30 December 2012

Snapshot Descriptions


by Louis A. Willis 

I had a difficult time finding a word to describe the kind of descriptions I’ll discuss in this post. It’s those short, sometimes one word, sometimes two or three, and sometimes a sentence or two, descriptions of characters and objects. I thought of calling them “generic,” but that didn’t seem quite right. I tried “minimal” but that seem too much like the minimalist school of art. How about “stock” descriptions like stock characters? No. Finally, lying in bed one night unable to sleep, it hit me: they are more like a photographic snapshot--short descriptions that leave an image in the memory for later reference.

The idea about such descriptions came to me while I was reading Trip Wire, a novel by Charlotte Carter, and read this description of Oscar, the father of one of the characters: “He was considerably shorter than his wife, but in his severe dark suit he cast a long shadow.” The wife’s height is never given, and Oscar’s face is never described. Whenever he is mentioned in connection with his estranged son Wilton, only his name is given, and I would see a short, severe man in my mind’s eye. 

Snapshot descriptions work best in short stories. For a look at how they work, I read a story from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Mystery Magazine (Volume 1, No. 6, June 1975) and four stories in the May 2012 AHMM by SleuthSayer members. 

In “Manna From Heaven” a story by Edwin P. Hicks in McBain’s Mystery Magazine , one character, Deacon Joshua Jordan, describes his enemy Big Bill Yandell: “You’re a big man, Bill Yandell, a head taller and twenty pounds heavier than me.” Joshua is never described physically, so I had to picture Big Bill first and then imagine Joshua’s size. I imagined Big Bill as a six three to six five foot, 200 to 250 pound tight end, and Joshua as a five eleven to six foot, 180 to 230 pound line backer. The description worked so well that all the author had to do for me to see both men when they finally confronted each other  was use Big Bill’s name. 

The narrator in “Lewis and Clark” by John M. Floyd describes two bad guys through the eyes of one of the young protagonists. He turns at the sound of a voice and sees “two men in denim jackets, one wearing a cowboy hat and the other a mane of long red hair.” In this case, I referred in my memory to the old cowboy movies that I saw every Saturday at the Gem Theater when I was a kid. What I saw was one bad guy in a black hat and the other with no hat but with dirty red hair down to his neck, and the jackets were also dirty, having, maybe, not been washed in months. I even pictured both in muddy cowboy boots. 

In “Spring Break” by R. T. Lawton, a guy who is supposed to work with thieves in a Florida heist during spring break is “The Thin Guy.” More specifically and sinister, he is “That skinny undertaker,” just like the tall man in a black suit whom we kids would see sitting in a chair in front of Old Man Wheeler’s Funeral Home as we walked past on our way to the Gem Theater every Saturday to watch two cowboy features and a short, probably the Three Stooges. 







In “Wind Power” by Eve Fisher an older man panting after a younger woman “…dived into the dating ocean with all the grace of an aging walrus. Or maybe a bear with a potbelly, and, as you can see, a comb-over that rivals Donald Trump’s.” This is funny and better than merely saying a dirty old man chasing after women young enough to be his daughter. 

I have given examples of snapshots of characters, but they work as well for objects. In Robert Lopresti’s “Shanks Commences” the narrator describes a desk in the library as “a big antique desk,” kind of like the desk in my junior high school library. 

I like snapshot descriptions because they sneak up on you. Sometimes I don’t realize until I’ve finished a story that I didn’t get a full description of a character or an object but just enough to print an image in my memory bank.

I wish you all a Happy New Year.

8 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Louis, great column today making me aware that it's not always necessary to give a full description to create a picture in the reader's mind. I especially like your examples from works by SleuthSayer writers. Happy New Year!

David Dean said...

Good article, Louis. It put me on to an idea for my next blog--names in stories. Thanks for the inspiration...I needed it.

Leigh Lundin said...

Louis, you're right to demonstrate it's a fine balancing act finding that point where the reader's imagination takes over and paints the picture in his mind's eye. I enjoy a story when the author gets it right.

John Floyd said...

Louis, thanks for your kind mention of our stories. I remember hearing someplace that one doesn't have to use "missing-person-report" description in order to paint a word picture of a character, and I truly believe that.

I like your idea of "snapshot descriptions." That makes good sense.

Eve Fisher said...

Great article (and thanks for quoting me!).
The original description of Sam Spade, which is not Bogie at all: "He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."
Dorothy Parker's charming young man (i.e., gigolo): "His voice was as intimate as the rustle of sheets."

charlene said...

The Twilight books are intriguing in that the male 'stars' are described with a lot of detail, but Belle isn't. Some have said this is so girls/women can easily picture themselves in that role.

Louis A. Willis said...

It has been a wonderful year, and reading and writing for SleuthSayers made it even more wonderful.

I do have a problem, one I think we all are facing: what shall I write about in the next 12 months?

Robert Lopresti said...

Thanks for the mention. Glad someone read our stories!

Charlene, my friend Jo Dereske wrote a dozen mysteries about a librarian named Miss Zukas. She says she received a lot of letters complaining that she shouldn't have made Miss Z so ugly. Miss Z is never described physically at all.

Louis, I personally have resolved to blog only about pancakes in the coming year, thus having resolved that problem. Now my problem is what to say about pancakes.