Is that a Louis Vuitton or a Sak? And Why Do I Care?

Posted: 08/14/2010 in Uncategorized Musings

Ah, details. Description. Setting. An aspect of writing that requires about as much balance as a tight-rope walker in an earthquake. Do we describe every last detail, down to the brand of lipstick a character is wearing or the length and shade of fresh-cut grass? Or do we simply say “she was very well made up” or “the grass was short from its recent trimming”? And then there’s the type of description. Should it be: “The gun sparkled in the hot, mid-morning sun.” or “The burning light from the afternoon sun glared harshly off the pistol.”? This topic is my Achilles Heel in writing; but I will cover it (and figure it out) along with you from what I have learned so far.

First, the amount of description. This is where the tightrope walk comes in. If you use too much description, you’ll bore your reader to tears and he will forget what it was that supposed to be happening in your story. On the other hand, if you use too little, your reader will be confused and wonder what the heck is going on, where he’s supposed to be and how he’s supposed to differentiate various characters and places. Granted, some writers can get away with lots of elegant and flowing description and detail (as is the case with many classics) but it requires a tremendous amount of skill and discipline. Often these writers manage to infuse action or even plot development into the description, so it doesn’t just sound like you’re rambling on about all the beautiful colors in the rainbow. It’s a delicate balance that is tough to achieve, and even then the result can be completely subjective. A rule I like to follow is to only describe things/people that are important to the story or character. Everything else can either get a passing mention or merely assumed and blend seamlessly into the overarching description you’ve already set. Everyone has an imagination and when they read, they should be given a chance to flex that imagination a little. (Otherwise they’d be watching a movie instead:)

Now onto the next aspect: type of description. This part is a little trickier (if that’s possible) and ties into the characterization aspect a bit. Each character or point-of-view, should have their own unique take on things. They should see the world through different eyes, thus describing it differently and within their personality. A slick New Yorker shouldn’t describe a shiny name plaque “as shiny as a spankin’ new milk pail” and a country bumpkin shouldn’t think something like “the hog’s skin was like a fresh Louis Vuitton handbag”. The description needs to be in line with what the character is like. Then there’s also the matter of the descriptive vocabulary fitting the character age. A three year old won’t use words like: subtle, or fragrant just like a polished thirty-something business woman wouldn’t be caught dead thinking words like: stinky, gross, or smushy. Oh, of course all of this may be rendered moot if your story uses a more omniscient point-of-view, a subject I may tackle in a later post. But for now, these are some good guidelines I’ve found.

So for now, break out those thesauruses and start finding some neat words, but be sure you use them wisely.

  1. msloftis says:

    What to describe is a hard one for me…….am I telling too much? Am I not telling enough?

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