice descriptions of the state of the home, oh their clothes, or what they had for breakfast may be enough. I think of it like a dot to dot. I add a few, very specific dots and let the reader fill in the lines. I always go back to Chekov:

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

    A lot of new writers want to describe big, broad, obvious things in the scene. Stuff that is mundane. I know what a moon looks like. Unless you have a totally new way of describing the moon, don't tell me about the moon. Find a small, intimate detail that is special to your world, or special to your character and tell me about that. Tell me something new and interesting. Let me fill in the blanks.

    A GREAT description makes me see the world in a new way. It wakes me up from my sleepwalk of life. This is why voice is soooo important IMO. I don't want to know about the wood panelled walls or the green carpet. I want to know the character's opinion on them. I want to know what the character sees as important.

    What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's; the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.

    - Zadie Smith, Fail Better

    A great description is one that forces me to be attentive. That makes me see the moon in a new way. That makes me see my dinner in a new way. New authors always describe stuff exactly as they see it. The visual. That is boring. That is sleepwalking. I want to see it from your (or your character's perspective.) I want to know an opinion on it. Tell me that. I can fill in the blanks about the mundane stuff on my own.





     
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2018
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  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Readers will use their imagination when they have reason to do so, and that happens most readily when they have reason to care what's going on at the moment. It happens also when the author sets an expectation of action. Here's an example from one of the best writers in the business, Raymond Chandler. It's from The Long Goodbye. You don't even need a setup to appreciate it.

    It was two o'clock when I got back and they were waiting for me in a dark sedan with no police tags, no red light, only a double antenna, and not only police cars have those. I was halfway up the steps before they came out of it and yelled at me, the usual couple in the usual suits, with the usual stony leisure of movement, as if the world was waiting hushed and silent for them to tell it what to do.
    "Your name Marlowe? We want to talk to you."
    He let me see the glint of a badge. For all I caught of it he might have been Pest Control. He was gray blond and looked sticky. His partner was tall, good-looking, neat, and had a precise nastiness about him, a goon with an education. They had watching and waiting eyes, patient and careful eyes, cool disdainful eyes, cops' eyes. They get them at the passing-out parade at the police school.


    I chose this at random. There are scores of such passages. The usual couple in the usual suits, that relies on 20th century stereotypes, not much use for us fantasy writers. But then we get "the usual stony leisure of movement" which is just brilliant. The description would be lazy without that. Chandler is concise, and concise is never lazy.

    Then there's the glint of a badge. Chandler doesn't describe the action except tangentially. Almost without noticing it, he's brought the cops out of the car and close to our MC. Notice the three short sentences ending with that "gray blond and looked sticky." Five words and the first cop is described. Then two whole sentences about their eyes, without ever saying anything about their color, narrow or wide, round or squinty.

    And, what I like best of all, the description itself sets tension. We have no doubt a confrontation is about to happen. And we're instinctively with Marlowe because of the way the cops are described: the unmarked car, the time of day, and the pejorative connotations of Pest Control, stickiness, nastiness, and disdain. We hope Marlowe gives one of them a poke in the nose. But of course, this is Chandler, so it goes the other way. For a while.

    Descriptions, in short and however vague this sounds, should reverberate. If they are only describing, merely describing, they're not pulling their weight. Dialogue should do more than talk; description should do more than describe.
     
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  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Here is an interesting point (note, I'm headed to bed so haven't read all the responses) but:

    When the human brain reads "A mouse sat on the desk," it's been shown that at least a lot of people won't form an image of said mouse because they don't yet know if its a piece of computer equipment, or a scurrying little critter who loves cheese. Uncertainty pauses the movie being painted in the reader's head. This can be useful, or detrimental. If it's done too often, it can get funky.

    But here's the thing... writers don't do it with this obvious example that often, we do it with things like "But here's the thing" OR

    "Sitting in the dark corner of the office, William..."

    The adverbial phrase/clause opening delays the readers experience, it pauses the movie while we wait. Even with the dark corner description, we don't know what to put there. At best its an incomplete still shot. I LOVE adverbial phrase openings, but I've come to realize I need to limit them. They tend to lend an air of authorial oomph to my snobby, writer's ear, but I curb my natural predilection for this style of sentence in order to keep the movie rolling.

    They can also lead to dangling participles, but even when written correctly, one should consider if you use them too often.
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    OTOH, if I read "A cockroach sat on the typewriter" I see the image clearly. ;-)
     
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  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    This is interesting, because it doesn't match my personal experience (that doesn't mean it's wrong).

    Perhaps I'm not a very critical person, but in the example above I assumed the mouse was the little furry kind that loves cheese. If it had turned out to be the plastic kind with a laser in its belly I'd have been annoyed, and perhaps I might even have felt cheated.
    Then again let's assume that's just me.

    According to the above, a lot of people wouldn't form an image of the mouse because they don't know what kind it is. This raises a few other interesting questions: For how long can the mouse remain an undecided entity, and what happens when the time runs out? Will the mind settle on the mouse being one of the two (furry or plastic), or will the existence of the mouse be phased out of awareness?

    I don't know the answer to these questions, but my guess is that the mouse can't remain undecided for long - a few seconds at most, or a few lines of text. It's difficult to imagine something being two different things at the same time. I also think that if the mouse is at all relevant to the scene I would settle on it being one or the other, and not push it out of my mind.

    So how do we tell the reader what kind of mouse it is?
    We can tell them the mouse is nibbling on the keyboard cable, or that it's upside down with it's tiny belly-laser feebly trying to penetrate the dusty air of the room (okay, maybe not, but it's really early and I've only had my second cup of coffee). What I want to get to is that by we can nudge the reader in the right direction by using descriptions that are more closely related to one of the other.

    Examples:
    - A cute little mouse.
    - A sleek black mouse.

    I'd like to think that in both of the above examples there's a good hint at what kind of mouse is referred to. There's still room for ambiguity, but not as much as if it's just a mouse without any descriptors.
     
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  8. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

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    My first impression as a writer was that I should go out of my way not to info dump. I took that to heart and avoided in the most part any whole sentence solely dedicated to description. I felt I always had to get an action in there too.

    For all of you, when does a sentence or two of description become an info dump?

    Can anybody come up with two similar examples in which the authors create vivid descriptions, each using a few adjectives / adverbs, but where one works while the other doesn’t? It’d be great to find that line of over describing, or just describing the wrong things.
     
  9. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I don't have any examples yet, and that may be some time, but I picked up on something else here:
    To me, and I could be wrong here, an infodump isn't an exessively long description of something (that's visible to the character/reader in the scene that's taking place). The way I see it, an infodump is exessive information about something that isn't immediately relevant to the current situation.

    Let's say I'm writing about a knight journeying to a distant outpost in the mountains. The reason there's an outpost that far away may be relevant to the story, and knowing that reason may be crucial to understanding the implications of what's happening there. I could take a few paragraphs to explain this in order to make sure the reader knows what's going on.
    However, that information may not be necessary at that time, and the reader may not know why it is important, meaning they also won't be very interested.
    At the start of the story, it's enough to know the knight is on a journey. I don't need to tell the reader that the outpost was built there because the kings third cousin threw a tantrum and demanded that a fungus farm be created in that spot or they'd go on a crusade and sack Carthage.

    Explaining the intricacies of court intrigue to someone who doesn't understand it, isn't interested in it, and doesn't know why it's important - that's an info dump.

    As for description, they can be exessive and overly elaborate, but I wouldn't compare them to infodumps.
     
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  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    This reminds me of a recent Mythcreants podcast. (Link.) They're talking about various literary devices, and they eventually get to imagery. One of the podcasters, Wes Matlock, has a pet peeve. Some people, after reading something, might say, "That was such good nature imagery," when, in fact, it isn't good imagery but only good images. There's a difference. Another podcaster says, "Oh no, they're not the same?"

    I hadn't actually thought about it much either.

    So he said that imagery is a particular literary device that is used "to appeal to and evoke the senses." He lists all the senses. He gives an example that someone might write:

    He looked across the room, and there was a ghost.

    The ghost might be a thing, and it might be an image, but this isn't imagery because it doesn't really appeal to or evoke the senses. A hundred people might imagine a hundred different types of ghosts—size? color? what's it doing? what's its shape? does it seem threatening? friendly? is it the sheet-covered variety or some dead person a la the Harry Potter novels? Ghost might be an image, but you're really appealing to the mind. What's a ghost? What's a ghost look like?

    So he says you could write something like this:

    The ghost hovered in the air.

    You still might not know the size, etc., but at least you know what it's doing, and this paints an evocative picture for the reader and would be considered imagery, even if it's simple. You might not be painting a picture of the ghost down to all the warts and freckles that the dead person had while alive and still has, heh, but you are appealing to the sense of sight. Whatever the reader has imagined a ghost to be—well, that's hovering now.

    Let's suppose you are writing a scene about a middle school kid sneaking into the principal's office after hours.

    There was a desk and chair, a floor lamp in one corner, and a calendar on the wall beside it .

    That's just a list of things. Is it imagery or a collection of images? Heh.

    There was a desk and chair, a floor lamp in one corner, and a calendar on the wall beside it with a large picture of Marilyn Monroe over the month of July.

    School's out in July, she's there in September, so maybe that part at least could create an image of that principal, heh. Is the description of the calendar imagery? I'd say the specificity of that image probably does appeal to sight, especially the month; if a reader doesn't know what Marilyn Monroe looks like, maybe that part doesn't appeal to sight so much.

    You wouldn't need to simply mention that there was a desk and chair, though. :ROFLMAO: Maybe if you kept the mention of the desk and chair and floor lamp, you could add things to the descriptions of those that would create imagery and better suggest the sort of person this principal is—if that's important for some reason. *

    I'd continue down this line of exploration, because the difference between simple images and the use of imagery is fascinating. But you wrote something that reminded me of that podcast.

    You can have activity without also needing a character to act. You can make inanimate objects active or give a sense of activity while describing things. There are simply sunbeams, or are the sunbeams bursting through the canopy and dappling the forest floor with irregular pools of light? (Maybe that's going too far, hah, but it makes a point.)

    The podcaster gave examples for all the senses, and every example was active. "The fluorescent light hummed above her." (This appeals to our hearing; so, imagery.) But does imagery always require activity? I don't think so; the example of the calendar above doesn't.

    *So "if that's important for some reason" points at the difficulty of coming up with a simple guideline.

    On the one hand, what's important can vary quite a bit depending on what you want to accomplish and whether you should want to accomplish it, heh. On the other hand, I'd say that every single bit of description must be important. Chances are, if it's not, then you are info dumping. But important how?

    Even a simple list of chair, desk, and floor lamp could be very important if your middle school kid is breaking into what used to be a principal's office in an old, abandoned school, and all the other rooms are bare, the furniture completely missing everywhere else.

    "A simple wooden chair," though slight, could be very revealing in the right context.

    Perhaps what is important is simply setting the scene up for an action sequence that's about to happen; before you can have your character trip over a chair, maybe you should list it as being in the room when he first enters, including its location. This consideration ties into the issue of clarity. If elves figure heavily in your story, you wouldn't want a character to say, halfway through the novel, that he hates elves because he can't tell them apart—what with the same shade of purple hair cut at the exact same length, same height, and the fact that all the male elves look just like the female elves—unless you've already described them this way fairly early in the story. So, timing also plays into the importance.

    The list goes on and on. Maybe it's important to set a tone, build dread, or....whatever.

    Edit: I brought up the image v imagery issue because it's interesting, but I think that description encompasses a lot of things. So I'm not saying that imagery is the only way to describe. I don't think I made that clear above.
     
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2018
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  11. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    But if it was just a roach, would you see a doobie? heh heh.

     
  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    I am basing this notion on science I've read and filed away in my brain, I don't recall examples outside of the mouse. It was fascinating, and I applied to a conversation I was having with my editor about adverbial phrases/clauses. As a one time publisher and now editor, she figures they are often used to sound "more literary".

    And yes! the notion of being cheated is real, for folks who jump in one direction or another, which is another problem with delayed descriptions. The actual pause in the human brain is tiny, and one would expect in a novel that context would take care of which mouse it is pretty quickly. Although! I do recall reading a book while tired and kind of spacing off, and reading something... and having to stop, rewind, get the context, and then "ooooh" because everything had stopped making sense.

    The bigger point is not the mouse story of a scientific experiment, but rather writing sentences that "pause" the movie in the readers head. A major culprit (or hero when used well) being the adverbial clause/phrase. I'd be curious to check on children's books, but I expect all writers do it, the trouble can develop when doing it too often.

     
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  13. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Well, first, the classic info dump. Because that will help define what they are. A few lines of description don't really count.

    Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. I haven't read this book in 30 years and I STILL remember the info dump when Allanon is unloading a pile of history onto the poor reader... I mean the main character. When saying not to info dump, this is an extreme example.

    A few lines here and there won't bug folks much, except some people have become hyper sensitive to info dumping during critiques. The average reader is probably far less sensitive.

     
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  14. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    There can be lengthy descriptions that feel almost exactly like an info dump, hah. Did this author just spend two pages describing every banner in the assembled army—including those of houses that will never be heard from again in the story—to give me the sense of the massive scope of the army? Or did he do it because he spent half a year deciding those, drawing pictures of all the banners, etc., etc., and he wants me to know he did?

    Perhaps there ought to be a separate thread called The Various Types of Unnecessary Information to Avoid.

    But on some level, this is subjective. Such a lengthy description of banners really can give an impression of the scope of the army, the many influences coming together, and the POV character truly enjoying his massive influence. Even if that sort of thing also bores me and I could have easily relished the story without them.

    I would say that lengthy descriptions of a forest and mountains aren't really giving me much info; so, not an info dump obviously.*

    *Edit: Unless I also get treated to the entire history of two elven kingdoms and 3 dwarven kingdoms during the description, hah.

    But this brings up another, potentially important use of description: the insertion of info. Is that an intricately painted vase, or is it an intricately painted vase from Hutlut, delivered to King Yumur as a peace offering in 3235, and showing the masterful craftsmanship those people are known for? :LOL:
     
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2018
  15. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    A description is not an info dump. An info dump is when an author feels that the reader simply cannot enjoy or understand the story without reading through a stack of information about backstory, etc.

    Example of an info dump:

    Mark: Hey Janice, tell me about that story you are writing.

    Janice: Ok. So a thousand years before the actual story starts there were some deities who got in a fight, and they were nature deities, and they ruled everything, and they were really cool because their souls could travel around to different bodies, and that was how they could see everything and hear everything, and so they were mad at each other because.......

    And then Mark's eyes glaze over and he swears to never ask Janice about her story ever again. Why? Because all the back story is BORING. It isn't boring to Janice. To her it is interesting because she spent hours working it all out, but to Mark, it is boring. Where is the plot? What is the actual story about?

    New writers who spend more time on world building than on plot usually fall into the info dump category. They can't help themselves. They are so enamoured with their histories and cleverness they love to dump it around all over the place. They start the story with a ten page "prologue" setting everything up for the reader, and then dump more "clever" info all over the place in the main text.

    Example of non-info dump:

    Janice (after ten hours explaining her backstory): So Mark, tell me about your story!

    Mark: Ok. A spoiled reporter joins a dysfunctional boat crew on a mission into the Amazon rainforest in order to find a magical object that could save her ailing brother's life.

    Janice: Oooooooooh! What is the object, is it really magical? Could it really work to save her brother?

    Mark: You will have to wait and see.

    A skilled writer knows what information to tell, and what to leave off the board for the reader to find out later. A skilled writer knows the PLOT is more important than all the fancy world building you did.

    Simply describing some visual or tangible aspect of your world is not an info dump. Describing pages and pages of back story is.

     
  16. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Imagery:

    Imagery is when the skilled writer evokes an image in order to present a mood, metaphor, symbol, etc, and thus, deepening the text. A lot of people use the term "Treat the setting like a character". That often means that the setting it self has moods, and changes with the scene in order to reflect what is happening in the story. A very famous example of this is the intro to the Fall of the House of Usher:

    DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

    Poe masterfully evokes the senses to give the entire scene a sense of foreboding. He uses the images to create a mood, so that by the time we get to the house we are already in a creepy, melancholy state of mind. This is imagery at it's finest.

    Another example is from the book Just Breathe by Susan Wiggs.

    She brought the sack of groceries to the overlook, took out an egg with Jack's face on it and let it fly. The egg soured high in a perfect arc into the sky. Then it plummeted to the rocks below and the waves surged in to carry the mess out to the sea.

    She picked up another and threw it. Take that. And that. One after another, she hurled the eggs, and when she ran out, she moved on to the lemons and oranges and potatoes. With every throw, the poison ebbed as though sucked out to the sea.

    The fact that the character, Sarah, has had twelve failed inseminations is not lost on the reader. This passage is another example of imagery. The writer has shown an image that acts as a symbol for the character, and how she feels about her own wasted eggs. Her rage, her frustration.

    Simply describing what a beach looks like is not imagery. It is an image, but it brings nothing extra to the story. Describing the character chucking eggs into the sea, and the water carrying the mess away (like menstruation) takes the simple setting description and turns it into something more. THAT is imagery.

     
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2018
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  17. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Helio,

    Those are excellent examples of imagery being used for a purpose, but I'm not sure they define imagery so much as hint at some of the uses of imagery. Again, the question falls back on What's important? What are you trying to accomplish via the use of imagery? Different authors will have different uses for different situations. The list of uses may be long if we apply imagery for different effects.

    The core use, stated broadly, would be to appeal to the senses to evoke a sense of being there. "Being there" may mean giving the reader a sense of dread or foreboding, as in the Poe example, or a sense of the frustration and irritation the character feels in your second example.

    What I think is interesting is the notion that we humans are extremely keyed into our senses, to the degree that our inner states are quite affected by our senses. So, appealing to the senses and giving the sense of being there is likely to mean that something inside will be triggered also.

    But I don't think the use of imagery necessarily must touch all the deep buttons all the time. We can have a generalized sense, or subtle sense, of existing within the moment of the scene without also having our cores shaken so dramatically. (y)

    Again, as a caveat, I'd say that using imagery is not the only way to "describe." Description as a process seems to me to entail more than simply the use of imagery to give the immediate sense of being there. Or, one can describe in other ways, too, I mean. Even so, imagery is likely to be one of the most used tools in the bag for any given piece of writing.
     
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  18. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Phew. You could say any number of things about writing description--and what's tough is that it may or may not be useful depending on the writer and where they are with their process. For instance, right now I'm happy to write in a way that puts images and emotional connotation in a reader's mind. The extra layer of creating symbolism through imagery just doesn't feel that important for me--sure, it happens on its own from time to time, but wracking my brain for metaphor and motif every time I think about description is not, say, a first-ever-draft endeavor. Neither is considering ways to write description that makes the reader work to construct their own image. Clarity alone would thrill me!

    For another instance--Helio, the advice you gave at the beginning of the thread to not describe the broad visuals of a scene, but to find illustration in unique detail, is great advice for many beginners who find themselves describing everything from top to toe out of a sense of obligation. But for people at other stages in their writing, it can give the impression that everything must be approached obliquely, and nothing can be stated outright. Like for Laurence:

    I'm really leery of talking in broad statements for the reasons outlined above, so I hope you don't mind if I pick the example of the scene-setting description in your own opening chapter, Laurence. And kind of mangle it in some rewrites.

    So this is the first glimpse we get of the world in this story. The cinematic pan-in is an oft-maligned tactic in the fantasy novel opening, but here there's not even a wide shot - the focus remains only on the character.

    Let's pull out, and I'll describe the scene distantly, with detail pulled from throughout the passage (hope I'm not completely screwing it up...written quickly and without the artistic flair of the above, of course.)

    Kinda bland, but serviceable. It places Iren in the scene, tells us a hint of conflict (the forest has been burnt) and points to where he’s going (Shehran). Of course, this doesn’t do everything that the passage above does, but it does (I think) paint a clear basic picture of the setting.

    Ideally, I think you’d take that description one step further and give it more feeling, ground it a little more in Iren’s sensations.

    Yes, there’s information there, but it’s pretty necessary towards understanding Iren’s emotions and the upcoming conflict, right? And you’re still giving the same basic details about the scene. IMO, that’s not a tedious amount of description or background information.

    Since you requested it, I’ll give a stab at a real info-dump!

    The problem with this type of writing is that it stops the action completely, detaches itself from the character, and goes wandering. It’s not necessarily the information it contains, but that it’s all related in a motionless, uninteresting way. Nothing’s hinted at or implied, just handed up on a platter.

    I hope that helps a little bit. If anyone wants to edit the sloppiness out of those examples, feel free, lol.
     
  19. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

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    That second example is dreamy, you really showed me the benefit of widening the lens. I couldn’t put my finger on why it felt like I was just moving from one action to another.

    Now I just need to figure out when that needs to happen in each scene. I guess that’s a lifetime of learning flow and pacing will teach me that.
     
  20. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Nimue's examples are great, great. Looking at the differences reminded me of an old post of mine: The Four Principles of Puppetry

    The first of the principles listed there, stolen from Mary Robinette Kowal's breakdown of principles she uses, is focus.

    Key idea: As a writer, you can only show the audience one thing at a time. Show them what you want them to think about.

    This relates also to what Demesnedenoir mentioned above about giving a still shot that interrupts the flow of the "movie" in the reader's head.

    It also relates to the idea of panning that Nimue discusses. Think of a camera that starts focused on one thing; as the camera moves left (or right), it naturally picks up the immediate next thing, and so on and on. It doesn't leap forward, skipping things, and it doesn't leap backward to find something several steps back, but it flows in one direction. All these things a pan captures are connected to one another immediately, like a seamless stream.

    Often, this is to mimic how a character experiences the world. Sensually—let's say with sight, since that most closely resembles an actual cinematic pan—when a character turns his head, he sees things strung together in an even line. But more importantly, his mind is triggered by those things in a line also, i.e. his thoughts and sensations. Most importantly: Whatever the character's focus is (or, narrator's) will also be the reader's focus. So if it's jerky, leaping forward a few steps, then back a step, then back a step again, then forward one step...well, this will interrupt the flow for the reader. Tying disparate things together then becomes difficult for the reader; building the picture of what's going on, the physical environment plus the information about it, becomes difficult.

    IF you are using an omniscient approach, then having a narrator go back and forth can lead to the same sort of discombobulation. Your approach to description in the example Nimue used does this.

    I say this is omniscient, because I have the sense an outside narrator is characterizing the sky as interrogative; plus, if Iren is bent, his focus isn't on the sky, so the narrator must be focusing on the sky. And, the opening focuses the reader's attention on the sky, above Iren's head. That isn't so much an issue, but see how the focus shifts around.

    Sky-->Iren-->black stone-->burnt earth.

    This by itself is a decent enough panning motion; the reader's attention is being moved in this line.

    But then the reader's attention is moved a bit backward, back to Iren, this time the soles of his feet. Then back to the earth, where it had been before. And the phrase in what felt like days shifts the focus backward again over time, thus shifting the reader's attention to wonder about those previous days. Then we are moved to consider the whole basin. Then focus on the earth again, a narrow focus, in the allusion to the dampness of every spot of it. Then back to Iren. Soon it would be shifts our focus ahead in time, skipping some steps. I think maybe In the twenty third hour of daylight is a skip backward, as we are forced to consider (focus on) those last twenty three hours. And then we are back up into the sky, focusing on the sun. Then back to Iren.

    :eek: I don't mean to harp strongly on this, I'm just using your paragraph as a handy example, so sorry if this comes across too strongly. Getting into the flow of narration is still a major hurdle for me, because my mind naturally wanders all over the place as-is and I've not yet developed a habitual, comfortable sense of narrative flow when writing, myself. I posted that thread about Mary Kowal's four principles over a year ago, and I do believe I understand it well, but that doesn't mean I've actually mastered the lessons much at all, heh, in my own writing. [And incidentally, that applies to a lot of my observational threads and comments across Mythic Scribes.] So I'd say don't stress about this too much at this point if your writing doesn't impress you overnight; time and practice are probably required—for everyone. (y)

    Edit: I've realized that perhaps my way of describing this, using your paragraph, might be confusing if you applied the same process to Nimue's examples. The character's thoughts do seem to leap back in time, for instance:

    and for a moment raised the ghost of the forest. Once this path would have led through cool shade, over a carpet of pine needles, to a home sheltered by the trees.

    But I think these thoughts are a natural line, or progression—or reaction—from what was stated directly before:

    Iren stumbled out from the shadows and into the scorch of the red sun. His feet stirred up the acrid smell of old ashes

    "Stumbled" focuses the reader on the fact that Iren is moving, so "his feet stirred up" seems a natural progression of that idea.

    "from the shadows and into the scorch of the red sun" mentions the sun, sure, but those old ashes naturally lead to stirring a memory also. And since the reader's already been focused on the movement from shadows to scorching sun, the memory of a cool shade and sheltering trees flows naturally, I think.

    So it's all about how you tie these things in a seamless string, even if on the surface you have "disparate" things.
     
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2018
    pmmg and Nimue like this.
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