Showing posts with label description. Show all posts
Showing posts with label description. Show all posts

03 May 2016

The Joys of Description

Me and my teapot :)
On Saturday night, I won
the Agatha Award for best
short story of 2015, and
I was just a little happy.
Kudos too to Art Taylor,
who won the Agatha for
Best First Novel.

by Barb Goffman

In search of blogging topics, I asked my friends for suggestions. This paraphrased question caught my eye right away:

How much detail should a writer use when describing the setting, what the characters look like, and what the characters are doing?

The amount of detail a writer should use is of course a personal matter. Some authors love expounding on setting and appearance, giving every detail so that a person could--if they had to--draw an exact replica of a room or a picture that would make a sketch artist proud. Other authors take a minimalist approach, preferring to leave setting to the readers' imagination. Readers' taste also varies, with some wanting to know every detail of each place and character's appearance, others not wanting their time wasted on that detail.
Given that readers' tastes do vary across the spectrum, an author obviously can't please everyone. I typically suggest something in the middle of the spectrum (though my personal taste is toward the minimalist side). You want to set the scene but you don't want to bore the reader or hold up the action.

When it comes to what characters look like, I suggest telling the reader one or two telling details, something to make the character stand out in the reader's mind. Does the character have a large mole on his cheek? Does she walk with a limp? Does she have extremely big hair? And I wouldn't limit myself to thinking a character's description only applies to what he or she looks like. Saying the woman who came to visit smelled like she worked in a kennel or her voice rumbled like she'd been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for decades will hopefully be more memorable than simply saying she had shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes.
This man's hair color and style are likely all you need to tell.

I suggest getting this type of detail in early, before the reader decides for herself what the character looks like. But don't force the detail in right when we meet the character if it doesn't work there.

If there's something important about the character's appearance, make sure you get it in early too. You wouldn't want your bank robber to be described as someone who sometimes slurs her words, and not show the reader until the end of the book that this character sometimes slurs.

Of course sometimes you need to give a little more detail in order to create a smoke screen. If something about a character's appearance is an important clue (or red herring), try to weave that detail into the narrative, hiding it among other details so it doesn't appear important. For instance, if it's important that Jane has dark green eyes, don't make that the only thing you say about Jane because then that detail will stand out. Instead tell the reader that Jane has ratty brown hair that looks like it hasn't been washed for a week. Her hair is so nasty you can hardly see her dark green eyes or the scar on her forehead she got from a bar fight. The reader will hopefully focus on the scar and Jane's nasty hair, with the eye color fading into the recess of her brain.

These same techniques can be used for setting. You want to create your world, but you don't need to spell out every detail to do it. Are you creating a charming town? Tell me Main Street has an old-fashioned ice cream shop and a Mom and Pop diner that's been there for decades. Let me know that a large green is adjacent to Main Street with some Revolutionary War statues and large shade trees people picnic under in the summertime. That's more than enough for me get the quaint picture you're trying to set. I don't need the name of every store, of every statue, of every street. But if it's an important clue that a certain statue was defaced, don't have that be the only damage done. Bury that clue in a report of the damage supposedly all done by the vandal.

As to detail of what characters are doing, I also advocate for minimalism. If you have two characters driving and discussing the case, I don't need to know each time the driver changes gear or flips on the turn signal. If you tell me that Bob is driving, I can picture what he's doing. I only need to know things that are unusual. If Bob is distracted and keeps looking at his phone or the radio or keeps checking out the rear-view mirror because he thinks they're being followed--things that are important to the plot--I want to know.

There are some actions you don't need to show at all. If your character is beginning a new day, I don't need to see her brushing her teeth unless her toothpaste is poisoned or someone is going to strangle her while she's working on her incisors. I don't even need to know she brushed her teeth. Just show her arriving at her office, finding it in disarray from the burglars who struck overnight. And if your
When brushing teeth, less is more.
character is going up a staircase, and you show the character heading to the staircase, she thinks a bit, and then she's at the top of the stairs, that's just fine. The reader can infer that she just walked up those steps. You don't need to show every step as it's taken unless you're trying to show that she's wobbly or that a stair is creaking or if someone is going to push her over the banister. (Such fun!)

Of course, again, everyone's mileage may vary about the amount of detail preferred. I'd love to know what you think. And please, let us know if you're a reader or a writer. Or both.

30 December 2012

Snapshot Descriptions

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.