by Will Viharo
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But a few carefully selected words can conjure priceless mental images for your readers.
The trick is describing your characters, situations, and settings accurately, while evoking just the proper mood and atmosphere, but without providing so many details that nothing is left to the imagination.
It’s all a matter of appealing to the mind’s eye…
In previous blogs I’ve compared the craft of writing to making music, especially in regards to the composition of dialogue. I’ve also suggested listening to music as a creative muse when feeling stuck.
I also propose that the literary field is rather similar to illustrative arts in that you’re conveying visual data, but it’s a cerebral rather than ocular experience.
That doesn’t make the writing process any less inspirational, or provocative, though. It simply requires a different set of tools - a pen instead of a brush, at least figuratively speaking.
When it comes to description, the parameters are very loose, wide, and subjective. Authors like Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain all wrote in a very stripped-down, “hard-boiled” style that communicated a lot of information clearly but concisely, with very few adverbs or adjectives, relying mainly on character interaction to set any given scene and create the intended ambience.
Other authors from Charles Dickens to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Thomas Pynchon to John Irving to David Foster Wallace wrote in a much more florid, “wordy” fashion, with long paragraphs packed with every possible detail regarding people, places, things, emotions, etc.
Neither is “right,” and neither is “wrong.” Depending on whom you ask, of course. Not to mention what you’re writing, and which era you actually live in…
Wasting Time Does Not Pay
Many revered authors like Elmore Leonard – whose widely respected manifesto “10 Rules for Good Writing” is considered sacrosanct amongst many modern creative writing teachers – definitely preached the “less is more” approach. But then he wrote primarily genre thrillers, justly celebrated for his many classic Westerns and crime novels, and that audience generally prefers a faster paced narrative, without any extraneous verbiage to slow down the action.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s all relative. Bestselling noir author James Lee Burke writes the most beautifully vivid descriptions of his particular milieu (the Deep South and the rural West) and its natural environment I've ever read. But they're anything but brief. They require concentration and patience. But the payoff is priceless.
Raymond Chandler is legendary for his colorful metaphorical phrasing, which managed to communicate a particular character trait or type of behavior in a manner more akin to poetry than conventional prose:
A few of my favorites quotes from his witty private eye, Philip Marlowe:
"He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."
"She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket."
"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."
See? Each of these punchy descriptions paints a vivid portrait in your head, without resorting to a relatively mundane litany of items, conveying necessary characteristics via artful suggestion, rather than literal interpretation.
However, this particular technique, while timelessly entertaining and endlessly influential, is often considered archaic by today’s standards, even in the field of contemporary crime fiction.
Again, this all comes down to a matter of personal style, as well as historical context.
While you’re discovering and training your own unique voice, aiming to reach today's target audiences, you need to be careful your words aren’t echoing in an empty museum.
It’s always a good idea to read back your own work to yourself, out loud if possible (naturally not recommended if you’re in a public place, like a café). This way you can not only hear the rhythms of your own written speech, giving you an idea of how it will “sound” in the minds of total strangers, but you can discern if you’ve included a lot of extraneous stuff that doesn’t propel your story forward so much as slow it down, or even grind it to a halt.
While the way you choose to describe anything in your work is ultimately your call, since it’s your individual creative vision, a good editor (or self-editor) will always trim down passages that contain excess descriptive devices, especially if they’re repetitious or redundant.
Also, quite frankly, many readers are turned off by “too many words,” especially in this day and age when their senses are constantly bombarded with media that is both visually and aurally stimulating. While the intellectual exercise of reading is for many a welcome respite from these “easier” and much more pervasive modes of entertainment or education, if you make a reader “work” too hard without a worthy reward, you will lose them.
Think of your book as a movie, even if the story isn’t necessarily “cinematic.” You want it to flow, for the plot to unfold gradually yet smoothly, for all the characters to seem realistic and relatable, regardless of their circumstances. Movies are popular because they are portals to alternate universes that are familiar and accessible while offering an easy escape from reality.
Historically, books have provided the same service, whether it’s epic “beach reading” or a short story to make a train ride to work less dull. But attention spans are both shorter and more easily distracted than they were in the days of Mark Twain.
Rule number one for any entertainer: never bore your audience. Economy can be a virtue. Overly describing anyone or anything can be needlessly tedious for the reader on the go.
Like it or not, modern sensibilities have been shaped by today’s complex technologies, and that directly affects our reading habits and preferences as well. This is one reason eBooks are the format of the future.
The Big Picture
It’s goes back to using words as brushstrokes. If a painting is too “busy,” the casual observer may miss or simply skip many of the details you might consider so crucial to the appreciation of your work. Fewer people are reading now than a century or even a couple of decades ago, and the ones that do still read aren’t consuming nearly as many words as their more literate ancestors. There just isn’t time.
So don’t waste their time or your words. Make them all count, and the images you create in the reader’s mind will tell the story for both of you, effectively and efficiently.
As a reader, do you prefer graphic descriptions in your fiction, or more succinct storytelling?
PHOTO: CENTRE FOR RESEARCH COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH