Michelle (msagara) wrote,


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.
Tags: writing craft
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