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Because I'm working on a review column, I've been thinking about description. In particular, I've been thinking about why, in one book, four pages of description can hold my attention, and in another, one paragraph causes my eyes to glaze over as I skip it looking for dialogue.

Since I can't competently review a book while doing this, it's an issue.

The word for word writing between books with description that holds me and books that cause me to bounce is fine. It's not that the actual word choices are bad; I'm not cringing (and I should hope not) at sentence level construction. But.

Unless you're writing in omniscient viewpoint -- which I think every author does, a little, even when they otherwise use a tight third person -- the description that speaks to me has to be relevant to the viewpoint character. It tells me something about the person who's actually noticing or describing a scene. Why? Because in real life what we notice says a lot about who we are.

I don't, for instance, notice things like eye colour. I can talk to a person intensely for four hours and if you ask me, at the end of this, what colour their eyes were…I blank. I can recall all facial expressions; I can instantly bring up tone of voice and texture of voice; I can recall physical gestures -- but eye colour, no.

My sister can remember geography. If she went somewhere once when she was three, she can remember how to get back there. Me? I can't remember the shape of the streets four blocks away from my house. So, if my sister were the viewpoint character, she'd notice the streets, the shops, the streetlights, the roads. She's visual; we can be in a crowd of people--it can be packed--and she'll suddenly say to me, "Look at that woman's shoes!" And of course I have no idea which shoes unless they're lime green or hot pink.

I'd notice many other things first. Still, there are ways to describe what's happening that are wed to the differing viewpoints, and it's when description is wed to viewpoint that I find the description compelling -- it tells me something about the person who's observing.

Let me give a different example.

Three people walk into a bar. There's therefore a choice of three viewpoints in which to write the scene.

Person one walks in and notices the very attractive woman with the large breasts and the micro skirt. He notices the music, the lighting, and, again, the woman.

Person two notices the large stain on the wall beneath the cracked glass over framed sheet music from some 50's musical. He notices that the chairs are notched and scored and the tables have equally scored surfaces; that the room is full of smoke.

Person three notices that the bar is loud and crowded; that there's probably twenty people more than fire safety code allows for; that there's fifteen people standing between them and the back door into the office, two of whom don't seem to be drinking much and seem to be watching everything.

But they are all in the same bar. They notice different things in that bar; they describe different things in their particular order of relevance.

When description in writing holds my attention, it's because it serves the function of both blocking a scene and telling me about the character who's observing it.

However, if the description seems to be entirely unrelated to what's been said about the character or the situation thus far--if it loses tone, loses voice--it actually throws me out of the book, or it causes me to skim, to look for the things that do speak to character.

I think this is a particular reader-tick of mine, but I'm curious if others have noticed this in their own reading.

ETA: If you don't have this reading tick, is there anything that does throw you out of description in a book?

ETA2: This actually isn't a post about writing, but rather a musing post about how I read or interact with text. As such, it's not meant to be a judgement on how other people read, and not really a directive on how to write, unless you think I'm in the middle of your intended audience.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 28th, 2010 11:35 am (UTC)
Yes, I've noticed how description can expand our knowledge of the characters. Not only what is described, but the word choices involved.

What does everyone remember about Holden Caulfield? That he describes people as 'phony'. What permeates hard boiled detective novels? The descriptions emphasizing the toughness and grittiness of the protagonist.

If an author writes a novel with two distinct points of view, one from an upper class protagonist and another from the lower class, there is an immense amount of fertile ground to explore. Certainly there's the dialogue and action shaping each protagonist, but by placing a unique stamp on the how each one describes the same scene, the author explores the protagonists' psyche further.

That sort of writing can suck me in more completely than clever word choices. Opening a window into the characters' souls will keep my eyes from glazing over and skipping to the dialogue.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 28th, 2010 08:58 pm (UTC)
Yes--familiarity with the setting absolutely changes what a person will notice in that setting. But the writer can still get the blocking essentials across and make the familiarity clear, which speaks to character.

It's not so much about how to write description, but rather, how I respond to it -- it's a reader response, not a writing one, if that makes sense.
Sep. 28th, 2010 12:51 pm (UTC)
Nope--same--the description has to mean something to the characters, or I skim. If the narrator stops the story cold in order to neutrally describe everything, I tend to either close the book for later (unconsciously, because the tension has suddenly vanished), or skip altogether.

However when the characters are engaged with their setting, I['m in.
Sep. 28th, 2010 01:53 pm (UTC)
IMO--an infodump's and infodump's an infodump, no matter how prettily worded.
Sep. 28th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
YES! This is exactly it! You've snagged exactlty what turns me on and off to description. Thank you.
Sep. 28th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
Great post. I never really thought of it before.
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Sep. 28th, 2010 09:02 pm (UTC)
Stephenson's Anathem had pages of what other people considered infodump -- and I didn't. I thought that those infodumps, whether in conversation or not, told you what you needed to know about how each different character thought, attacked a problem, and evaluated it. Also? His description of buildings always struck me as in viewpoint, no matter how long they went on - the viewpoint, or at least the text, was so engaged with what was seen.

Sep. 28th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
I skim descriptions sometimes...I've never thought about why I do it. I think you've hit the nail on the head. Good timing too. I'm in revising and I can make sure my descriptions fit my characters (I think they do, but you never know until you REALLY look.) Thanks!
Sep. 28th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
I agree with your take on descriptions. However, I feel that the grey area to this statement lies in the author's description of the scenery when there might not be any characters around. Like, for example, at the beginning of the book. Unless the story is being told in the first person, past-tense, then I feel it becomes the responsibility of the author to take charge and set the mood for the readers in relation to the story in its entirety instead of in relation to a specific character.

Using your bar scene as a further example; if the main objective of that moment in the story was to focus on the social aspect of the environment with regards to what will eventually happen in the bar, it would be best to describe the conditions of the bar as well as the customers inside and why that particular bar was so crowded on that particular night.

While the characters and their viewpoints are always the tastiest part of the story, if the descriptions are too attached to the development of the character the reader can often become too absorbed with the character to the point of losing focus on the whole point of the story that the author is trying to make. This is a problem that I am finding in most of the popular books coming out. Therefore, I feel that it is important for authors to use descriptive scenes, when appropriate, to give impersonal viewpoints that will bring the readers back to the objective of the story.
Sep. 28th, 2010 09:07 pm (UTC)
I did make an exception for the omniscient view, which often sets tone. Tone has and is a voice, is a voice, and in some ways it's the way into the whole book, for me. And yes, there are books that do this, absent characters, and it does work.

It's when these are somehow inserted into what clearly has all the markers for an emotional scene that I find them problematic.

Using your bar scene as a further example; if the main objective of that moment in the story was to focus on the social aspect of the environment with regards to what will eventually happen in the bar, it would be best to describe the conditions of the bar as well as the customers inside and why that particular bar was so crowded on that particular night.

I think this can all be done in viewpoint, though. My illustration above could be more fleshed out, and I could make a stronger story example of each, detailing what the scene needs in order to work -- but that strays in some ways from description and becomes more holistic.

If it's social, for instance, the characters know this; they know why they're there. They're looking for and at certain things. If they're about to kill the person in the back room, the third viewpoint would be more apropos. And the same character will notice different things, depending on why he's come to a place, what he wants, or what occurs, because in real life, people do that.

So I feel that the author can do all of those things as relevant - but again, this is me and my reading preferences. I prefer it, because the impersonal drop-in information feels like stage direction -- it takes me out of the book.
Sep. 28th, 2010 06:35 pm (UTC)
Very well said! If any character can describe something the same way, it's not good description.

Another thing that is helpful for me, when keeping my attention through long passages of description, is conflict, intrinsic or implied, that keeps tension through the text. I happen to be in the middle of Naomi Novik's latest, and there are many stretches of description of the Australian Outback. You'd never mistake the description of one of the humans for the description of one of the dragons. And when they're describing the desert, there's the lingering sense of danger -- danger from starvation, thirst, or attack -- that keeps you focused on the description, so even something like how green the leaves are becomes interesting.
Sep. 28th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
Here by way of mtlawson

Interesting post. It definitely helps when a description tells us as much about the person whose eyes we're looking through as it does about what the/she's seeing.

Thanks for sharing :)
Sep. 29th, 2010 12:31 am (UTC)
I agree with you that if a scene is being filtered through a POV then the description should also be filtered. However, if it's something I don't find interesting or just flat-out don't have the capability to visualize (like detailed clothing descriptions in fantasy or historical fiction) then they lose me anyway.
Sep. 29th, 2010 01:13 am (UTC)
1) For me, the omniscient POV is the point of view of the implied narrator. (That's an established term. "Implied frame story" -- in which the implied narrator is a character -- is not.)

2) I'm not visually minded, but I can remember routes. I have a fairly good kinesthetic memory; I can remember the turnings (well, usually.)

3) I think one can separate out what this particular person would notice, and what this kind of person (in a particular profession, for example) would notice.

4) You might be interested in this:
Types of synesthesia
Sep 19, 2010 ... [Home Page] [Definition] [Types of synesthesia] [Tests for synesthesia] [The Synesthesia List] [Conferences] [Researchers & Theories] ...
Oct. 1st, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the three POV examples; they work great to show exactly what you mean here. I agree that any description should help create character or the situation, and I'd add that I've read some books in which setting (description) seems to be its own character, creating tension and mood, as if the landscape is creating the action.

I find myself doing the same thing--sometimes skimming whole scenes of descriptive setting and sometimes finding myself fully absorbed. Thanks for pointing out the "why"s of it!

(linked from jongibbs's site!)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )