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.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Day 30!: After the End


After the End

The climax arrived last week,
days or years after the prologue.
The earth has stopped shaking;

smoke plumes left the shells of buildings;
the dust that hovered for days
has settled on the ground.

This morning the hero looks out
from a porch three hundred miles away,
on a sunrise orange and red—

just like the one that announced
yesterday’s arrival, bright promise
of an ordinary suburban day.

He lingers, putters, walks inside
past a dormant phone to sit,
flips the television on,

passes the latest petty squabbles
and lands on Three's Company,
with Jack again in quite the pickle.

He sighs, a Mona Lisa smile on his lips
for a character who never wonders
what he might do today.
This is the final poem in the National Poetry Month challenge, so endings were on my mind.  The idea of what comes next has always affected me; I live in a world where projects move quickly and intensely, then end, and we move constantly between first and fourth gears, with little in between.  Gearing up can be hard, but it means moving into a stream of activity that resembles a plot: we know what needs to be done, and experience and instruction work together so we know how to do it. 
Stopping, though, means leaving the comfort of predetermined work and into the unknown, from the constant push through to needing to create the motion again.  I suspect this is true of any major ending; the transition is much more difficult than the action.
This poem explores the idea from the perspective of a hero after the ending action, trying to adjust to life in the denouement, in an almost cruel juxtaposition of sameness and change.  It uses a verb tense shift to contrast what was from what is, the remains of catastrophic change from a staid present.  Three's Company works as a layered choice showing both change and sameness; the formula stayed mostly the same even as the cast rotated, but exists now only in syndication with John Ritter having passed.

Day 29.5: The Theory of the New Parent


The Theory of the New Parent

The diligent father-to-be studies,
Dr. Spock and What to Expect
stacked on the nightstand
pages folded, spine cracked.
He finds spare work time
to sneak to parenting sites,
browse expert advice
splashed in pink and blue.

He nods at younger,
vomit-streaked parents,
stifles a smirk at their
premature creases,

offers academic advice
and ignores politely
the baggy-eyed glares
they shoot in response,

wears an easy smile,
ready for anything—
until the sun’s rays shine on the
precious dewdrop from heaven

as he destroys fifteen diapers
and eighteen burp rags
in ten hours of
infant annihilation;

starts crawling ahead of time,
tests like a Jurassic Park raptor
to find the weakness in the
childproofing system;

sleeps sweetly for fifteen
minutes every night,
timing the next scream
with a parental eyelid drop;

and crawls diapered to the door,
reaches for a ladybug,
holds it in a chubby little hand
and devours it,

crunches happily while the last
parents-to-be look on,
suggest a ladybug-free diet,
and try not to smirk.
This penultimate offering in my National Poetry Month challenge is a self-deprecating look back at the early days of parenthood: the careful studying that preceded the births of my boys and the retrospective absurdity of my confidence in my knowledge.  I combined experiences from the babyhoods of each; artistic license is my friend.
The poem structure of four-line stanzas reflects the classical, rigorous approach to studying for parenthood, while the varying line-lengths, beginning with the birth itself are meant to reflect the splitting at the seams of expectations.

Day 28-ish: Anticipation



It starts with a whisper,
a tiny notion that rises

and floats on the air,
bounces and swirls,

finds connections and builds.
A million invisible thoughts

collect, pull together,
take shape and puff out,

deepen and darken
from the edges in,

loom over the thick air
while heat and pressure

surge below, and a
world-sliver churns,

thickens till inevitable
burst washes over.


This leaves two poems remaining, to complete today, and perhaps that lends toward the thrust of this poem, the concept of anticipation building inexorably toward something.  The metaphor starts with a droplet of water vapor, builds, and drives through to the rainstorm that has to come in the end.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Day 27-ish: The Solo


The Solo

The expressway exists as chaos;
cars and trucks streak past,
forward and backward,
weave along the asphalt loom
red and blue and black,
bright and dingy.
Smooth hums and angry roars
carve into every radio choice,
a cacophonous cast of upstagers.
But just now, a clearing emerges,
my car settles between
masses ahead and behind,
a solo dance in the middle
of the show-stopper.
I look around, and initial jitters
settle into the brief quiet,
a moment of contemplative
equilibrium with the driving world
before the rest of the cast
rushes in again from all directions.


This poem captures a rare moment on a busy highway, that time when the car is suddenly alone, if only for a few seconds.  It always feels oddly unsettling before it becomes peaceful, something I equate to performing a solo in the middle of a big group performance.

The metaphor I build here works to encapsulate that moment, and set it apart from the frenzy both before and after.  I try to let it linger a moment, like a drop of water holding to a leaf before it falls, while at the same time letting its evanescent quality show with the mass of movement before and after.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Day 26-ish: The Astonishing Wonder of the Forty-Year-Old Mind


The Astonishing Wonder of the Forty-Year-Old Mind

At fifteen the male mind sharpens,
focuses on every word
to find tangential sex jokes.

After this we broaden
(though sex jokes linger,
couched in our brain center

like the flower’s stigma,
surrounded by pretty petals
but lingering at the core),

until at forty the brain
is no longer the flower
but the bees.

It darts in every direction
to pollinate the meadow,
at once recalling nectar in  

high school locker combinations
and the first warm squish of lips
on my lips twenty-five years ago,

the meaning of res ipsa loquitur
and the lurch of a world that stopped
spinning the days my sons emerged.

And yet, amid the swarming,
it skips the occasional daisy,
found again when I stumble upon

a novel, three days lost,
nestled gently atop the string cheese
at the bottom of the refrigerator

while the front edge of my hair
climbs back on its expedition
to locate my misplaced glasses.
I often marvel at the mind's ability to recall arcane facts and nuances of life experience, while failing to hold on to something like why I've left one room to enter another.  Aging can be a beautiful, maddening experience.
This poem takes on this constant contradiction, playing between the flowers and the bees in a meadow, touching on detailed memories and everyday slips of mind.  The movement of the poem, through youth to age, intentionally incorporates attaining and slipping of memories not as separate effects, but as two aspects of the same process.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Day 25-ish: Seeing Clearly


Seeing Clearly

Late night in someone else’s city
I slink into the hotel bar,
a fifteen-hour work day behind me,
smiles that know me too well ahead.
Men and women sing here and I know them,
know what they will sing
and why.
I know Joe makes a great martini
and Dane is a living rainbow,
that Chrissie smiles a little less
when her boyfriend drinks here
and the woman with the senator
meets a different senator every week.
I know the room,
gritty and pristine at once,
lets the Steinway gleam classical
and still feel ragtime
through showtunes and blues.
I know to leave my glasses behind,
to let this tiny universe wash over me
in points of light that
spread out like a kaleidoscope
before Joe serves tonight’s
first drink.


This poem represents a scene, repeated may times while I was working out of town.  This came as part of the experience that did the most to lead me to my current career path, and in the process showed me a world very different from what I knew up to that point.

The poem is built on repetition, reinforcing a cyclical feeling within the moment, while simultaneously paced to feel like it is moving constantly forward, blending people and music and visuals as different swirling aspects of the nights there.