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Let's talk about descriptions

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

  1. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I have often found myself doing something like this. In my attempt to describe a thing, I'm stuck on a single snapshot, adding lots of details but halting the forward progression of the narrative. I want to describe a thing, and I end up approaching it from many angles, but the end result is a herky-jerky assemblage of facts, many of which probably aren't incredibly relevant to what's going on in the story at this moment in the story.
     
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I think, in these cases, it is helpful to have a 'surrogate' that can frame the description in experience. Take for example this excerpt from Storm of Swords...

    The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent.

    The big black bitch had taken one sniff at the bear tracks, backed off, and skulked back to the pack with her tail between her legs. The dogs huddled together miserably on the riverbank as the wind snapped at them.

    I love this description because Martin gives us something to watch. I have often noticed this in films as well (and Martin was a screenwriter, so I have no doubt that it is where he probably learned this technique). If you look closely, there is always something moving in the scene. Even if it is just a panning, wide lens, "here is the setting" scene, there is still a cat, or a squirrel, or a driving car, or a spider, or leaves blowing in the wind, along the lane and up the worn stone wall of the mansion... ANYTHING that gives the scene a sense of something experiencing it. Something being there, and living there.

    If I have a character in a forest and he is standing still, I could just describe one thing after another. The sun making its way across the tree tops, the type of trees, the way they are packed together, the thick carpet of ferns below. Or, instead of simply describing a static forest, what if I described the character watching a squirrel making its way up a tree trunk with a nut? I could then describe the type of tree, the way the squirrel jumps from limb to limb, maybe knocking last nights rain off the leaves and onto the thick cluster of ferns below, the way the bright morning sunshine breaks through the canopy, making it hard to see the squirrel at certain angles. At least it brings some life to the description, instead of it being a series of facts.

    Do we need more from Martin? Do we need a large, sweeping wide lens snapshot? Or do we get the picture? It is bloody cold, they are bear hunting, they are by a river bank, there is a pack of dogs.

    If there is nothing moving, than you need a pretty strong voice, like the opening scene from Oryx and Crake:

    Snowman wakes before dawn. he lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of a heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.

    On the eastern horizon there's a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in the dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon....

    I love this description just as much, because we get so much personality out of the description. We get a good feeling of how Snowman feels about this setting.

    Now, with that all said, CS Lewis has a lot of simple, factually stated descriptions that do nothing other than paint a picture. So does Tolkien. So I don't think your way is wrong. So long as it is clear and just a little interesting.
     
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2018
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  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Another thing that ties into this is scene structure.
    I looked over my own writing last night, but was too tired to post examples, and I found that a lot of the time I begin a scene/chapter by describing the environment within which the scene takes place. These descriptions range from a single paragraph to a couple of pages in length. However, once the description is done, I don't usually get back to it. After that it's really just the characters in the scene acting out the story. If they do interact with the environment, it's generally with something that was already described at the start of the scene, or with something that wouldn't have been "visible" at the start.

    For example, in the first chapter of Lost Dogs #1 Roy enters a small book shop. There are books, bookshelves, a small table, a ladder, and two characters - the shop keeper and the customer. Because of reasons, the customer sits down to wait while Roy talks to the shop keeper. I hadn't mentioned anything about chairs or stools or anything else to sit on though, so she sits on the lowest run on the ladder.
    I could have put her on a stool or a chair, but I'd run the risk of the reader going "where did that come from?" and I'd rather avoid that.
     
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  4. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

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    See I feel like I subconsciously went out of my way in my first draft to initially mention things that wouldn't appear again, so as to fit in as much scene setting in as few words as possible. The ensuing overload on the reader sure backs up your logic.
     
  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hmmmmm, no, I do not mean everything must be approached obliquely. I do mean that what the reader needs to know about is the stuff that is unique to your world. Not the mundane stuff. Take this description from 1984. If you want to talk about how an excellent world builder describes a scene, this book is probably the best you can get. This is the first description we ever get, on the first page of the book:

    The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide; the face of a man of about forty-five, with a a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week.

    This is the description Orwell gives us of the building. Winston doesn't stand in the doorway, unmoving, taking it all in... panning over the scene. He doesn't need to describe wooden (or marble, or linoleum) floors, dirty windows, or flickering lights. The reader can fill in those blanks on their own. What he does describe is the stuff that is unique to his world. That stuff paints a far better picture than any image of worn linoleum ever could. We don't need to be told that the building is falling apart, because it is implied when he explained why Winston can't take the elevator. We get the description of the world through Winston experiencing the world in his own, unique way.

    I don't think it is helpful to think of a video camera panning a scene when writing fiction. Fiction is so different than watching a film. In fiction you are grounded in the POV of the narrator, or the character, and standing back to observe takes away the momentum. It detaches the reader from the experience.

    If we look at your lovely description:

    Iren stumbled out from the shadows and into the scorch of the red sun. His feet stirred up the acrid smell of old ashes, 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. Now the basin plain stretched bare in every direction, crisscrossed by the pale tracks of mining cart and logging sledge. The ramshackle roofs of Shehran huddled under a sky as vast and unforgiving as the invaders’ rule. Everything shimmered--because of the heat or his own exhaustion, Iren didn’t know.

    I've bolded the places where, I felt, you did a nice job describing the scene through Iren's experience of it. We get a bit of a thought, and some movement. This is why it is so important, when giving life to descriptions, to make sure that we are doing it through the unique lens of the POV.

    I think it is confusing to tell writers to pan out, and then give an example that is still deeply in the focus of the POV. I don't really believed you panned out here. I think you simply slowed it down, and fed the reader smaller bits of information, taking the time to ground the reader in each concept before moving on. But I don't read this example as "panning out".
     
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  6. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    To add... I don't see why this is a problem. Why does there have to be a wide shot of the scene? Why can't the focus remain solely on the character? If I read through some of my favourite character driven authors, they almost never spend any time at all using wide shot descriptions of setting. Everything is grounded solely on the character and the character's experience in the world.

    It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariam remembers that she had been restless and preoccupied that day, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day when Jalil visited her at the kolba. To pass the time until the moment that she would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in the clearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and taken down her mother's Chinese tea set. The tea set was the sole relic that Marian's mother, Nana, had of her own mother, who had died when Nana was two. Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, and the graceful curve of the pot's spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.

    It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam's fingers, that fell onto the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered.


    - A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini.

    Based on your description, this entire passage would be "info dumping", but it isn't. It is creating an image of a home, with a girl, and the way that girl feels in the home. It is creating an impression of what life is like for this girl, deeply from the POV of the girl. Just because it doesn't focus on aesthetics, written on out visual order as she looks around, doesn't mean it isn't a "setting description" (and a very excellent one, at that). The character doesn't need to "pan out and show the reader a wide shot of the setting" because the character is living, right now, in the setting. She is touching things, and remembering things, and waiting for things.
     
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Screenwriting! LOL. Set the scene, let the characters go.

    In novels everything can work, in general, but its good to present a variety. Personally, I have two tendencies:

    Broad lens to set the scene, then tighten the shot.
    Tight lens, pan back.

    If I start a scene with dialogue, that's almost always me consciously changing up chapter openings. I just don't naturally do this. And as a reader, I have a weird dislike for chapters which open with dialogue, unless it's real snappy. And if a book opens with dialogue, it just bugs me... totally irrational. I could make up reasons, but in the end, even more irrational than my wife's fear of snakes.
     
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  8. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    This is precisely my issue with talking about description in general. I hesitated about whether even to post what I did in this thread or in Laurence’s critique thread, because it intended as specific advice for his case. The first chapter of a novel, taking place on an alien planet, in a setting where something catastrophic recently happened and where conflict based on factors of the setting is about to erupt into action later in the chapter... Yes, I think a scene-setting passage to help us understand the context is in order. Does that mean every book needs scene-setting like that? Nope!

    If you read his original excerpt and didn’t have trouble envisioning the wider setting, but instead can point a finger at the issue being something else, I think that’d be valuable for him to hear as well.

    And that was supposed to be my point about the advice you gave earlier—it’s easy to think advice is a blanket statement, but it’s not. There’s always an example to prove that. That doesn’t mean the advice isn’t worthwhile, even priceless, to some. But we have to try different things and trust our instincts as well as the advice.

    I’m not sure we’re on the same page with this one—the first rewrite I gave is the “wide shot”, which doesn’t have a lot of that POV detail. The second example is supposed to be character POV focused writing that still gets across the wider scene-setting info of the first example. Not sure how well I articulated that
     
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  9. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Yes, thank you Fifth—you’ve explained something I didn’t know how to get across besides rewriting the passage and gesticulating hopefully... It’s about focus and flow. And I think the culprit here is getting wrapped up in prose, tying yourself into knots for a cool sentence. I get caught in that all the time. Maybe just slow down sometimes and let yourself tell the story. Better yet, let the character tell the story—let him look around and describe things to the reader, let him remember things. Not for pages and pages mind, but sometimes amid the action. Try it and see if you like it. Some people might have trouble not just telling the story, and might need to let go and make the story happen in all its nitty-gritty detail, and let the reader figure it all out. It really, really depends.

    Besides getting feedback, I can also recommend letting your writing sit for a long time, and coming back to it as a reader. See if it feels confusing or incomplete. Try to notice how authors use description when you read, as in Helio’s examples. Perhaps re-read a familiar book and notice when the author hints and when they explain, especially in the first few chapters.
     
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  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    I'm not sure what persnickety reader would call that an info dump. It gives info, but a dump? Historical, magical, and other lore simply can't always be given in an organic manner...

    Allanon!

    So, it must be fed out in small pieces.

    Allanon!

    Instead of gigantic doses like the aforementioned druid:

    Allanon!

    who is still, despite the info dump, a pretty good character (at least when I was a teenager) BUT,

    For the love of God and all that is well written, Allanon! Shut up!



     
  11. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Readers are going to make up their own imagery regardless of the extent we through in order to describe things. That seems a pretty reasonable viewpoint. How far each of us goes though depends on our style and voice. There is no wrong or right, I don't think, because of our unique artistic stamp.

    Also depends on what you (the writer) deems necessary per scene. In my introductory scenes, I work hard to produce an image of character, setting, and emotional turmoil. During love scenes I will describe emotions versus the act. During conflict scenes more emotion. Guess you could say I describe emotion more than anything. Where some might say "show don't tell" I tell and show equally in my work. Just how I roll. Some readers have said that they love this style others have found my work annoying. *shrugs*
     
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  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ahhhh, yes. Makes sense after this explanation. Thanks for this.
     
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Well, my way, what I meant to describe (ahem, heh) is that I can often get stuck on a point. Probably my lengthier comments here display it very well. :ROFLMAO: But I mean two types of cases.

    In the first, I reiterate information over paragraphs. A character steps into a courtyard that is bustling; I add description of some of the things happening in that courtyard, various actors and activities. In the next paragraph, and maybe even the paragraph after that, I focus again on the bustle. Sure, I have a character moving through the courtyard; and, if I added particularly new reactions or thoughts for the character each time I introduce these new examples of bustle, it might be okay. There'd be a progression of sorts. But no, I find I'm just putting in more examples of bustle. Because I feel, darn it, I want the reader to know it's bustling. The same thing can happen if I've used description to let a reader know a chamber in the castle is cold, it's verging on winter. Later, in following paragraphs, I use more references to the cold.

    In the second, I get stuck on describing something. I mean, I can write a whole paragraph describing a castle. I might first start with the walls; gotta add color, something about the stone, and if the walls are oddly composed—they were raised by magic and have an unusual color, are made of an unusual substance—then info-dump a mention of their history, who raised them. Then I have to give the layout of the castle, courtyard, walls. Then, its position on the landscape. Is it near a cliff overlooking the bay? That main gate: does it face east or west? What's the relationship of the castle to the town; how far does it sit from the town? And so on. I suspect that this sort of development was what Laurence was driving at with "info dump." Sure, it might not be a classic info dump, as the term is usually used; but then again, it can almost read like an encyclopedia entry. An encyclopedia entry titled, "Castle Vertur and its Surrounding Areas."

    Both types are like turning in a circle, heh. That point at the center of the circle becomes something of "the focus" and the whole effect is like getting stuck on a snapshot. I fail to move forward in the narrative. (Although, with the first example, I do have the characters moving through the scene; it's just that the world isn't completely moving with them! Heh.)

    Mostly, I'm talking about early drafts. I think all of this can be put down to not being very clear about what I'm wanting to accomplish as I'm writing the draft. So I can repeat a description ("cold," "bustle") because, not knowing where I'm going, I can't very well have a clear idea of what's important; or, I can focus on one thing like a lengthy description of the castle and its environs in a single paragraph because I know, at least, that the castle is important!

    This is really great. Today, I decided to flip through pages of Robin Hobb's Fool's Quest to see what she did. There's this passage that exemplifies how she made a travel episode interesting—you know, how fantasies often have episodes of long travel over a landscape.

    We made the crossing that night. As we drew closer to the river town, Vindeliar left the sleigh. He mounted a horse and rode at the head of our procession beside Ellik. And later that morning, when we finally reached a forested area of the foothills and made camp, Ellik bragged to all about how simple it had been. "And now we are on the northern side of the Buck River, with little between us and our goal but a few small towns and the hills. As I told you. The bridge was our best choice."

    And Dwalia smiled and agreed.

    But if she and Vindeliar had tricked him into choosing the bridge instead of the ferry, it still did not make our journey through the hills any easier. He had been right about the sleighs. Dwalia insisted we must do our best to avoid roads, and so the soldiers and their horses broke trail for the heavier beasts that pulled the sleigh. Our passage was not easy and I could tell that Ellik chafed at how little we moved forward each night.

    Shun and I had little time to speak privately. "They mentioned a ship," she said to me once as we crouched in the bushes, relieving ourselves. "That may give us a chance of escape, even if we must leap into the water. Whatever happens, we must not let them take us out to sea."

    And I agreed with that, but wondered if we would have any opportunity to flee our captors.


    So all around this first person narrator, others are acting in various ways during the journey, and Robin Hobb is able to give a sense of progression to that journey, mentioning landmarks of the environment and modes of travel, without focusing solely on those.

    Between these shortish-descriptions of travel, Hobb slows down the passage of time by putting breaks in the travel. When they camp, we focus in on that period of camping—these are longer—and we get dialogue and various interpersonal reactions and actions. All the while, either at camp or the "quicker" passage of time when describing movement over the landscape, the first-person narrator is noticing and evaluating these people around her.

    Some of this discussion of description has turned to the way we can focus in on a character, and I do think that doing so can help to tie diverse events, aspects of the passing environment, etc., together in a progression. This is like the paragraph from Nimue I mentioned: Something is described, then the character reacts to it. This will help to keep us from turning on just one point or aspect of the setting; why would a character realistically keep reacting to just one thing in the environment, heh, like the castle walls or the cold? Unless there's some very important reason why a character would. But if the narrative is moving forward, and a character is moving through an environment, the character's thoughts about the setting would move along with that landscape.

    Incidentally, the cool thing about that passage from Robin Hobb is that, though it is written in first person, the other characters on this journey with the MC are shown to be reacting to the landscape and to each other as well. It's not just the POV character reacting to everything.

    (So once again I'm about to return to MRU.....But I'll put a break on it just right here.)
     
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2018
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  14. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    This kind of thing happens to me too, and I have to keep reminding myself it's not needed. It causes some really stupid issues for me when writing. I try to force my text to match what's in my mind, instead of adapting my mind to what works in the story.

    Example:
    In the scene I've been working on tonight I've got Alene sneaking up on a location. I know exactly how the location looks and I know exactly where Alene is and where all the other involved characters are. She's coming in from the west, sneaks past a building on her left, and just at the corner she sees Matthew, and Matthew sees her, and it's all very unexpected and exciting. Big drama.
    Only, in my mind, Matthew sits in the wrong spot and looks the other way.
    This really bothered me. I had to figure out a reason for her to walk out past the corner further, and I had to think of something she could do which lets her draw his attention without alerting anyone else. It got convoluted, and the prose started limping, and the story lost its flow.
    In the end it occurred to me that I'd never told anyone what direction Alene would come from, and I hadn't told anyone what direction Matthew was looking in. All I'd said about him was that he sat on his chair by the door. There was no reason for me to come up with some convoluted reason about whatever. I could just change my mind about what direction she's coming in from. It doesn't actually matter.
    The current version just has Alene round the corner and discover that Matthew sees her.

    I believe I'm making this same kind of mistake a lot and it's hard both to spot and to fix. I'm really close to my story as I write it, and to change my mind about what I'm picturing in order to improve the reading experience is really difficult.
     
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  15. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I do it too. I think it is a first draft issue. Other descriptions usually come to me in later drafts, once I have been in a setting for a while. It is like when you go outside, you notice the loudest noises first. If I stepped onto my back patio I would hear cars, then pressure washers, than kids playing, than birds, than maybe the neighbours having wine on their porch... but for the first draft I would fixate on the cars.

    The GRRM thing has been a lifesaver for me on a number of occasions. I had a scene where my mc woke up on a ship, and even though she was literally, seconds ago in the subway system, the description of the ship was not interesting at all. It was so mundane. Wood planks. Rickety table with pitcher on it. Port windows. Bleh. My critique partners were all, "You had such lovely descriptions before! Why does this one suck so bad?" And I couldn't figure it out. Then I remembered the dog on the riverbank and I added a cockroach to the scene, making it's way along the floorboards, up the worn wall, across the table, closer and closer to where the MC lay in the cot. Suddenly the boring description became "hidden" in the grossness of the oncoming cockroach, and the scene was more interesting.

    I have used this same approach with boring exposition, or "info dumps" about back story or boring magic stuff that is necessary to the story. If I give the reader something else to focus on, like the MC desperately has to pee so bad but the dumb old sage just keeps going on and on about boring magic history and the MC can't get away and she is literally about to pee herself, then the reader get's distracted by the MC's need and doesn't realize they are reading a ton of boring "info dump".

    Info dump is just exposition done badly, lol.
     
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  16. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    I think you almost need to write the initial meander--until you get to the stage where you don't, I suppose. I have an example from my writing of both this and a different answer to the "set the scene or sketch it?" question. I'm hesitant to post these snippets because they're all rough draft stuff, but I guess that can be my just desserts for throwing Laurence under the bus... Take this as an illustration of a thought process, not good writing!

    These are the opening few lines to the current draft of my WIP--and that description of the tower room is just about all that's in the chapter. It's a tower, there's stone, there's a window and a draft. Objects are mentioned as she interacts with them--a bed, a chest, a jug and platter with food on it, but no real description of these things. The passage continues focused on her situation and her goals, largely interior.

    Now, the previous draft opened similarly in-moment but paused a little ways in for this description:
    And I could feel right away that this didn't work. The character doesn't have a reason to describe the room, really--she's been trapped in it for ages, it's not new and noticeable for her. More than that, though, the reader doesn't need the room to be described. It's the opposite of the alien world - the familiar fantasy trope of the damsel in a tower. Even if you're not obsessed with the Lady of Shalott *cough*, an image immediately comes to mind. Other reasons, too - the room isn't a recurring setting, and will be looked at more clearly from another character's POV.

    In the current draft, the closest I come to that is this dialogue beat from another character:
    Because she, unlike the MC, has reason to notice.

    Now...I don't really know if omitting the setting description really is the best move for this opening. Still a rough draft. But I do know that it feels better to me than the pause to look around. Maybe exploring the setting is essential, whether this is done in a draft or in notes or just in your head...but not everything you find out needs to make it on the page.
     
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  17. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I've been thinking of something I wrote earlier when discussing imagery. I've commented that other methods of description are possible; imagery is not the only way to describe.

    I'd given an example of a list of items, a list of images, that might not be considered imagery because they don't appeal to the senses. A string of nouns, things in the environment. When these don't have a lot of specificity—chair, table, floor lamp—we aren't appealing to the senses; these are abstract ideas. What's a chair? What is the picture of that chair, it shape, style, material, size...?

    I don't know the exact threshold between the two, images and imagery, heh, or when a list of things, however modified by adjectives, transcends a mere list of items and actually appeals to the senses. But I started thinking, if imagery appeals to the senses then...what about appealing directly to the mind? Those are really the only two methods of describing anything, I'd think. Every method of description, or instance of description (word, phrase) would fall into either one or the other of those categories, since these are the only two ways to appeal to a reader's understanding, impressions, etc.

    The first example I came up with, thinking about this, was a sort of metaphor. Here's a silly example of what I mean, created as I pondered this:

    That December morn was as cold as Stalin's heart, and as unrelenting.

    There is the facile, cliched example frequently found, "as cold as ice," which I think appeals more to the physical senses. But a reader needs to have some idea about Stalin to understand this description, heh; and, the allusion will bring something more than mere coldness to mind. So it's an appeal to the mind. This also harks back to one of the original questions in this thread: What do we leave to a reader's imagination? What is the allusion bringing to the reader's mind, exactly? What does that abstraction, unrelenting, bring to mind?

    I'd mentioned that an example string of things might be entirely pointless or very suggestive in the right context:

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

    If a student is sneaking into the principle's office after hours during a school year...well, this doesn't do much. But if the student is exploring a school that was shut down long ago, and this old principal's office is the only room encountered that still has furniture in it, this might be suggestive. What if in that latter case, the description was something like this:

    There was a desk and chair, a floor lamp in one corner, and a calendar on the wall beside it . On the desk sat an old typewriter with a sheet of paper still in it; beside the typewriter, a thick stack of paper was neatly organized.

    Okay, the prose might be fixed; there's a bit of passive voice at the end. But in the context of this passage, something more than a simple visual is being suggested. I think this sort of development appeals to the mind as the reader tries fitting this scene, these objects, into that context. I do wonder whether this passage as a whole begins to cross the threshold into imagery as we move further into it; but I don't know, heh. The mention of an old typewriter is more specific than desk, chair, floor lamp, more suggestive? And the organization of typewriter, with a sheet of paper in it, and a stack of paper neatly organized beside it is becoming more specific in the interrelations of these things than the first sentence was with those things.

    If this interrelation between the idea of a string of images vs imagery is a fun puzzle for you, how about this passage:

    Early in the morning, while all things are crisp with frost, men come with fishing-reels and slender lunch, and let down their fine lines through the snowy field to take pickerel and perch; wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped. They sit and eat their luncheon in stout fear-naughts on the dry oak leaves on the shore, as wise in natural lore as the citizen is in artificial. They never consulted with books, and know and can tell much less than they have done. The things which they practice are said not yet to be known. Here is one fishing for pickerel with grown perch for bait. You look into his pail with wonder as into a summer pond, as if he kept summer locked up at home, or knew where she had retreated. How, pray, did he get these in midwinter? Oh, he got worms out of rotten logs since the ground froze, and so he caught them. His life itself passes deeper in nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate; himself a subject for the naturalist. The latter raises the moss and bark gently with his knife in search of insects; the former lays open logs to their core with his axe, and moss and bark fly far and wide. He gets his living by barking trees. Such a man has some right to fish, and I love to see nature carried out in him. The perch swallows the grub-worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisher-man swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled. [Thoreau, "The Pond in Winter," Walden.]


    I think that some would come to this analysis and say, "OMG, what great imagery?" There are certainly great images. Great things being put together.

    I think that a lot of the specificity used does appeal to the senses—"on the dry oak leaves on the shore" for instance. So I think there is imagery, yes.

    I also think there are many things here that appeal to the mind directly; e.g., "wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen." What is a wild man, in this context? He goes on to define it in a way that appeals to our understanding.

    "The latter raises the moss and bark gently with his knife in search of insects; the former lays open logs to their core with his axe, and moss and bark fly far and wide." —an interesting example of using imagery to define an abstraction for us, wild man vs naturalist. Appealing to the mind and senses, both.

    The whole passage is masterful, even though the "focus" shifts around a bit. [Scare quotes intentional....] Then again, it's also a masterful example of giving a snapshot of a place. I would note that there's a lot of activity suggested, or of people doing active things, but these are ever-present, ongoing, repeating actions during the "moment" of this place. How to explain this...

    Thoreau's scene is static, even with the activity. This is every morning; these actors, the wild men, are perpetually returning visitors. Your example of a character being in a particular moment includes a squirrel engaged in a specific activity happening now. A singular event. Does it happen all the time there? Maybe the reader will have that impression, maybe not. In Thoreau's example, his lens is focused on the place as a whole, even if bits and pieces in it receive focus for the reader as the reader progresses through it and makes some sense of that place and those people. There is a sense of progression in the thought—that final sentence is a killer.

    Anywho. I think I'm drifting and about to engage in endless repetition, heh, so that's it for now.
     
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  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ohhhh, this discussion is getting so deep now :) I love this.


    I agree with this 100%. We discussed in another thread that I'm a discovery writer. I have to put EVERYTHING in my first draft because I never know what I'm actually talking about, lol. I take out the stuff I didn't need after I figure out what the story was actually about.

    This is sort of what I'm trying to get at in all my posts... I think it is important to think about. As a writer I think it is really valuable to think about why you feel you need a description at that moment, and does it make sense for the POV to suddenly start describing stuff that may be very familiar to them, and how do we go about that in a way that feels natural to the POV? Your examples are perfect.

    Totally.

    I love this. I think this is an example of what I was saying. Sure I used a squirrel in my example, but it was just an example. I easily could have used an indigenous villager out on his daily hunt, or a group of fishermen by a river. The fact remains that this description doesn't simply show a series of images and sounds and smells, or whatever, it shows things LIVING it. Experiencing it. Pulling fish out of the water. This is another example, IMO, or the dog by the riverbank. It gives us something to watch. Some movement.

    I'm not saying a writer must use this tactic all the time, I'm saying it's one strategy. Like NImue's hiding the description in some dialogue. There are a lot of ways to sneak in some description without resorting to the "Stand back, tell the reader a few things about the scene, jump back into action again."
     
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2018
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  19. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes, I think context has a lot to do with it. In the same book I mentioned earlier, A Thousand Splendid Suns, he does give a very detailed, step by step description of a hillside:

    It was Muhsin, Jalil's eldest son by his first wife, Khadija, who suggested the clearing. It was on the outskirts of Gul Daman. To get to it, one took a rutted, uphill dirt track that branched off the main road between Herat and Gul Daman. The track was flanked on either side by knee-high grass and speckles of white and bright yellow flowers. The track snaked uphill and led to a flat field where poplars and cottonwoods soared and wild bushes grew in clusters. From up there, one could make out the tips of the rusted blades of Gum Daman's windmill, on the left, and, on the right, all of Herat spread below. The path ended perpendicular to a wide, trout-filled stream, which rolled down from the Safid-koh mountains surrounding Gulf Daman....

    Etc etc... it goes on to describe more and more beauty and perfection, willow trees circling a clearing, etc etc etc... BUT, and this is important. BUT, the entire description is not there to tell the reader how beautiful it is. The entire description is there to contrast the cutting comments of the grandmother, who declares after this paragraph:

    "And so, your father built us this rathole."

    The entire description was meant to add weight to the characterization of this bitter, miserable woman who can't find beauty anywhere. It does double duty.

    SO in this case, yes, context is VERY important.

    *note, I do like how he uses the road to ground the reader in the description, so you can sort of imagine yourself in a car or walking along the road, instead of just standing still looking at stuff.
     
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2018
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  20. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

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    Thinking about why I’m describing things definitely gives me more confidence in a scene if nothing else.
     
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