Monday, June 10, 2019

The Many Layers of Description

As writers, we are always told to work on description. At first, the lesson is to describe everything. After that, we learn to describe things beyond the visual - the emotional value. The next lesson is then learning how to break these rules, and only describe the things important to the story. A number of posts on this blog have focused on the details and technical parts about description because it's just that important. Well, here's one more.

An artist once told me that anyone can draw a picture. It becomes a painting when it becomes more than just the sum of the components. When different items create a mood, when they trigger thoughts and feelings, when they make the viewer think beyond the items presented, then it's a painting. I am including this painting, The Bet, to show how description is more than just image.

This painting gives us simple images: five people, a dog, and some type of gaming on the pool table. However, the gestures, the positioning, even the wardrobe of the characters suggests a story taking place. When we look at this, particularly after finding out it is called The Bet, our mind starts exploring the elements. Are these people settling a wager? Is this some very elaborate game of chance? Does the winner get the dog, or is the dog just another part of this parlor trick? Something is happening here, and the viewer seeks an explanation. The images: people, a dog, games of chance. The meaning: so many possibilities.

When we offer description in our narrative, we can present a series of facts and that satisfies the reader's need to know what is being offered. However, that is called survival writing - writing something to satisfy a need, but missing what the reader really wants - they want to be drawn in to that moment. Consider the following sentence:
"He wore beaten sneakers, fading jeans, a black t-shirt, and a charcoal FitBit."
If the writer seeks to meet the minimum requirement to describe the person's wardrobe, then mission accomplished. However, more description doesn't need to be describing exactly how faded the jeans are, or what makes the sneakers look beaten. More description means bringing in elements that make those details interact; that make them tell a story. How about...
"His worn-out appearance went from head to toe. Shoes beaten into submission, jeans no longer a resilient blue, a t-shirt just tired black cloth. Even his hi-tech FitBit was charcoal, punctuating a fashion sense that was as exciting as a long yawn."
...or...
"Everything he wore looked like a deliberate choice, a clever strategy to draw the eye. The beaten sneakers looked just the right amount of beaten, the jeans with the perfect amount of fade - not too dark, not too worn. The simple black t-shirt is a statement people want to repeat, the matching FitBit telling people a story they wanted to be a part of."
Same person. Same attire. Different appeal to the reader, because the images now contribute to mood and concept. We see the person in the basic description, but we get a feel for the people in the last two descriptions.

Before jumping into description, ask yourself what this can explain or offer the reader. If there's nothing more that the description can offer other than an image, consider whether it's even necessary.

2 comments:

  1. Is your father the one who told you "anyone can draw a picture. It becomes a painting when it becomes more than just the sum of the components"?

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    Replies
    1. Indeed. He said it in many different ways, but that was the message I ended up with.

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