Aiming for another short post as writing calls, but I was reading a post the other day about description, in fact it was something Hilary Mantel said and while I wouldn’t claim to be a great reader of historical fiction, there was something she said really rang true.
I frequently advise clients not to stop the story to admire the view, especially when your character narrator stumbling out of bed with a hangover rarely remembers his own name let alone admires the view. If he’s the viewpoint narrator he is unlikely to describe the sweeping majestic rain cloud formations that hang like greying beards over the horizon — is he? He’s more likely to trip over last night’s beer can and get cold pizza from an open take out box squashed between his toes — right?
What Hilary Mantel said when you have to pause action to show a place let’s say, consider the context. To use my paraphrasing I see it like someone who works in the same office day in day out, how much notice do you really take of your surroundings? Unless of course something changes — be it in the room (who put the giant rubber plant there?) or in the character (what am I doing working here when I hate it so much?). While description is part of scene setting for the reader (we know that) if you’re really using your viewpoint character narrator, remember they only really describe things that are different, so consider this when you step out of the action to show the surroundings. And this could also be applied to describing other characters. Long descriptions of every detail of their clothing and physical features is too much — draw the reader’s attention to the key things in as few words as you can so you show just enough for us to get a good sense of them. If the red hat is there to show a loud personality and she always wears hats, perhaps colour indicates mood then show it. If it’s there to show how windy it is today and that is significant for story — then show it. If it has nothing to do with anything other than to colour the scene, then make sure it’s one or a couple of details used for that and not a long list.
With description (and I know it also depends on genre and voice) but my advice generally on this is to be as succinct as you can, drawing the reader into the place in one or two precious lines that really capture the moment and tap into something within us. Ever read something that really takes you to that place, taps into some memory — look at how many lines it took. I’m betting not many.
But heed that advice of Hilary Mantel, whether you like her writing or not — consider who is showing you the scene and if the character sees it every day then why tell us about it today?
And the other thing I prefer is when the scene is shown as part of the character action — movement so it doesn’t feel as if we’ve paused the action for it. It comes down (again!) to everything being functional, but so beautifully executed, you don’t realise that!
Have a great writing day all!