Wednesday, April 20, 2011

7 Considerations When Writing Descriptions

Thanks to Jenyfer for her post yesterday. Most of us haven't had to pick up stakes without notice, especially not knowing if or when we can get back to what we considered "normal." And don't forget, she's got a prize for one commenter, and you have until Friday to enter. Scroll down and leave a comment under her post if you haven't already.

On Monday, I talked about how descriptions are tied into the depth of POV you're using for your story. I write deep POV, generally 3rd person. I prefer it, so this post is geared toward descriptions using that viewpoint.

Seven things to consider when writing descriptions.

1. What's happening in the story? Is it an action scene? If so, would your character really be noticing what you've spent three paragraphs describing? If bullets are flying, or the bad guys are on the way, or even if they think the bad guys might be on the way, where's their attention going to be focused? They're likely to be listening and watching—but for things 'bad guy' related, not that the sounds of the surf reminds them of that delightful vacation they took five years ago to Hawaii—and, this is definitely not the place to stop and have them remember what they did on that vacation.

2. Who is your character? Would a guy who's idea of a good time is sitting on the couch, thumb on remote, flipping between 3 football games actually notice (or even know) that the woman entering the room at a banquet is wearing a specific designer label? Would he recognize the music playing in the room as Vivaldi? Would he know the painting on the wall is an original (or copy) of a Degas? Would he describe the color of the walls as mauve, taupe or ecru? Does he know what those colors are?

3. Where is your character? Often, you'll see a character mentioning that the character entering the room is wearing a "grey wool suit" or a "red silk blouse" or something to that effect. I don't know about you, but I can't recognize fabrics from a distance—heck, I probably wouldn't recognize them if I touched them. Can you spot the difference between 'silk' and 'silky'? These sorts of observations, while adding to description, can slow the pace if it's not something that would be logical for the character to recognize. Those sorts of details put the author on the page.

4. What's your character's emotional state? I mentioned this one in Monday's post. Even observant people will "miss" stuff if they're distracted. If they're falling in love, their world will probably center around the person they're falling in love with. If they're angry, they're going to be tied up in the physiological responses that go along with that extra adrenaline. Are they worried about a loved one? Have they just been forced to pack up and leave their home? We tend to turn our thoughts inward, and don't pay a lot of attention to details of things around us.

5. Are you showing the reader your research? While it's true that readers (myself included) like learning new things as they read, bombarding them with facts, however interesting, means you're stopping the story. Would your character be thinking about the architect who designed the building she's passing? If so, if there's a logical reason, if it makes sense for the character to be thinking about it, then go for it. Otherwise, make sure you're not just showing off.

6. How much description do you really need? And is this the best place to show it? I know one author who will stop at the beginning of any chapter that moves to a new location, and her character will take it all in. I find myself skimming those parts, as they've never seemed to have any bearing on the story itself. With other authors, if something is mentioned, you can be darn sure it's there for a reason.

When a character enters a room, how much do you need to show? Usually, less is more. A laundry list of everything will probably bore your reader. Pick out a few items that give the impression of the room without mentioning each one, and again, keep it true to your character. In an early draft of Finding Sarah, I had my cop hero checking out the heroine's living room. There was a reason for it, as someone had been in her apartment, and they were seeing if there was anything amiss. In that draft, he noticed the two bargello print chairs in the heroine's living room. But why would he know they were bargello? Since he wouldn't, he merely noticed "two patterned upholstered armchairs."

7. Avoid the cliché pitfalls. If you're writing deep POV, it's going to be a bit harder to show things your character takes for granted. Think about it. Do you run your fingers through your long, auburn curls? I doubt it. You run them through your hair, to be sure, but are you thinking about much more than that? Likewise, are you writing, "her flowered blue silk skirt swished as she walked?" Would you think of those details, or just that your skirt is making swishing sounds. And please, avoid the overused look in the mirror gambit unless you have a very good reason—and can do it well. Why is your character looking in the mirror? It's usually better to wait for another character to show up so you can see things through their eyes, or through conversation. When you show details a character isn't likely to think about, you're moving out of deep POV. And if you're writing first person, you definitely need to be inside your character's head. (image: Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror)

Any pet peeves about descriptions? Any techniques you find that enhance a story?


Kathy Otten said...

Hi Terry,
Great post. With regards to looking in the mirror, most people notice their flaws and blemishes when they see their reflection, or avoid looking in mirrors all together.

Terry Odell said...

Kathy, I always wonder who that old lady is in the mirror. Can't possibly be ME.

Texanne said...

Oh, yes, the mirror. Shiver. I did have a character glance into a mirror as she went into a ballroom. She thought, "still presentable."

I like more description than most folks do, but designer labels leave me clueless--and not liking the character who cares about those things and spends so much money on clothes.

However, recently I read a book by an author new to me. Cozies nowadays seem always to turn on the heroine's day job. In this case, the author seemed to think that the reader must want to do the heroine's day job, because she threw the kitchen sink in with all the rest of her research. I put up with it for about a third of the novel, then skipped to the end to see who done it. I NEVER skip to the end, but this time, I just could not take any more force-feeding of research. Obviously I won't be buying any more of that author's books, either, which is a shame, because there were good elements in her writing, too. Just not enough.

And this was NOT self-published. It came with a respected publisher's imprint.

Thank you so much for this post--it's great to have this information so neatly composed.

Terry Odell said...

Texanne - I think cozies lean toward a lot of 'background' but yes, if it's blatantly overdone, it can ruin the read for me, too. One must assume that the publisher knows its audience -- and it's likely out there, but not everyone is going to feel the same way.

Sharon Sullivan-Craver said...

Excellent blog and great advice towards details. Thanks for the invite to read.

Maryannwrites said...

Great tips, Terry. I am so tired of reading descriptions that don't fit the character. This is a must read for writers, especially beginning writers who may think that what they read in the latest book is okay because it was in a published book.

Terry Odell said...

Sharon - glad you came by, and I hope you'll return.

Maryann - I've never been fond of 'author intrusion' and descriptions that don't fit pull me out of the story.

Anonymous said...

Terry, valuable information for those of us who write in deep pov. Thank you for sharing.

MM the Queen of English

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great post, Terry! I'm not a fan of writing description, so I can use all the tips I can get! :)

Jacqvern said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Terry, you're good. You're really good. The hotel laundry list is a hysterical touch.

Jacqvern, please don't be so quick to judge the editor. It's tough work.


Anonymous said...

Terry, have you done a post on what deep POV is? Please email me. Thanks.
Liz Arnold

Terry Odell said...

Queen - thanks. I am a deep POV fanatic.

Elizabeth - hope some of the tips work for you.

Jacqvern - nothing is perfect. Editors are human too. Ideally editor and author work together.

Liz - thanks! I shall frame your comment - and feel free to send others this way.

Terry Odell said...

Liz - type point of view into the search box in the sidebar. If that doesn't bring up what you need, you can email me.

Diane Craver said...

Wonderful post. I did have a character look in the mirror once to give a description. It was because she was a pregnant teenager and she wanted to see if she was showing yet.

Terry Odell said...

Diane - mirrors aren't totally "forbidden". Sounds like your character had a good reason to check. It's when that becomes the way the author shows the entire character to the reader that it's tedious and cliched.

Mary Anne Landers said...

Thank you for your post, Terry; and everyone else for the comments.

About the mirror bit: Frankly, it doesn't bother me, as a reader or a writer. So what if a character looks in a mirror? Considering how self-conscious and vain about their appearance many people are, it's perfectly natural.

I'm a big believer in creating stories that use as few points of view as possible. If, as often happens, my works employ only one character's POV, the protagonist's, then looking into a mirror is usually the ONLY way to describe what he or she looks like. IMHO, restricting the POV and avoiding head-hopping is a far more important consideration for the overall aesthetic quality of a piece of fiction than a brief, fleeting passage in which the protag looks in a mirror.

My pet peeve regarding description? That's easy. It's sex scenes that go on and on and on, describing every little detail, each fleeting moment, in excruciating detail. BORING!

Why do I feel this way---because I'm a prude? No, because I'm just not interested in sexual TMI.

There are only so many things people can do during sex, a limited number of interactions. And we're all pretty familiar with what they are. There's no need for an author to spend page after page detailing what's going on. For crying out loud, we get it, already!

In contrast, when an author describes what's going on with the characters' hearts and minds, we've got a wealth of possibilities. Here we can deal with countless types of feelings, actions, and interactions. The only limits are our imaginations.

These are the descriptions I find interesting, if not fascinating. But when the author takes her characters and heads south, all I can say is, gimme a break!

And sad to say, nowadays editors tend to demand lots of sex scenes in lots of detail. I wonder if they've consulted with their readers about this.

Keep up the good work!

Jacqvern said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amber Green said...

What a character notices about a scene should tell the reader at least as much about the character as about the scene.

Shannon Donnelly said...

I like the note about the character's emotional state the best -- so often that takes care of everything else.