Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Striking a balance with your descriptions

A good book should engross you, fold you up in its arms and then transport you through its pages on a journey that you will never want to end. If this book were thus compared to a long coach journey, the vehicle’s seats would be comfortable, the road smooth, the scenery dramatic and the driver highly competent. OK, there would be little 'rest stops' along the way but they'd not likely be the memorable part of the ride.

Likewise, when you write a book, you will need to incorporate 'interruptions' (for want of a better word) to the story when the narrator describes a particular object or action. In general terms, that descriptive element should be sufficiently long as to satisfy its purpose but no longer. Having an hour rest stop while you 'freshen up' and get a hot meal is about right - you'd not want it to be 3 or 4 hours, though, because that'd be much too long. Likewise, 10 minutes would be ridiculously short. See what I mean? There’s a balance to be struck.

The thing I'd really like to concentrate on the remaining part of this blog centres around the best way to tackle detailed descriptions and how not to make them intrusive. To my mind, and ignoring the self-indulgent author's "I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway because I just don't care what the reader thinks" with his or her page after page of largely irrelevant nit-picky details, there are three ways of tackling it.

Add some relish

From my experience, this is a somewhat archaic style much favoured in the nineteenth century. Here is one of my favourite authors, the great M R James, who penned a series of ghost stories which were famously drawn from by the BBC as their Ghost Story for Christmas production for a number of years. Here's an excerpt from 'Rats'. You can see by the way he writes that he clearly takes a great delight in his choice of words. This carries the whole thing through.

One of his walks took him along the northern road, which stands high and traverses a wide common, called a heath. On the bright afternoon when he first chose this direction his eye caught a white object some hundreds of yards to the left of the road, and he felt it necessary to make sure what this might be. It was not long before he was standing by it, and found himself looking at a square block of white stone fashioned somewhat like the base of a pillar, with a square hole in the upper surface. Just such another you may see this day on Thetford Heath. After taking stock of it he contemplated for a few minutes the view, which offered a church tower or two, some red roofs of cottages and windows winking in the sun, and the expanse of sea - also with an occasional wink and gleam upon it - and so pursued his way.

Show and tell

This is my own preferred way of dealing with a detailed description. I do it in two parts - the first, a brief outline of the object providing sufficient information for the reader to form a basic picture of the object (ideally 1 paragraph) and then, using dialogue, I get my characters to explore it. This breaks up the narrator's monologue and (hopefully) means my reader feels that they're playing an active role in the scene.

Thus, if I was writing the above piece, I might use the narrator to describe the distant view and then dialogue (even with the character talking to himself) for the second part.

Do it in instalments

In some cases, it might be possible to break up the description into two or more parts which can be kept separate to avoid clogging up the action. Again, using the above example, Part 1 might be the distant view of the object, Part 2 might be subsequently lying in bed, remembering what happened and Part 3 might be asking questions about it the next day.

Ultimately it doesn't matter how you tackle lengthy descriptions as long as you give enough but not too much detail to the reader. You're writing fiction, after all. Too much detail detracts and also makes you appear pretentious or self-indulgent.

Finally, if I'm to return to that coach analogy, I should end with something like, "That's the ticket!", shouldn't I?

About the author

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