Monday, September 24, 2012

Story Problem #3: Physical Description That Gets In The Way

#3 on Angela Ackerman's Top 5 Issues I Find When Critiquing is:
Physical Description That Gets In The Way
Sometimes as we try to weave in details about our character’s physical appearance or setting description, we go to far. For example: I crossed the grimy black and white tiled kitchen floor, pausing to swipe a burnt piece of jam-spotted toast off the chipped countertop where Gram had left it for me. My blond hair slid forward over my left shoulder as I...etc. etc. Not only is this bloated description distracting, it leaves a mechanical, play-by-play taste in the reader’s mouth. Show the scene with sensory detail, but make sure the prose is tight, especially in places like this where the character is simply in transition, not deep action.
This one is pretty self explanatory and I don't have much to add to it. I personally love to write descriptions, but when I go over my stories I can't find them. For some reason I avoid writing more about the setting, smells, and sensations because I'm afraid of over doing it.

We need to give a few well placed details to help ground our reader in our world. A smell here, a texture there, a sound, a color, etc, but not all at the same time. I'm sure we've all been told at least once by a crit partner, "What's she wearing? Where is he? Give me something to connect to" and then we go all crazy with descriptions when that isn't the most important thing in the story.

You have to find the right balance. The only way you're going to do that is by playing with the words. Keep in mind that a little can go a long way here.

Here are some examples using the first paragraph from Eleena's Tale (I need a title!)
1.
I hid from Mother's gaze but not from her voice. It called to me from opposite sides of the field. She must have sent the message bots to get me. I rose up on one elbow and peaked over the grass. Sure enough, three bots floated around playing the memo, but Mother stood by the house just outside the barrier.
2.
I hid from Mother’s gaze inside the tall blue-green grass in the park bubble behind our home, but not from her voice. It called to me from opposite sides of the field. She must have sent the message bots to get me. I rose up on one elbow and peaked over the grass. The cool breeze ruffled the tiny new hair that wouldn't stay in my braids, tickling my cheek. Sure enough, three oblong bots floated around playing the memo, but Mother stood by the house just outside the shimmering barrier.
3.
I hid from Mother’s brooding gaze inside the tall blue-green grass in the shimmering park bubble behind our modest one level home, but not from her anxious voice. It called to me from opposite sides of the massive oval field. She must have sent the message bots to get me. I rose up on one elbow, the sleeve of my yellow and orange striped shirt digging into the soft ground and peaked over the waving grass. The cool breeze ruffled the tiny new hair that wouldn't stay in my braids, tickling my cheek. Sure enough, three red oblong metalic bots floated around playing the recorded memo, but Mother stood grim faced with her arms folded by the house just outside the shimmering barrier.

Hopefully you can see the difference between these paragraphs. Out of these three levels of description, which one do you think you could stomach reading 300 pages of?

Remember that when you are writing your novels and stories. There are times when you can stop and give more description. Just don't write the whole book full of adjectives and other modifiers or you'll wear your reader out.

Guess what? The Bookshelf Muse is furthering their plan to take over the world help you become better writers with a new thesaurus. Over the weekend they announced the New Physical Attribute Thesaurus!

5 comments:

  1. I'm a minimalist when it comes to description, so the first one does it for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Another great example of how subjective this business is. Thanks Alex!

      Delete
  2. I don't think that's a great question to ask. Here's my caveat. Real readers and not writers who are obligated to beta-read something choose a book. Let's (for example) use Harry Potter. Okay...so reader A has the new Harry Potter book and it's 2000 pages thick. So Reader A starts to read and there are pages and pages of descriptions of Harry, Hermione (what she's wearing), quiddich games, and wizard spells (describing the wood that goes into a wand). Then at the end of the 2000 pages, the reader goes..."OH...this was so wonderful...I was so excited to read it...and now it's over! I want more." And the writer scratches her head and says, "That thing was 2000 pages...and you wanted more?" The answer: "YES YES YES...more...I never want it to end. I want fan fiction. I want fiction that goes on forever. I want to be with Harry and Hermione and the others til the end of days!!!"

    Okay my point is this...readers don't care so much about description. If they want to read the book in the first place, they are going to read it. If it is something that's right up their alley, then they are looking for description.

    George R.R. Martin has literally pages or even chapters describing medieval food. I'm talking dinners of figs, and cherries swimming in cream, and plump ducks, etc. etc.

    This kind of advice seems aimed at writers who are nobody's and who are trying to get a very jaded and tired crowd to read their stuff when the afore-mentioned jaded and tired crowd does not want to do this.

    I think that's a really tough sell to begin with and has nothing to do with actual readers enjoying the book. It's really a double standard.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You have a point Michael, but what about those readers who have never heard of an author but get drawn in by the cover or back jacket blurb. Who knows what this random person prefers, but they are about to give a new author one chance.

      As a new author, the above scenario makes me think of two things:
      1. Solid well balanced writing is going to help me in this case.
      2. You can't always write for the reader. Every reader is different and at the end of the day you have to write what's going to make you happy. ;)

      Delete
  3. I'm with Alex - I enjoyed the first version the best! Like you, I find I go from one extreme to the other in terms of including descriptions and have to work hard to find that happy medium.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...