When writing a book, but particularly when writing fantasy, authors seem to run into the problem of too much details. They describe the life out of a scene, creating paragraphs of concrete details about what a place sounds like, smells like, tastes like, until the plot is put to one side and we are invited to enjoy a catalogue of biology or botany.
Dorothy L. Sayers has some interesting thoughts on this subject: “The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things…In particular, when we speak about something of which we have no direct experience we must think by analogy or refrain from thought.”
And this is partly where the strengths or weakness of a fictional world kicks in. When a world is well crafted, it can turn a good symbol (the sun, for example) into something evil (sunshine that kills by touch, perhaps?). It can take names we dislike and give them pleasant connotations. It can make us see things in a new and different way, making us return back to our lives as changed people.
Of course, it’d be nice, as an author, for readers to just interpret the character as they are, as a separate entity that is presented to them on a silver platter, but that’s not how people read. We compare the characters to ourselves, learning about who we are as we discover who they are.
What matters more than the color of something, the texture, the species and behavior is how that something impacts your characters, and, by extension, should affect the readers. In order for your readers to not just skim your descriptions, you have to make them interesting, and the best way to make them interesting is for them to do more than just tell us things. A good description can show us who the characters are by how they interact with the world around them.
Here are three questions that can help move your description from showing into telling:
- What does the character compare it to? Is it as light as the memory of a dream or thick and clinging like the stench of burnt sugar? Analogies can be cliche, but they can also be emotional shorthand, helping your readers quickly feel the impact of details and freeing you to move on with the plot.
- How does the character react to it? Do they see it as a peaceful, pleasant thing? Or do they feel threatened by it? Does it change the way they behave? When we are near something we dislike, we might act more jittery, talking in shorter sentence. Or we may ramble on and on, our nervousness manifesting itself by idle chatter. Either way, the emotions involved influence behavior.
- What mood does it elicit? This is the hardest category to explain, but it comes from how you write about the person, place, or thing and tends to be a result of the other two means of analogy. It creates a flavor of that portion of scenes or plots in which the item in question is involved and is the difference between Mordor and Rivendell, the change in atmosphere between Longbourn and Rosings Park.
The best descriptions are the ones where the reader doesn’t even realize they’re being fed description, where they’re drawn right through the details on to the rest of the book. Or the ones that paint such a clear picture that we feel like we’re there, where the details enhance but don’t drag us down…where they feel like magic fingerprints, and not prosaic pieces of data from a game of Twenty Questions (do people even play that anymore? Is there an app for that?).
So the next time you find yourself writing description and details, ask yourself why it matters, to your characters and to your reader, and then make the writing interested and not just graphic.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by mmainco, Creative Commons