Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Devil's in the Details: Finding the Descriptive Sweet Spot in Prose

After an April dedicated to poetry, I’ve moved to business writing and working on a novel as my two primary areas of linguistic focus.  The latter has me thinking more about how to make descriptions work without stopping the movement of the story.  One of the greatest challenges for many fiction writers is determining what level of detail to include.  Some writers over-describe, burden every sentence with unnecessary modifiers and every paragraph with distracting descriptions.  Others take the opposite extreme, pushing through a sparse plot without letting the reader visualize anything.

Unfortunately, no magic formula exists.  We may see easily when another writer has missed the detail sweet spot, but flail desperately when looking for it in our own writing.  And the target moves: some stories or books require more details than others, and more insidiously, some moments in a story or book require more detail than others.

With this in mind, this post will focus on an approach to resolving this dilemma.  Rather than embark on a quixotic quest to create a how-to that fits every situation, I will explore the function of descriptive details and how to apply that to writing in a given scene or scenario.

Whose Scene Is It?

Some characters require more details than others.  A person the protagonist passes on the street may get less visual description than the protagonist or primary antagonist.  Moreover, if the point of view in the story is limited, it might actually disrupt that point of view to linger on a description more than an encounter justifies. 

Think of story problems in math classes.  Teachers and test makers love to toss in extraneous facts to see whether the student can decide which details matter.  Prose writers face the same issue, but with the power to write out what doesn’t matter.

Focused Prose

Writing in a focused way does not mean focusing on everything.  Rather, it means focusing on what matters to the broader story.  This includes both the movement of the plot and development of characters.  Is the protagonist vain?  Then a description of what s/he sees in the mirror makes sense.  Is this a first-person narrative from the point of view of someone who hates his or her job?  Then the oppressive atmosphere or dull drudgery of the workplace matters.  In every description, think about what it contributes, either to a character or to the plot.  If it contributes to neither, either change it or cut it.

Scenery creates particular issues in this regard.  Before devoting a paragraph to a tree, a writer should have a good reason.  Identifying where action occurs might be one, if the location matters.  Describing snow swirling across asphalt can be nice, but the cold or treacherous conditions should tie into the story rather than merely abutting it.  Determine who is doing what and why, and write exposition that reflects or accentuates this.

Use Your Verbs

Sometimes a better word choice can eliminate the need for description.  Is a person walking, ambling, shuffling, or trudging?  Each of these words conveys a different image, a different attitude, much more efficiently than writing adverbs around “walking.”  Active, specific verbs create visual impact by showing movement.  In contrast, nouns and adjectives around passive verbs tend to sit still, and in doing so deprive readers of that impact. 

Consider what more often distracts you: a color that sits to your left, or a sudden movement in the same area.  The color may be beautiful, bright, and lush, but the movement pulls you to it.

Giving Your Writing Curves
None of this should discourage anyone from pursuing beauty in writing. Rather, pick your spots.  Music that is a wall of sound at one consistent volume is not music, but noise.  Similarly, writing that carries no ebb and flow does not carry a reader’s attention as well as writing that does.  Move through the work, giving details that matter without stopping the action on every page for those that do not, and you will hold your reader’s attention—or at least give yourself a better opportunity to do so.