I was reading a new post by David Ben-Ami on his Fiction All Day blog, and then took a look at a couple of older articles. If you’re a writer, you may want to take a peek – for the most part I would agree with the points he makes in the articles I’ve read so far.
This particular post was regarding descriptions and using comparisons effectively. In general, I considered him right in what he said. As a fan fiction writer (versus writing in other arenas), things work a little differently, at least for me. I’ve never been someone who is long on description. If two people are in a scene with a sunset occurring, I’ll only describe the sunset to you if it is somehow pertinent to the scene or story that I’m telling. Similarly, if I want your focus on their conversation, I consider it a distraction to give you two paragraphs describing the sunset in minute detail. Pretty much everyone has seen sunsets. If it isn’t important to the story, then I’m fine with you imagining any sunset you like.
That said, it is important to note that an economy of words makes it more necessary that you choose the right words to convey an idea in a very brief way. It can be a tricky line to tread. As David notes, slice away the unnecessary, but make sure you’ve said enough to create the image or idea that you want.
One of the problems I see often in fan fiction are girls who watch a movie, tv show or read a book and fall in love with it, so they try their hand at writing. But they aren’t so much interested in the storytelling aspect as they are in creating their fairytale wherein they are the girl and they get to dress in fabulous clothes that are described down to the tiniest thread over the course of twelve paragraphs. They might just as well go write a clothing blog of some sort, because there’s little room for a story by the time they finish these detailed descriptions.
I’m also not much for physically describing people, again unless I deem it important for some reason. I may mention hair color or height if I want to make sure you aren’t seeing a short blond person when I fully intend them to be tall with dark hair. But if it doesn’t really matter to the story, I’ll let you see anything you like – including yourself.
All this is not to say that description is overrated. When done well, it is very effective. As David points out in his blog, paint me a picture, but don’t keep touching it up endlessly or I’ll yawn and walk away. Pare away the superfluous. Use descriptors that are significant, and if you can bring in a comparison that ties it all together, it will make me remember that scene long after it’s ended.
I’ve mentioned Rick Riordan’s books. In his Egyptian gods series, one of the two main lead characters is Carter Kane. He specifically mentions that Carter is a young black man. In and of itself, that isn’t important except that it has bearing on certain things that happen during the stories, so it is worth bringing to the reader’s attention.
On the other hand, in the Percy Jackson series of books (two separate series that are connected), there are two black characters (of note). One, Charles Beckendorf, is briefly mentioned as being black and beyond that it rarely comes up again. It doesn’t matter to anything that happens. The other, Hazel Levesque, gets a little more focus on her color because it is important for brief moments in the stories. While it’s true that Hazel is more of a “lead” character than “Charles” is, in general it simply wasn’t important to harp on that detail of them. It was merely one part of their whole and often the other parts were of far more interest and pertinence than simply the color of their skin, hair or eyes.
So, my personal feeling is, if you’re going to describe it, let there be a purpose for doing so. Is describing what someone looks like or what they are wearing more important than describing what they are thinking, feeling or doing at any given moment? Usually not, and they may even get in the way of the story, disrupting the flow. I don’t much care what clothes the hero is wearing in that dark alley. I’m more interested in why they are there and what they intend to do. Only if the clothing matters in some way will I ever even wonder about it. Does he get discovered because he foolishly wore something bright white or reflective while on a covert mission? Then I care about what he’s wearing, and why, and what happens because of it.
What about you? How do you feel about descriptions, and could yours use some work?