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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Describing Description Detail

On this third and final day of the CSFF Blog Tour, I thought I would offer up an article which arose from discussion of my review of Jill Williamson's book, By Darkness Hid (see previous post). Jill painted some very vivid scenery settings that added to her story, but in my review I also mentioned that I tired of telling us what everyone was wearing, whether it fed into the story or not. The question arose in my mind, how do we decide what level of detail in our descriptions is "just right"?

Now, to be honest, one could make the case that what people are wearing is part of the scenery as well. And I would acknowledge that point. And I also understand that in a high fantasy such as this book, such level of detail is expected. But as I also pointed out in the comments, not even the high fantasy king himself, J. R. Tolkien, gave us much clues what his characters looked like beyond some bare descriptions.

For instance, when Gandalf comes on the scene, he only is described as wearing a long cloak, a pointy hat, and big, bushy eyebrows that (strangely enough) stick out past his hat's brim. I've always had a hard time viewing that. But it clearly says, "eccentric, old wizard coming." And for Frodo, you'd be hard pressed to find any description of him at all. You have to rely upon what Tolkien describes in the prologue about Hobbits in general, but that still doesn't tell you what Frodo looks like. The more important the character it appears, the less description they get with Tolkien.

To sum that up, the level of detail in a story is primarily a preference thing, both for the author and for the reader. Some want you to paint the full picture in every detail, others don't want you to slow down the story with minute detail. There's a balance each author has to find that works for their fans.

That said, there are some considerations an author should take into account when on how much detail to use. There are several factors that could change what you do.

Type of Story - If your writing an action story, you'll want to keep the descriptions down to what is absolutely needed to tell the story. Extra descriptions will slow things down unless you are skilled enough to relate that info while "in action." But even that can get too much. By definition, when a character is fighting or running, etc., they are so focused on what they are doing, on their opponent, that they don't notice the scenery, what people are wearing, etc. So putting much detail into such a scene would cause it to feel unreal.

Likewise, if your story is a character-based story, descriptions become important. You can set mood and foreshadowing with good descriptions, not only of surrounding scenery, but also expressions on a character's face, describing their reactions. A literary story, by nature, needs plenty of poetic description. They thrive on them, and some are known for the way they describe something, not having a traditional plot, climax, or ending in many cases.

Additionally, a short story doesn't have a lot of time for long, detail descriptions, whereas in a novel you have more room for that sort of thing.

Audience - Young Adult, especially if you're focused on the early teens, generally wouldn't need Tolkien-like scene descriptions. I remember when I was reading Lord of the Rings to my two sons at bedtime. My youngest, about twelve at the time, complained, "He just took a whole paragraph to tell us, 'They got off their horses.'" I'm growing a book critic.

Meanwhile, adult or even later teens would appreciate more description than the bare bones, especially in a novel. I have one friend who relishes rich descriptions. She can "see" it in her mind. In my mind, what was said at the start becomes fuzzy as I read a lengthy detailed description, so I don't hold a whole picture in my mind. It is more like seeing a sliver of the scene and panning across it. By the time I'm at the end, I've forgotten what I saw at the beginning, and so the whole scene is foggy at best. Shorter descriptions make it easier for my mind to process and form a picture.

Point of View - Omniscient point of view will enable the author to go into lots of detail, much as Tolkien did. A limited third, first person, however, will by necessity mean you'll get less detail—if you stay in the point of view.

When I took driver's ed in high school, we watched a film and were told to notice as many things as we could. Now, this is with us trying to be observant. The film was from inside a car, driving down a road. At the end of it, we were asked a series of questions, like "what color was the car dealership sign." I caught some, missed many. So did a lot of people. When you're going through your normal daily routine, you notice even less.

Actually, from a first person point of view, or close third, you would rarely mention any scenery because we frequently don't pay attention to it. But that's one area where books aren't exactly like real life because you really need to tell the reader more than what the average person would notice. That said, in a close point of view, you'll stay more in it if you pick out specific descriptions. When you go into a more detailed description in such a point of view, you are actually moving out of that point of view and into a camera or omniscient narrator point of view. The good news is, if done right, the reader will rarely notice this. But if you overdo it, it can become jarring.

The circumstances - There are naturally times when your character would notice detail more, and your descriptions would reflect that. When I wrote a scene in my yet to be published book, where my protag first enters a virtual reality world, I have him noticing things in great detail. The idea is that he would be soaking this new experience in. He'd be studying his surroundings, so naturally the descriptions should reflect that level of attention.

Another key circumstance is what importance a place, person, or event has for the point of view character. The more important it is to them, the more description you'll want to give it. The more it plays into the story, the higher up the ladder of detail you'll want to use.

This is even true in omniscient point of views. While they can go to town on description, not being limited to one person's point of view, if you describe everything in the characters life in vivid detail, you're going to end up with a long book full of descriptions but little room left for plot or story. You'll bore your reader if you describe in detail every cup a character uses. Unless that information is vital to the story, you'll do more harm than good.

You'll want your description level to reflect what your character would notice at any given time, and what they notice should be important to them: what they like, what they would naturally notice, with the caveat that sometimes we as authors have to add in more than they would naturally notice to make the story work.

The Type of Description - Scenery and character descriptions have two different goals. Scenery you want to not only give the reader an idea of what environment your current scene is taking place, and describe that adequately enough that they can form a clear picture in their mind, but you also want to use it set a mood, sometimes even to foreshadow something. How much? Again, it goes back to what we've discussed so far. Who is the audience? What type of writing/story is this? How important is this place? How important is this scene (i.e., is it the climax, major plot point?) But finally it can depend on the author's style and preference as well.

Describing characters has a different goal. It doesn't hurt to know what color their hair and eyes are, how they're built, but there are two general rules to be aware of and to break them on purpose rather than accidentally.

One, the main reason to describe a person in the story is to add depth to that character, to highlight the traits that make the character more real, tell us their inner character as well as their outer looks. If a description doesn't do that in some fashion, then it is best to be left off. As an example, there's not much reason to tell us if the character is right handed or left, unless that fact either becomes important to the story later, or tells us something about that character. Emphasizing that a person in your story is left-handed could indicate the person doesn't go along with the crowd or looks at the world in a non-standard way. But to tell us that just to tell us that adds little to the character or the story.

Two, if your point of view is a close one, first or third, you want to avoid describing the point of view character. It is simply rare that such a character would ever do that. First, if you're in their "eyes," you are not going to see yourself very often. Second, if they do see themselves, say in a mirror, they are going to be so used to it that they won't notice in particular the color of their hair or eyes. When you brush your hair in the morning, do you think to yourself, "I swept the prickly brush through my deep, amber hair while my blue eyes stared back at me." No, you've seen and done this who knows how many hundreds of times. You're character isn't going to be noticing these things. Especially if he is a man.

And I guess I'm obligated to say that this point, that having a character describe themselves in a reflection will usually mark you as a beginner in most editor's eyes. Avoid doing that.

If traits of your character do need noticing, there are ways to get around this. One, have other people notice them. In Jill's book I reviewed, Achen had a "stray brand" on his back, left shoulder. He couldn't see it, but when a helper pulls his shirt off and reacts, you get the idea that there is something important on there. As it happens, this plays into the story later on, so it is important the reader be aware of this. By having this servant, and later Sir Gavin take notice of this, the reader is let in on its presence even though Achen can't see it and would generally not even think about it.

Another equally valid route is if your book has two points of view and they meet, they can describe each other in their points of view. Usually first time they met, as that's when they'd particularly notice various traits. If your story picks up after they've been together for a while, however, they aren't going to be thinking about the others looks unless you have a "special moment," like when the two stare into each others eyes. The point of view character is likely to notice the others eyes at that point.

I could probably dig up more, but those are the key points to consider. Probably the biggest mistake new writers make is describing events, places, or people in detail who aren't really that important to the story. If a description isn't either adding to the storyline, or setting the scene/mood of your story, then consider dropping it.

But in the end, this is one of those things writers will disagree on. Some like it thicker, others like it thinner. Since there are both kinds of readers out there, we're probably both safe. What guides do you use to decide how much description to lay on the reader?

Check out these other sites participating in the CSFF Blog Tour:

Brandon Barr
Keanan Brand
Gina Burgess
Beckie Burnham
Melissa Carswell
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Sarah Flanagan
Andrea Graham
Tori Greene
Ryan Heart
Joleen Howell
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Dawn King
Rebecca LuElla Miller
New Authors Fellowship
John W. Otte
Crista Richey
Chawna Schroeder
Andrea Schultz
James Somers
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler
KM Wilsher

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