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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How Do I Describe Things? (Mailbox)

How do I explain visual detail that I feel I need to explain?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Monday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox, but likely only if you ask a question. And don't be afraid to ask about the inner circle secrets of writing.]     

Tom asks:  

When I sit down and try to write something, I get to a point in the story where I need to visually describe an object or a character that a reader is seeing for the first time.

I get through the basics well enough...but then it comes to the part where I need to talk about visual detail.

Nonsensical descriptions fly through my head like "curvy-pointy-thingy" to try and explain a particular part of a building or object when I can't think of other words to use, or using 'corner' to describe a position on a round building equidistant from 3 other locations around the circumference, even though I know that round objects obviously have no corners.

I know it's not critical to a story to always have visual detail outlined in that fashion, but when I feel that it is and I need to explain it in order to get my point across to someone who would be reading it, it becomes a battle that just ends in me feeling stupid.

So my question here...are there resources that you may be familiar with that are good aides in describing visual details?

My reply:

You mean besides me, your one-stop-writing-help shop?

I love this question Tom, because it lets me show of one of the real bits of magic that writers do. It’s not about grammar or yet another "Yes, I’m really serious you should write every day" question. It's not about process or about craft elements that every writer uses. It’s about magic unique to fiction. You may not realize it, but a good writer is an illusionist, and you’ve just asked about one of our best tricks. (Hope the cabal doesn’t come after me for making the secret available to anyone.) Of course each writer does their illusion in a slightly different way, but the basic spell is identical.

One of the biggest problems that young writers have is trust. Like the young magician who believes that everyone will see past their sleight of hand, young writers don’t have faith in their illusions. But the seasoned magician and writer both know that if they grab your attention with the right distractions, you will see exactly what they want you to see.

Young writers believe that their tender ideas are delicate and fragile and can’t withstand the perverted imaginations of their readers. They believe their readers have thick calloused, hands and that their imaginative visions are wispy diaphanous images that can be blown apart by a strong breeze. They believe that they must tediously describe every detail in order for the reader to see what they see.

None of these things is actually true.

First of all your story is tough. It’s more like thick leather and working it takes some muscle and sinew. There may be some detail work that is important to get right but the rugged strips that get worked over and over are hard to mess up. Your readers will also take more care than you might ever think possible with examining your tiniest details—sometimes even more care than you will.

But a lot of young writers don’t trust their readers very much. They tell them what to think, what to feel, exacting detail of a scene to the point that it slows down their narrative and becomes cumbersome, thick, uninteresting reading.

Consider if I describe the front of a restaurant with a host/hostess station situated like a giant podium with a marble top the color of  storm cloud grey and polished to a reflective shine. Behind the podium is a huge brass framed antique mirror. A basket stuffed with bright red and green Christmas kids menus and a bucket full of brand new primary color crayons resting near a big map of the restaurant with an electronic display lighting what tables are ready to be seated?


Can you picture that?

I don't know if this is accurate, but it's neat.
Notice I didn’t actually give you a lot of detail? I described a mirror, a station, some crayons and kids menus and the electronic display. But I didn’t tell you how many feet the station it was from the front door. I didn’t tell you if it was situated in front of or off to the side of the bar or lounge area. I didn’t tell you what the base of the station was made out of or whether it had a cash register on it. I didn’t describe the floors, the walls, the ceiling. I didn’t tell you what color the lights were on the electronic display or whether it was a snazzy digital display like a touch computer screen or just a tiny lightbulbs pushed through a construction paper map. 

I left a lot of the details up to you, the reader. And that’s okay. You have to trust readers. Each reader comes fully equipped with their very own Mark IV Imagination Engine.

Now, I pictured a restaurant where I used to manage called The Old Spaghetti Factory—specifically the Concord store. I COULD have described all that stuff, but it just would have bogged you down with details that might be hard to imagine anyway.  (“It was fifteen feet from the double doors that were made of thick frosted glass. The walls were a dark cherry wood that absorbed the light and gave the place a twilight feel even during lunch. A 45-light chandler hung over the waiting area from vaulted ceilings and the bar was to the right. Mirrors lined the left wall as well and were adorned with angelic faces and blah blah blah….”) However, it’s actually going to be more effective if I let you do a lot of that imagination.

You may have imagined your favorite restaurant in your home town or even a Denny’s where you ate every week after choir practice. Does your place have a marble top host/hostess station? Was the bucket of crayons on it? How about the mirror? The electronic map?  But those details aren’t hard for you to add.

Regardless of what you imagine, you will incorporate the details I want more easily if I don’t try to completely hijack your imagination—just give it a little nudge in the direction I want it to go. It’s easy for you to incorporate the mirror or the electronic map of the restaurant even if the place you’re thinking of doesn’t have either of those things.

But how do you let go of all those other details? What happens if your reader gets it wrong? Well, that’s exactly the right question to ask. What happens if your reader is imagining Denny’s instead of The Old Spaghetti Factory? Does that change your story? Is it important? Is your main character only able to run fifteen feet from the door before collapsing from the gunshot wound? Will your theme of duty vs. desire be fundamentally altered if the bar is to the right or the left of the host/hostess station?

The answer is almost always that it does not matter. You just need to let go and trust your reader to imagine the parts you fill in. And so the first trick up a writer’s magic sleeve is called significant detail. This is where the details that the writer chooses to share are the details that MATTER.

Why do they matter? That’s up to you.

I won't rehash that whole significant detail article I linked above, but possible reasons for including the details would be because they will come into play later on in the story (the narrator will see themselves in the mirror), that they reflect some thematic aspect of the story (the character is also grey, melancholy and reflective), a subtle way to get in exposition (it's Christmas!), that a focalizer character is noticing these details and it's characterizing themselves (you'll learn that your narrator is a kid because they're most interested in the neat map display and crayons).

Think of it this way, Tom. The key to a good lie is not to describe the moment in exacting detail. “Yes, honey I was late because a Mazda Miata, driven by a six foot tall German with large muscles wearing green slacks and a purple shirt plowed into the red Toyota Supra driven by a nun at twenty-two miles an hour creating on the corner of fifth and main street six cars ahead of me.” Nor do you want to be vague. “I got into an accident.” A great lie has a detail or two (and that’s it) that make it pop and give it that sound of reality. “Oh my god you should have seen this tiny nun in full habit screaming up at this six foot, power lifter German who looked like he was back in Catholic school. Stopped traffic for blocks. That’s why I’m late.” That detail makes the whole thing seem real.

And after all what is fiction but a very involved lie (hopefully a lie that tells the truth).

Here’s where the real cool part comes in. When you describe the bits that are significant, use concrete imagery. (That's another link you should check out separately since it's too long to review fully here.) When those details you DO share "pop," your reader will be under the illusion that the entire scene has been described just as lushly even though it’s THEIR imagination filling in MOST of the details. If you were to describe the nubs of old crayons and that waxy smell, your reader would feel like they were there even though you have still left out almost 100% of the description. You’ve tricked them into doing all the work and falling for your illusion. Concrete images include colors, shapes, smells, and adjectives that pop (though never so many that they become distracting), but also surprising metaphors that help your reader to envision something, but also trust them to do it in their own way.

Yes, love the metaphor when you're describing something. I could fill a paragraph with a detailed description of the aliens from Champions of Earth, cataloguing their every detail, the joints in their legs, their arm extensions, their body parts, the number of eyes. But how much easier to describe one or two details about their ugly faces and call them "spider centaurs." Yeah you might not be picturing them "perfectly," but that's okay. If I describe the ships as triangular masses covered with hundreds of bubbles, bumps, and spiny protrusions, you might envision a Star Destroyer type ship or a cross between a Stargate pyramid ship and a blowfish, but it doesn't really matter unless that detail is absolutely vital to your story.

The other trick when you're doing this is to drizzle your description instead of hitting it like one big block of exposition. Think of it like cheese (the cheese guy on the second floor insisted on a shout out). Melt a little over the entree, and it'll be great as it livens up every single bite with cheesy goodness, but very few people will really enjoy sitting down with a knife and fork to eat a block of cheese. One detail here and one there and one a little further on and you don't have to bore up your story with paragraphs of the stuff. If you have a focalizer they can notice things piecemeal. If you are writing through an omniscient narrator you can just decide when the reader needs to know.

You can't do that in other art forms. In film or painting, all the detail you want has to be in the art. But in fiction, you can weave the illusion.

Obviously some writers use a lot more description than others, but they often bog down the reader. This is more of a stylistic difference, but it can matter. Only the most die hard fans of Tolkien have gutted through every lush description of the countryside in Lord of the Rings (most prefer the equivalent of the Willow travel montage--field, waterfall, cliffs, forest, now they're at the crossroads) and even people who like Anne Rice have skimmed through seventeen pages of plantation geography or a precision description of twins that reads like a blueprint schematic. On the other hand, Steinbeck writes rich descriptions of setting at the beginning of almost every chapter of most of his books, but they are rarely more than a page and they usually reflect the thematic conflict to come. A reader breezes through them and then feels an intense connection with the story even though Steinbeck does VERY LITTLE direct description of his characters other than a few significant details (like Lenny's size or Jim Casey's resemblance to a certain other J.C.).

See how the magic works there? You're so busy with the details he does give you, that you fill in the rest into an almost perfect mind's eye movie.  Most writers who are popular (commercially and literarily) limit themselves to the details that are significant, and let their readers do the rest of that work.

And the key is trust. Trust your ability to do magic, Tom. This is one of the greatest powers of fiction.