Sunday, October 5, 2014
What's the "just right" amount of description in fiction?
Writing description is perilous. Write too little and it's as if your characters are wandering around in a void. Write too much and the reader puts the book down and goes online to check the weather. What's a writer to do?
No worries. Here's how to know how much description to use.
Trust your characters.
There you have it. Oh, you want a little elaboration? All right then. :)
When your character enters a scene what does she see? What are her circumstances? Does she have time to fully look around the room? Is there any reason she would notice anything (or perhaps the complete room) in detail? What's her background? What kind of things would a person of her background notice? What about the difference between what a guy and what a woman would notice?
So an art historian wanders into the Louvre's main gallery fulfilling a lifelong dream. Well, she is going to describe a hell of a lot of stuff. She's blown away. The beauty is overwhelming her senses. And being an art expert she is going to notice the nuances of the paintings, the thicker brushstrokes of the Van Gogh or the flawless perspective of the Vermeer. If you gave a short generic description here, your reader would find it hard to believe and question your character's authenticity.
But a French guy, a motorcycle mechanic by trade, dragged to the Louvre for the umpteenth time by his girlfriend, walks in and looks around. "Same boring paintings everywhere," he says, and he checks his cell phone for the soccer scores.
Or how about the time factor? Our art historian has all day to look over those beautiful paintings. How about a crack addict who's coked out and holding up a 7-11? His eyes are glued to the clerk's and the cash register, the eyes in the back of his head looking at the parking lot to see if anybody's pulling in. What if he were to give an in-depth description of the store? "On the floor next to a refrigerated case filled with twelve-packs of beer there was a "Big Gulp" cardboard poster. The air conditioner was running and just about drowned out the Katy Perry song on the overhead speakers. The air smelled faintly of fresh-brewed coffee and doughnuts." Uh, the reader's thinking, is this guy a normal human being?
Remember that to just describe a single scene setting you could write 100,000 words.
And don't forget to use all the senses in your description. That air might be perfectly room temperature in the Louvre. (The art historian would notice this because she knows the air needs to be that to protect the masterpieces.) The crack addict's hand is so sweaty the door handle slips out of his hand when he gets to the 7-11 and he has to open it again.
The temptation, especially if you're writing fast, is to just use visual writing. And writing fast may be a good way for you to go—get your story down. Then when you go through it again you can add non-visual descriptors.
Just don't forget that too much non-visual description is also a mistake. The majority of your description is going to be visual and that's as it should be because that's the majority of how we take in the world. But if your character is constantly feeling things, or smelling stuff, or hearing things, that's going to come off as inauthentic.
I've heard of writers suggesting things like 'Use two non-visual descriptors each page.' Don't do it. Good writing is organic writing. That writer is going to have to stop twice on every page. That manuscript is going to be stilted as hell (and inauthentic). And you may want to use ten non-visual descriptors on a page if it's called for. Think of a character on their first trip to a farm. The freshly cut hay smell. The apple blossoms. The tilled soil. The manure in the stables.
Trust your gut with the non-visual stuff. Again, what would your character notice? If he's a baker he's going to notice a smell every time he walks into a restaurant. A musician will notice music more. Etc. etc.
Be judicious (and limiting) with your use of adverbs and adjectives. The Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro wrote: "The adjective, when it doesn't give life, kills it."
Ditto for adverbs. And don't forget that adverbs modify verbs. Enhancing your verb will often eliminate the need for the adverb.
"I'll be home soon," Jimmy said angrily and he hung up the phone.
"I'll be home soon," Jimmy said and he slammed down the phone.
If he slammed down the phone we know he spoke angrily, right?
And as with all writing, characters are compelling when they are doing something. Jimmy slamming the phone down has us watching him closely. What's he going to do next? And that is exactly where you want your reader.
The one place you might want to use an adverb is where the character's mood is entirely opposite of what they say.
"I love you," Jimmy said angrily.
"I love you," Jimmy said and he slammed down the phone. (That doesn't quite cut it.)
So it's not hard. Trust your characters to tell you the "just right" amount of description you need. Remember who your characters are. The situation they're in. The time frame. The things they would notice. Keep that as your rule of thumb and you can't go wrong.