Thursday, March 10, 2011
On Writing Description
“The setting is fundamental to the story, and feels realistic.”
“Her descriptions of the place and time really make you feel like you were there.”
Okay, okay, I didn’t post these excerpts of reader reviews for the purpose of blowing my horn. What I want to talk about is writing description.
This is a really fine line to walk. As a writer, if you don’t provide enough description the reader might feel detached from the story. Put in too much and your audience will lose track of the story altogether. You know, forest for the trees, etc. I once tried to get through a book written by a now-deceased author whose books were huge sellers in the 1960s and 1970s. All the minutiae and yip-yap about every detail made for excruciating reading and finally I gave up, wondering what all the fuss was about. There might have been a story but it had gotten left behind by the writer’s need to describe everything.
So let’s have a look behind my curtain and I’ll talk about what I do that seems to work. Remember the five senses—sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing.
Let’s suppose that you’re writing a scene that takes place outside on a late summer night. (I just had a conversation with a friend about this, partly because of my time-shifted hours. I see a lot of late nights.)
One of the things we talked about is how good a summer night smells. This is based on the supposition that you don’t live near a sewage treatment plant or some other industrial intruder. Summer is filled with plants and grasses that are at their prime, and their scents blend and carry, even if the night is fairly still. You can catch a whiff of lavender or a newly-mowed lawn.
Scents and odors—good or bad. I think we’ve all read something about blood having a coppery or metallic taste. I've had the unforgettable experience of smelling my own blood after an injury. The smell of an anaerobic compost pile can just about knock you off your feet, which of course, is why they need to be turned. I learned this the hard way. That nasty stink didn’t linger in my nostrils, as is sometimes written. It hovered at the back of my throat. Lots of really strong odors can do that, oil-based paint, turpentine, gasoline, some especially peaty single malt Scotches, old liniment, skunk spray on a dog, pine cleaner, etc. Other fragrances such as pleasing perfume, a sleeping person, or line-dried laundry fill your head. Scents can also be powerful memory triggers. I personally don’t like stuffed grape leaves but the smell of them cooking always makes me think of my grandmother. So does the scent of Coty face powder.
On a clear night, especially beyond the urban influence of light pollution, the stars are very visible, as are some planets even with the naked eye. Since I grew up and lived my whole life in the city, I’m not accustomed to seeing the sky that well at night. I attended a writer’s conference years ago at a facility in the Columbia River Gorge. It’s really dark out there! The moon was full, and I was astounded to discover how well I could see by its light. It casts shadows and everything. But that same light can make objects look a bit colorless, like a faded photo. As the Moody Blues observed in “Nights In White Satin,” “red is gray and yellow, white.” And if the character is in a wide-open place, that dome of midnight blue, moon, and stars truly looks infinite.
What does a kiss taste like? If it’s forced upon a person it can be extremely unpleasant. Given in lust or love, the effect will be different. Have you ever gotten a mouthful of sea water? It tastes just like it smells. How about the flavor of wine that has gone bad? It's not enough to say that it tastes like vinegar; we all know that. Could it strip paint? Keep the flies off roadkill? It’s not surprising that taste and smell can intertwine, which is why food is about as interesting as library paste when you have a cold.
Touchy-feely—in one of my books I said that a character’s personality grated on another’s like sandpaper on a sunburn. Two for the price of one! It’s easy to imagine the feeling and the aggravation. How about the surprising and sharp pain of a knife cut? One night a few years ago I was slicing a potato with a mandolin–no, no, not the stringed instrument. It’s a kitchen slicer. Mine has a hand guard but I was in a hurry and forgot to use it. The blade on that thing sliced off the pad of my ring finger and let me tell you, the shock of that moment pulled the breath right out of me. When you think of touch, don’t forget about textures: soft, coarse, rough, smooth. How do you think you’d describe the feel of an elephant’s hide (and it’s a pretty safe bet that most of us don’t know so we’d have to study a photo and make a good guess)?
Hearing. The wind in summer trees with their green leaves rustling, or bare-limbed winter branches rattling like old bones. A dog barking in the distance on that starlit summer night. Imagine a character lying in the dark in a cheap hotel bed, the sheets rough beneath his bare skin, the smell of a thousand cigarettes exhaling their stale reek from the drapes and furniture, the sharp taste of whiskey swishing around his mouth, headlights crossing the wall and ceiling while someone’s car alarm keeps going off in the streets below. All right, that’s depressing, and sort of clumsy. But it makes you want to know more, doesn’t it? Even I’m curious, and wow, for some reason the character just became Russell Crowe in my mind’s eye, that wonderful tool writers have.
It’s your job to create a vivid image in the mind’s eye of your reader too.