|Description: The hows, whens, and whys
Author: The Mumbling Sage PM
Some thoughts on description in fiction and how to handle it.Rated: Fiction K - English - Chapters: 2 - Words: 3,703 - Reviews: 30 - Favs: 31 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 06-17-08 - Published: 05-16-06 - id: 2174973
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Firstly, I would like to say that I will not write your book for you. I know from personal experience that sometimes that's what you what when you look for a 'How to' essay. Well, I won't, I can't, and you probably wouldn't like what I'd do with it, anyway. Secondly, I must admit that I'm not a teacher, not published, basically I'm not qualified, and the two or three of you who know my real age have probably fallen off your chairs from shock at my impudence. But then, I've had these ideas floating around my head for ages, long before I joined Fictionpress, and writing them down will probably help at least me understand what I'm doing--or should be doing.
Thirdly, yes, I do know that 'Firstly', 'Secondly' and 'Thirdly' are not real words.
Imagine, if you will, a world without description. If you find your capacity for imagination not quite that great (after all, it's not like I can describe it to you), then I shall imagine it for you.
I saw a guy. I really liked him. I followed him around all day. He told me to go away. I did.
I can't even say 'I was sad' because sad is an adjective and adjectives are descriptions. On another hand entirely, that paragraph was written in E-prime, a form of writing in which the verb 'to be' is not used. Lots of people are pioneering E-prime, but in this case it just doesn't work.
Almost as bad (or, sometimes, worse) than no description is bad description. We've all seen it, so you might want to skip over the italics…
The guy was cute. He had red hair and freckles. I have brown hair. I liked him.
…Okay, I've given up. Imagine your own bad description. But I think I've given you the idea.
When to describe
It's always a good idea to describe your character as soon as he (default male) is introduced, so your audience doesn't get the wrong idea. The mind works like a movie, and the reader may cast the wrong actor if you don't give proper stage directions (Sorry, is that only in theatre? Great, now the drama department nuts are out for my blood…)
I try to describe a character when the main character (or the one we follow around, the POV character) first sees him. For one thing, we should be able to get a gritty, unbiased (or more biased, depending) description of the character. Yes, the old man may be balding, but his loving daughter won't see that. The business executive whose bumper he just rear-ended will.
But it's also not a good idea to open your story with a description, unless it offers personality. Susie (default female) was a blonde--and, like all blondes, was pretty dumb too. (Now I have every blonde with a Master's degree in the country after me. Can my day get any better?)
People want to be suckered into your story, and unless you're trying to pull in female readers with a cute male lead (or perhaps vice-versa), you're going to need something better than simple description--actually, you're going to need what we in the biz call 'action'. But I'm not the one to tell you about that.
POV: For the uninitiated, it means 'Point Of View'. POV is important for several reasons: it reveals character (you literally see the world through someone else's eyes), allows more depth and clarity than omniscient third-person (the way people write when they don't use POV, 'he did-she did' with no limit on what the describer is seeing), and is more entertaining for those poor slobs that can't stand slogging through description (who cares what Conan looks like? I just want to see him kill someone). The POV character is often the main character, but other characters get their say occasionally. Just remember, if you tell it once from a POV other than the main character's, try telling it from a different POV at least one more time or the story will seem asymmetrical (and here's a hint for any asymmetry: when in doubt, go with three. Of anything.)
Simile and Metaphor
These tie in closely with POV. Why? Because you should never, never, NEVER use a simile without a POV to use it from (unless your spouse and children are being held hostage by a madman/woman who will kill them if you don't use a simile from omniscient third person. And then only when the SWAT team has exhausted their resources).
We'll start with metaphors. They're not used half as often as similes, and for those of you who don't remember, they're a comparison of something with something else without using 'like' or 'as' (like, totally). In the speculative fiction venue (science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers), never use metaphors (even if your girlfriend/boyfriend is being dangled head first over a pit of flames) without first stating the rules of the world your story is set in. If you have a xenian (alien, I'm just showing off) race with flaming eyeballs (that they can still see out of, because actual biological capabilities are lame), saying someone has 'deep-set eyes that burned' can be all too true…or all too confusing. Then there's the time when the Noble Knight and Noble Lady's romantic touch is 'electric'. I suppose metal armor can have a hell of a static cling.
Metaphors can be extended more than similes (call someone's hair a river, and it will flow over their shoulders in cataracts with swirls and eddies where the comb failed…), but for that reason you should confine your metaphors to one per paragraph, at most. You might want to stop using the metaphor at the end of the paragraph, too, unless it's a recurring theme. And remember, only use metaphors your POV character is familiar with, avoding the Noble Knight and Lady example (see? I already trust that you'll only use metaphor in a POV. I'm trusting you).
Like metaphors, similes should not be overused. I recall reading a fine science fiction novel back when (Grass, by Sheri Trepper, but I can't give you a specific page number because I don't have it with me) that used two--a deuce--of similies in one--an ace--of sentences. Two-for-one deals are fine when shopping, but I found myself rereading the sentence several times, trying to find out why it felt so strange. I can only wonder what wacko was sending pieces of the author's children in the mail to convince her to pull that one off.
Also like metaphors, you should not use similes with which your character is unfamiliar. But similes can be used a little more. For one thing, saying something is 1.75 meters tall can be confusing (particularly for those of us who like yards and feet. But I'll write my rant in defense of inches later, if ever). Saying it is 'as tall as a full-grown woman' might clarify things (if women grow to be 1.75 meters tall. American that I am, how should I know?). It is also the only acceptable term in Middle Terra (Earth…whatever) where the metric has never been created, much less used commonly. And you Yankees, don't be so smug, because Baggins never whipped out a yardstick, either.
Physical Sensations and Sound
How does a person's voice sound like a violin, anyway? I don't know, but I've heard it said. Musicians might understand description like that, but I've always had difficulty comparing people's voices to musical instruments. Saying, 'he's a tenor' might help me somewhat, but not everybody can keep tenor, alto, soprano, bass, baritone, ect, in order. In my mind, there are five kinds of voices: high, low, sweet, soft, and husky (Omaha high-low, Indian…never mind, that's poker). 'Husky' can also be read as 'harsh'. If anyone has a better system (and Lord knows, there must be a better one), I'd love to hear--get it? hear--about it.
Other sounds are not so hard. Hoots, howls, growling, a grating noise…those sounds are for the most part universally understood. There are also the fun similes, like, 'The dragon's scales grated together like a nail file at 1,000 decibels' (provided, of course, that your character is a female from the 21st century or otherwise familiar with manicures).
For physical sensations, keep in mind: don't describe what you aren't familiar with. If you've never kissed a guy/girl, your characters can still kiss, just don't describe what they feel like when they're doing it (if your story is PG, you should probably follow that advice anyway). If a character is getting a leg cut off, then you can assume it's painful. If you want more detail, please don't learn this firsthand. Go on the internet and search or a 'true survivor' story like 'I sawed off my own leg while surrounded by a pack of wolverines on Mount Everest'. Reader's Digest always has plenty of those. Remember, in the words of Doug Rendall, "'you never know until you try' works for most unknowns, but 'I wonder if it hurts to saw off the tip of my tongue' is probably not one of them".
Thesaurus: Friend or Ally?
Most computers these days have thesauruses (or thesauri or something). Highlight the word and right-click or use the 'tools' option on your toolbar; you'll get options like 'synonyms' or 'thesaurus'. If you find another word for 'synonym', call me or something.
You can always be old-fashioned and buy a thesaurus at a bookstore. Some dictionaries have synonym lists. There's probably one or a dozen on the internet somewhere.
Or you could make your own. I did this once when I was bored: I made a list of colors and then their synonyms. It helps to have a big box of crayons or colored pencils with you when you do this. I also made lists of emotions, textures, adverbs and 'said' words, though those last shouldn't be used excessively (I got that idea for 'Rutha's Grammar Review', which you can find through my 'Favorite Stories' page). When you need a word, check your list. It probably won't be in alphabetical order, but it will offer plenty of ideas from your own mind (or the twisted minds of Crayola), so you'll be able to sound like yourself without being monotonous.
Short sentences represent action. They also represent distraction. Long, ponderous sentences represent leisurely studies of the object being described.
Short paragraphs mean I don't have anything witty to say on the subject. Thank the long-forgotten gods of sanity.
The Muse Strikes Like Lightening: Rarely in the Same Place Twice
I get my jollies…in many ways. Chocolate is one. I also get description ideas in many ways, but chocolate is not the secret to my muse. Dang, how I wish it was. Actually, I get my description ideas on car rides…long car rides…long car rides with no place to write down my ideas. Try to have a notebook with you or something at all times so you can jot down ideas as they come. That goes for all writing, not just description. I have my ideas scatted over three notebooks, not to mention my 'inspiration folder'. And then there's my poor, mangled assignment notebook…
Another good way to get description ideas is from other people. Now, going up to a friend and saying, 'Describe a giant's moldering teeth to me' is perhaps not the best idea. However, if your friends, family, relatives, ect, are talking about lousy dental hygiene, listen to how they say what they have to say. I've gotten my share of good description from this.
You see Adolf Hitler, the Tooth Bunny, and the Easter Fairy walking down the street…
Which do you notice first? Hitler, of course, he's got that mustache.
When you look at a person, what do you see first? Wow, does she have the hair…look at his eyes…dig that dress…gosh, is he fat! Personally, I notice people's hair first, unless someone's morbidly obese or has a tumor growing out of somewhere. But apparently that's not for everyone. My sister claims to notice eyes first, while I have to know a guy/gal pretty long to know their eye color.
A good example of this principle was a conversation I was having with a friend a few days ago. He mentioned a name that sounded familiar, and I asked him to describe the person. The first thing out of his mouth was, "Well…he had really long fingernails."
What do you think is sadder--that he notices the fingernails, or that I correctly identify the person after just that piece of information? But when I describe someone casually, fingernails aren't usually on my list--unless the guy has a French manicure. And when describing someone in writing, is fingernails your number one priority? Unless the first glace of this person if their hand reaching through the barred window of a jail cell, you might reconsider that at least.
However, what if there was a culture where people ritually pull out their fingernails at puberty? Wouldn't a person from that culture noticed the nails first? Or, on seeing him, wouldn't you or I say something like, "Bloody Hell! That guy's got no fingernails!"
So keep in mind: what's important to you, what's important to the POV character, what's important to the reader, and what's important about the person being described. As an aside, note that we often say a man is black or red or brown or Asian, but if no race is stated it's often taken for granted that he's Caucasian.
And finally, the cliché ending
Clichés. Avoid them if possible--especially dated ones. Don't have a medieval knight crying 'Where's the beef?' (I mean, there's no reason anybody would need to say that anyway, but I'm trying to think of an example off the top of my head here). Other dated expressions are 'Okay', 'You're dead meat', and 'Wet behind the ears'. Also, avoid calling Mary the African Nomad's sheep 'white as snow' unless you're sure there's snow in her part of Africa.
Another unknown danger is personal clichés- your very own nemesis lurks beneath the page. Avoid descriptions and phrases that you use too much. Keep your voice, but don't become monotonous.
In conclusion…I'm not finished yet!
My parting words are this: sexy is a state of mind. So is ugly. So is pretty. Remember, when some of us wake up in the morning without a pus explosion on our face, it's a good day. For others, a little pink dot on their hairline will ruin their entire semester. I've been told that my eyes will melt from the ugliness of a guy with the best blue eyes I've ever seen (he already has a girlfriend, so don't spray 'Sage and Guy with Blue Eyes' on the bathroom walls yet). And we've all met the guy who thinks he's Cupid's gift to women when in reality we're all gagging (in my case, literally) as he tries for attention.
Your POV will affect your writing. Your personal preferences and prejudices will affect your writing. I'm not calling you the Ku Klux Klan, but think about it--do you automatically consider certain physical traits the mark of certain characteristics? And also, what do you consider beautiful? You can't just call every woman in your story attractive, or all your male readers will be superimposing their girlfriend (or something like that) on her. And all the female readers…we'd imagine ourselves, of course.
And then there's the mandatory ugly person who isn't really mandatory, just so everybody else doesn't feel left out. Perhaps it would be better to have just a normal guy who might need face wash. Or a girl who hasn't had the chance to comb her hair in the past ten weeks. To really be realistic, you could (I can't believe I'm saying this) try an honest self-insertion for a minor character. Or you could insert your enemies. I can identify for a fact several people I know in real life running around the universe of Aqua Vitae.
And speaking of Aqua Vitae (beep…beep…beep…sorry, that was my plug detector) I barely mentioned the physical characteristics of Artemus and Kerensa, and I didn't describe Martin at all. Now everybody's mad at me just because I'm a hypocrite. This has not been my day.
Feel free to leave the Sage's Study of Descriptive Contemplation, and don't forget to review on your way out.
Oh, and Justin--we have Kenny. We will cut off finger joints from Kenny and send them to you every day for the next two months or until he runs out of fingers, unless you use a simile AND extended metaphor in the same sentence by next Tuesday. And what's more, we'll send them collect.