Due to (or exacerbated by) my background in drama (I had a really, really good playwriting teacher), I am pretty solid on dialogue. I can’t explain how to get good at dialogue–I’ve never really had to think about it. But description? Pfft.
On the one hand, this is good news. My previous fear and loathing, when it came to writing, was plot. So the fact that I’m not dwelling on plot means that I’m better at it. Not good, but better. Right?
On the other hand, I have to figure out how to get better at writing description. And I hate writing descriptions.
You know those books where you have pages of riveting description where nobody speaks–not “the forest was dark, even at midday” type thing, but description of action. Fight scenes. Love scenes. Murders.
Yeah, I even suck at those. Instead, I write dialogue with stage directions.
I asked around, but nobody yet has given me the magic key to writing good descriptions.* I suspect the people who are good at it don’t have to think about it and assume the reader knows things that I, in fact, have no freaking clue about. So I’ve been rereading Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards, because I’ve always liked the description in that, and because I picked up an extra copy recently, so it was on my book-stack.
I’ll go into more detail later, but here are my initial thoughts on description in general, based off things I read in SB.
- POV and description are in bed together. A third-person omniscient book can do things with description that a first-person can’t, and vice versa (3rd: see anything, anywhere, that the characters know nothing about; 1st: everything described is distorted by the character’s perspective).
- But the shift between first and third person POV does not need to be absolute. How that works, I don’t know yet – but I see SB doing it, for example, when he first describes Kaavren, he uses paragraphs of plain, absolutely third-person description–K’s wearing this and this clothing, by which we deduce he was XYZ, etc. But then SB ends his descriptions with little character hooks that come out of the way K sees himself: “…which was proved by the color of his garments, where they could be discerned beneath the dust he wore as his outer, and, no doubt, inner layer of clothing.” “The purse, upon close inspection, looked rather anemic.” “…and since the Tiassa’s countenance was one of friendliness, neither one was inclined to take offense…” Telling us that K feels dirty, is acutely aware of being broke, and takes pride in his charm.
- Description doesn’t have to be a decription of what the characters see and do, moment by moment, in order to be effective (except maybe in action sequences?). It can be other things: “‘Well, and does that matter?’ said one of the ladies who had been steadily losing to Tazendra.” Is that a description of the look on the woman’s face? The tone of her voice? No. And it’s more effective than a straight description would have been.
- Pace comes from descriptions, or maybe pace is set by description. The leisurely tempo in SB’s PG is set by Paarfi’s convoluted sentences and necessity of breaking off to describe the history of carriages, etc. “Tazendra slowly turned her head, which had been directed to Pel, until she was facing the lady who had spoken.” Even the length of the sentence affects the pace: T turns her head for the length of time it takes to read that sentence.
- Transitions are description. Not just “here’s the time that passed from one chapter/scene to the next.” The transition into and out of backstory is just as important. “And now at last we return to a discussion of the lodging which our friends found for themselves.” “As to their duties at the Palace, we must pause here to explain something of the structure of the Imperial military hierarchy at that time.” “…this observation was shown to be particular astute, as we will take it upon ourselves to demonstrate.”
- Description isn’t just that which is seen. It includes indirect description–how other characters react to an action, not shown. “He paused, seeing that Aerich was uninterested in the details.”
- Description within dialogue. “‘I would like a sword,’ he said. ‘It is to be three and three quarter pounds…'”
- Description as a placemark of where the characters are, physically, in a setting. “The counter-attack…went well until the Guardsmen had succeeded in pushing their enemies to the far wall of the room, where upon two things happened: first, the press of the bodies and the force of the charge itself served to squeeze soldiers around the sides…”
- Description sets the milieu; for example, description can have a political effect. “Shortly thereafter the Teckla coachman emerged from the kitchen wiping his face on the sleeve of his dirty black tunic…” (showing the prejudice of the nobleman narrator).
- Description can be a statement of what something is not, or what is normal (if the thing is not normal, or as expected): “…Pel had occasion three times to point out to Aerich that they were passing a weapon-smith, but each time the latter merely shook his head.”
…More thoughts as I get them.
*Goddamned magic keys, anyway.