Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Using Description

I finished reading Monica Wood's excellent book, Description, which is part of the Elements of Fiction Writing Series.

I can honestly say this is one of the best books on the writing craft I've ever read. Wood doesn't waste time, but gets right to the point and shows you how to use description through narrative, dialogue, point of view, and more. She discusses each technique, and then offers a summary at the end of the chapter called a "wrap up" that neatly ties it all together. I was impressed with her no nonsense style. So many craft books veer into tangents and never really get to the point. Wood cuts the BS and delivers the goods.

There were so many meaty nuggets of wisdom in this short book that I couldn't possibly name them all, but here are a few that really spoke to me.

1.  Don't use long, detailed character descriptions. For example, when a man meets his love interest for the first time, our tendency is to describe her from head to toe. Don't. Instead, do as Wood suggests: "Deliver physical characteristics a few at a time, and the character in question becomes much more seeable." And don't show us every single feature. That's just boring and plain irritating. A few solid, vivid details will do more to characterize your character than an entire paragraph.

2.  Use dialogue to describe a setting. Wood's example: "My God, this place looks like the dark side of the moon," Henrietta said. You can also use dialogue to show what something isn't. Wood's example: "It's not exactly Sesame Street," Brenda murmured.

3.  Get rid of melodrama and sentimentality. One of Wood's rules: "Avoid the pathetic fallacy." What is a pathetic fallacy? Wood describes it as "ascribing human emotions to natural phenomena or inanimate objects." Examples: "happy hydrangeas" or "grateful daisies." Just...don't. It sounds tacky. And bad.

4. Long, rambling descriptions of your setting are also a no-no. This is one we've all been guilty of doing. I've spent a lot of time describing the entire interior of a room before. To what end? Does it move the story ahead? Do we need to care that the window has priscilla curtains or the floors are polished oak? Maybe - if it is important to the story. As Wood says, "You must add details that remind readers that the setting has a purpose." Are the priscilla curtains dirty because the main character has developed a fear of cleaning? Do they mask cracks in the window from a gunshot? This is how to make your setting details fit the story.

This is Slick. He asked if he could be included in this post even though it has nothing to do with him. I didn't argue. He likes to head butt at 2 a.m. That's why I didn't argue.
This is just a very brief sampling of what you can find in Wood's book. This is really a must for your writing craft shelf, and as I have a HUGE shelf of books on the writing craft, I don't say this flippantly. It really is that good!

21 comments:

  1. Thank so much for this summary! I completely agree with the descriptions of characters and places. Little secret: when I'm reading, I don't usually read long descriptive paragraphs. Oops!

    So...since I don't like reading them, I don't write them :)

    I hope your recovery is coming along well!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're not alone in that, Kelley. I think a lot of people skip those long, descriptive paragraphs. I do, too!

      Delete
  2. Great post Melissa, the book sounds really good.
    I like your cat, he looks very pleased to be included in your post. Our cat doesn't head butt; he nibbles on our shins when he thinks he should be feed!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. JT - It is a terrific writing resource. I love it when I find those gems!

      This cat is seriously a dog trapped in a cat's body - he likes to fetch, play in water, and dump the trash in search of food!

      Delete
  3. That sounds like a great book and now I'm going to have to get it. Just the idea of it cutting out the BS sounds AWESOME! But I loved the advice on sprinkling descriptions of characters throughout the story and not all at once. =D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you do get it, you'll have to let me know what you think!

      Delete
  4. This book sounds very useful, thanks.

    Slick is a very handsome cat who obviously enjoys posing for photos.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this cat is a dog trapped in a cat's body. He likes to play in water, dump the trash, and play fetch!

      Delete
  5. Great reminders you presented.

    I love your cat. He looks majestic. Probably why he likes to head-butt at 2 a.m. :)))

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have never know such a unique cat. He has livened up our household since the day we brought him home.

      Delete
  6. That sounds awesome. I admit, when I read the first paragraph, I thought, "Oh no. Here's a book that going to tell you to describe everything!" But this is right on the mark! Less is more.

    One thing I've learned at school is that you should show setting through the characters' eyes. Like the dialogue example you gave, but even in narrative, you shouldn't write setting just to tell objectively what it looks like. It should always be about how the character feels about it, what they would notice, how it reflects them.

    Now I need to get this book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly, Heidi. She devotes an entire section to point-of-view and how description should be filtered through whatever POV you're using.

      Delete
    2. Sounds like a great resource. These description tips are spot-on. The key is precision; every detail should matter in some way.

      Have you ever read Mark Twain's "The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper"? He mostly takes Cooper to task for blunders in description--and besides, it's one of the most hilarious essays I've ever read in my life.

      http://www.llumina.com/mark_twain_on_cooper.htm

      Delete
    3. No, I've never read this. But I LOVE Mark Twain. Off to read it now!

      Delete
    4. Oh, this was hilarious, Christine! I especially loved this line: "... simpers along with an airy, complacent, monkey-with-a-parasol gait which is not suited to the transportation of raw meat." Ha! LOL

      Delete
  7. Melissa-Slick is just too funny. THAT FACE!

    If he has his way, along with "happy hydrangeas" and "grateful daisies," I'm guessing things like "cheerful birdies" are history now too;)

    Too funny:)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd say get rid of the cheerful birdies unless you're writing about Snow White! LOL

      Oh, Slick's face is all a mask, I tell you! He is ornery, ornery, ornery!

      Delete
  8. My favorite (besides Slick) is #3, Avoid the Pathetic Fallacy. I've always loved that phrase but never been certain what it means. Now I know. Thanks, and thanks for the rundown of the rest of the tips, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome! I love great craft books. They just open my eyes to all the wonderful possibilities of how to improve my writing. :-)

      Delete
  9. I've always had problems with description. This sounds like a book I need to pick up.

    I definitely like the advice of not describing everything at once, it makes for a harder read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've had difficulties with it, too, which is why I am so glad I got it. It helped me SO much.

      Delete

I love to hear from you!