Monday, January 6, 2014

Description in Popular Fiction

Writers and readers of description can be cruel. 
Beginning writers, especially in genre fiction, often use a well-known technique in their first-draft manuscripts when they reach a necessary description.  They type “Add description here” and immediately move on to quicker page-filling action or dialogue.  The description, seen as too difficult or boring, is left for later.
And the readers of genre fiction might avoid description even more.  Some readers have admitted—if in low and embarrassed tones—that they often “skip those passages” in order to hurry on to more immediate excitements.  Then, worse, they never come back and read them anyway. 
Such realities raise questions, serious or not, of ever-narrowing attention span, of more quickly-gratifying media affecting reader and writer expectations (some fiction teachers lament that their students “write like they’re watching a movie” and thus, for example, have no understanding of point of view), of ever-accelerating narrative pace, or—if the commentator is in a bad mood—of personal laziness, lack of confidence, or just outright fear (“description is so hard to write”). 
These are more-or-less historical issues of taste.  We must accept that all reader/writer preferences change as the times evolve, as media, expectations, and the entertainment environment develop their own forms of momentum.  But, nonetheless, based on just the few comments above, there’s room for some discussion about the writing and reading of description.
I teach workshops on the writing of description and hope to complete a full book on the subject, focusing strictly on genre fiction, with a special treatment on science fiction.  The tools I discuss can be applied to all forms of fiction-writing, but I stress popular fiction because most “how-to” writing texts focus more on literary writing and I’d like this approach to take a different slant.  Also, and more important, the question of reader expectation is so crucial in genre narratives that the writer needs to balance fulfilling genre expectations with being new at the same time. “Giving more of the same but in a different way” is a genre clich√© that is nonetheless accurate.  Also, the brewing cross-pollination occurring among popular genres (where hybrids such as paranormal romance, urban fantasy, slipstream and “interstitial” fiction have produced new sets of reader preferences) makes an exciting arena of texts and writing styles.  Finally, how we manage the tools of fiction (plot, character, theme, etc.) is influenced and often determined by the genres we write in, or the genres we write against or “around.” 
So, though the methods I offer are useful to all writers, in both genre and mainstream fiction, I especially address those writers struggling to fill up empty sections where “add description here” was typed or scrawled—to the point where that statement might not have to be used at all.  The methods cover ways for writers to generate description more easily and quickly, and they show how readers can get more from it than what they expect, not just information but a whole realm of sensory, emotional, and intellectual participation in alternate fictional worlds.  
Authors on craft usually approach the subject of description through a focus on selecting just the right details, on the balance between “telling” and “showing” (or narration and scene), on an emphasis to use more of the five senses, and on a reminder to simply be more observant.  These are important suggestions and all writers should pay attention to them.  But what I hope to offer is a different addition to the subject, a break-down or “taxonomy” of description methods that provides a variety of skirmishes and tools, and even a fundamental framework for any descriptive passage.  Specifically, four types of description are explored—scientific, sensory, emotional, and poetic—which thus provide more ways than one in writing better examples of it.
The workshop, soon to be given at the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University, thus aims to help writers, caught up in churning out plot and dialogue, to write more confidently the descriptions that make a special appeal to the readers and open a door to them.  Description is a type of intense focus within the standard flow of a narrative.  Its detail and concentration, its inviting and almost coercive effort to get the reader “into” the story, its need to make the topics real (or at least “realistic”), all make for a required peak of writing skill and clarity.  The reader is not just given information in a description but is transformed by it.  The best descriptions refer to more than just the object described; they inform readers not only of place but of mood, attitude, point of view, character, theme.  It thus makes the readers sense, feel, understand, and “emote” in relation to those subjects—the passage gets more than its money’s worth.         
Though description can bring problems of its own, like readers who feel it’s only window-dressing or backdrop and thus easily skipped, something crucially necessary in fiction is provided by it.  Ellen Meloy, in The Anthropology of Turquoise, lamented historical narratives, like family histories or genealogies, because of the feelings they leave out.  She says in reading them you get people’s names and activities but none of “the spaces that bound them . . . the way they carried choices and grasped time.”  And she implies that life can be brought to non-fiction through the descriptive techniques of fiction.  “So many accounts of long ago give a narrow way of seeing, a matter-of-factness . . . that verges on abstraction.  Landscape is missing, what could be seen.  How the green land and white lanes sloped to the blue-green sea” (195).   Description takes abstraction and adds precision, a focused realistic detail that provides information, sensation, emotion, and a creative poetic interaction between the reader and the text.  And we get all this just through an exact choice of words. 
Description allows readers to participate in the work of fiction, to build the worlds of the stories themselves.

In the end, it makes reading as creative, and thus as rewarding, as writing. 


Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise:  Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky.  New York:  Vintage, 2002. 

2 comments:

  1. Good description should reveal as much about our characters as it does the surroundings. When it does that, it's never boring, and you'll never want to skim those paragraphs.

    I get in trouble for saying this, but I believe writers can learn a TON about description from film makers. In workshops I like to use cinematic techniques to show effective ways of using description (establishing shots, medium shots, closeups), examining what the different perspectives reveal, and pointing out how we can move beyond simple 'scene-setting' to ways of using description to drive the narrative as effectively as action.

    And I firmly believe description should never be used as window dressing! Gah! Never.

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  2. Fine thoughts, Cary. The best descriptions serve more than one function: they certainly can express character (as in someone's point of view of a setting) and they can help in the plot by establishing mood, suspense, foreshadowing, "secrets." And I like your idea of using cinematic techniques in writing effective descriptions--those different types of shots you mentioned designate points of view, "what the different perspectives reveal." It's a useful approach.

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