Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Zero Brain Function or Details, Schmetails

By Sariah S. Wilson

So I’ve started my blog today about three times and had to scrap each one. The first because I had no idea where I was going with it and was just rambling. The second because it required far more thinking than I am currently able to supply. The third was from something I read on another blog regarding marriage in the LDS community that I wanted to discuss and realized that it was quickly devolving into an attack, so I’ve decided to steer clear of that for now.

I’ll make this short as I'm not currently operating on all cylinders, and as my bed upstairs is beckoning me to get some sleep while I still can.

I am a person who doesn’t much care for description. In books that have pages upon pages of description, I usually skip it. In fact, one of my favorite authors is Maeve Binchy, and she has entire scenes that are nothing but pure dialogue. Good stuff.

Unfortunately, there has to be some kind of setting in place, particularly when you’re dealing with historical fiction as I am. Readers want to get a feel for the time period you’re discussing. So I thought I might share a few things that I’ve learned in writing description for writers who might feel like I do about it.

1 - Be specific. In my first novel the opening paragraph has my heroine hanging upside down in a trap. When I talk about the tree she’s hanging from, it’s not just “a tree.” It’s a heartwood tree with rich red-brown bark. The more specific you are in writing, the more detailed picture you pass along to your reader.

2 - If you want to describe a room or an outdoor setting, pick three things to describe. If I wrote about a bedroom that the heroine had just entered and I told you it had pink and white striped wallpaper, a white wire framed bed with heart decorations and shaggy pink carpeting, that put a definite picture in your mind, didn’t it? Did I really need to tell you about the matching fluffy pink pillows on the bed, the white dresser with pink knobs, the pink and white valances on the windows, etc., or did you get the idea that this was a frouffy girly room from the first three things I told you? There are some authors who go into overkill and will describe every single thing in the room down to the Chantilly lace on the covers draped over the small bedside tables. That’s where five-page descriptions come in. Resist the urge. Readers actually like to use their imaginations, and don’t need every single thing laid out for them. Refrain from description overkill. I think the three-thing limit works well.

3 - Take into account your characters’ culture and setting when describing their thoughts. The example given to me was an author who had a heroine from southern Florida. Her thoughts buzzed like mosquitoes, a mess she found herself in was worse than a rain-laden swamp, a villain reminds her of a bad-tempered alligator (or crocodile or whatever it is they have down there that climbs into swimming pools. Speaking of which, and as a total aside, I stayed with a friend once in Florida who had a gorgeous lake behind her condo. She warned us not to go outside explaining that the alligator/crocodiles lived there. She knew this for a fact because one of her neighbors had been playing catch with his Labrador and accidentally threw the ball out into the water. The doggy dove down to get it and never came back up again. This is why I don’t live in Florida.) The point being, that when you’re in your character’s head, they think of things in terms of their lives. That’s why in my current book, the heroine thinks of how she feels trapped by someone’s words like a fly caught in honey (as honey was highly significant in her culture). Or when something bad happens to her, it’s like a thousand clay pots inside her breaking all at once. Again, cultural and it adequately conveys what she’s feeling. So keep in mind where your characters are coming from and what things in their native environment they would use to describe what they observe or how they feel.

If you’re an author, how do you describe a scene? When do you know enough is enough? And for readers, what do you think of narrative description? Do you usually feel like there’s too much or never quite enough?


At 7/02/2007 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can go either way with description. Sometimes if there isn't enough, I can't picture it in my head- especially battle scenes. However, I hate the inconsequential details that tells us everything, and takes 2,000 pages to tell what could have been told in 1,000 (Mr. Robert Jordan). I sometimes skip all the description as well and like to read the meat of the story. I do like to let my imagination fill in the blanks. Sometimes it’s nice to not explain the main character in too much detail, because I usually have a picture of what I want my heroine and hero to look like.


At 7/02/2007 8:48 PM, Blogger ali said...

I'm totally with you Sariah.

I love John Steinbeck's novels but there is just WAY too much description. The Grapes of Wrath was beautiful, but I literally skipped whole chunks of the book because I grew bored of the endless descriptions of the sunset over the grape arbors. I always felt a little like there was something wrong with me as a reader or something - so glad I'm not alone!

In my writing I tend to keep it short and sweet, choosing instead to keep the story going through action or dialogue.

But I struggle then, with having ENOUGH. Enough of whatever it is that fills the book up. My books tend to be a little slim. So I'm still working on trying to find my happy medium


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