Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Devil’s in the detail

Detail is an important part of writing. It allows your reader to really put themselves in the scene, to see the action unfolding vividly within their own heads. Decent description can make the difference between a good book or story and a bad one – but like everything in creative writing, it is a craft which will take a lot of time and hard work to perfect.

It's the little detail that's so easy to miss
Each different story and each different author will determine how much detail is actually needed. All writers have different styles. In my final year studying creative writing at university, I was part of a feedback group in which we would meet once a week and swap our latest work for constructive criticism. A girl in my group wrote in a very visual, colourful style, with a lot of concrete details, whereas I favoured dialogue and emotion in my own piece, and found those descriptions to take priority. Consequently, I thought she over-described the visual details, and she thought I under-described – but nobody else in the group picked up on either of these points! Different writers will spot and be aware of different things in one another’s writing, so you need to be aware of subjective opinions. Write in the style and genre – and however much concrete or visual description that might call for – that works for you. Don’t force it, or try to imitate someone else’s style.

There is, however, such thing as truly over or under-doing it. For example, if you were to write seven pages of description to set the scene, if nothing happens during that timeframe this is not going to be a very engaging experience for the reader, no matter how well written it may be. At the same time, you could have a whole dramatic scene take place, with natural, perfect dialogue, suspense aplenty and an ending that could potentially drop your reader’s jaw; but this won’t be nearly as effective if you don’t tell them where the scene is taking place, what is going on around them, what kind of facial expressions they are pulling, etc. Think about what people do when they are in a certain mood – what is their body language like? What is the tone of their voice? Their facial expressions? Don’t just tell your reader that your character is upset – show them, by using these small details. But remember, sometimes dialogue and events alone can speak for themselves; don’t pad out your writing with irrelevant or needless descriptions of someone’s actions or the colour of the carpet they’re standing on purely for the sake of having enough description in there. Your reader will notice what you’re doing and it will seem contrived. It’s always about striking the right balance.

Of course, the urge to use clichés at certain moments is something that plagues every writer. After all, a cliché is only a cliché because it’s used so often, and it’s only used so often because it’s usually so true! But cluttering up your descriptions with clichés – i.e., ‘her smile shone like the sun’ – makes for a bland, unexciting and mediocre read. But again, don’t go too far the other way. Don’t overwrite, or be pompous. Avoid those obscure synonyms in the thesaurus, no matter how beautiful they may look or sound; not only can they throw a reader, but it can be very obvious what you’ve done. Make sure your description is clear and concise.

Lastly – practise. Being able to write good description takes time, and often, a lot of re-writes. Don’t expect it to come naturally right away, if ever; and if you don’t get it right first time, you can go back and sculpt and mould until your description puts the image you want in your reader’s head. The first draft will never be perfect. The editing stage is where you get the chance to polish those descriptions until they shine.

About the author

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