Thursday, 30 June 2016

Ink Tips: Balancing Description

It would be a lot more convenient if there was a way to record my internal visions directly into my books for readers to pick up but for now, I'm stuck with having to describe things using words rather than a form of telepathy.

Describing characters, settings and actions is a balancing act.  On the one hand, the reader needs to know what's going on and the right descriptions can help to create an in-depth character.  On the other hand, it can be very easy to get bogged down in what can feel like unnecessary detail.

As my Classic Literature professor was fond of saying: The Greeks rather liked catalogues, and apparently Canadian Tire thinks we do as well.  He was referring to the oral tradition of listing  out details of tributes or character histories multiple times within a work.  The theory is that such memorized lists provide a mental break for a performer reciting a long epic.  And I have to admit, that when I've heard the Illiad and the Odyssey read by skilled performers, the repetition is no longer jarring.  Even though it is the same words, different emphasis and presentation make a difference.

Unfortunately, that's not an option for a print novel.

Recently, I was reading a novel which is a favourite of mine but which suffers from an excess of description.  The author lists all the details of the heroine's wardrobe each day, from underwear, to the fabric and cut of the skirt and top to the jewelry and hair accessory choices.  It usually takes three to five paragraphs.  At first, I thought that this was part of the character development, as the heroine was quite insecure and focused on shallow details.  But it continued throughout the novel, without any alterations, and other characters often had two or three paragraph inventories of their appearances.

I find myself skipping over such inventories, which means that they are not essential to the plot or character arcs.

When I was working on my first novel, I struggled with getting the description level right.  Previously, I had mostly written fan-fiction, which doesn't tend to need a lot of description as the characters are well known.  My critique partners gave me some excellent advice: the first time the reader meets a character or visits a setting, make sure to include at least three separate instances of description within the scene.  But don't ever use more than three points of description within a paragraph.

Let's say I want to make the following points about a character:

She has blonde hair and blue eyes (general description)
She has ragged, short fingernails (shows nervousness)
She is physically strong and trained in martial arts (will be important to the plot later)
She limps from an old injury (adds depth to the character)

In the first paragraph, I can have the hero note the ragged fingernails.  It's an unusual detail and one that says more about the character than general description.  "The cheap drug store polish didn't hide the uneven edges of her nails.  They looked as if they'd been gnawed on by rats.  Or ripped apart from clawing through something solid."

In the next paragraph, he can note her general physical physical appearance, hair, eyes, face shape, figure, etc.  But not all at once.  I'd pick two or three main points that give an overall image without bogging the reader down.

I'd then wait another few paragraphs before I demonstrate the heroine's strength and agility, perhaps by having her shift something unusually heavy or, if I'm jumping right into the action, a fight scene.  I could include the limp in that scene if it's physical, or maybe save it for a surprise at the end as she walks away from the hero.

The key to making the description feel natural is to incorporate it into telling the story.  Inventories don't advance understanding of the character or move the plot ahead.  It's a snapshot of a moment.  By describing the character's fingernails with imagery associated with imprisonment, I prime the reader to expect that the character has been trapped in some way.  By avoiding general description as my first choice, I keep the reader interested and avoid automatic skipping.

For the other physical description, I would want to show it through action as much as possible.  Rather than having the hero note that she looks strong, I would want to show her using that strength.  To make the limp more significant, I would include the hero's emotional reaction to seeing evidence of an injury.  Is he disgusted? Concerned?  Jumping into white-knight protector mode?

The more the description is embedded into the story, the less the reader will notice it while still retaining a rich and detailed mental image.

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