It shouldn’t surprise anyone who slaves over the stove in a literary kitchen that there are a million pieces of advice when it comes to description and exposition. With as many stances as there are grains of rice in a full pot, it can be difficult to figure out the absolute best way to go about those elements of writing. Though I have my own opinions (a true middle of the ground approach, to be honest), I think for today we should simply talk about one of the subtle elements of exposition: implication.
Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is possible to be too brief. While we as authors strive to avoid info dumps, telling not showing, and letting our language dive into purple prose, we also must counterbalance this with smart exposition, action-based characterization, and vivid description. As you can see, this is quite a balancing act. In the past, we’ve talked about what happens if you overdescribe, and today we’ll talk about the dangers of underdescription.
As a writer, your job is a hectic one. Not only do you need to create and characterize your cast, you have to script the plot, provide dramatic tension, and so on. One of the most important duties you face is the creation and description of the world surrounding your characters. After all, every actor needs a stage on which to perform!
There are many theories and styles of writing descriptive text, too many for such a humble article as this. What I want to focus on today is the balance of description with the action of the plot. Essentially, the effect that unbalanced description and exposition can have on the pacing of your story and how to work around this unbalance in a fairly natural way.
We all know what unbalanced description looks like. When every character is introduced with a paragraph of lovingly written description, from top to bottom and every bit of clothing, that is unbalanced. When every intricacy of the environment is laid out, that is unbalanced. When every action is laden with adverbs and adjectives, no matter how minor, that is unbalanced.
I’ve heard it said that the more senses you can engage with the reader, the more memorable your writing becomes. I don’t deny this, but it has to come in a natural balance. Trying to engage too many senses at once or simply giving in to purple prose causes the kind of unbalanced text blocks I talk about above. The detrimental effect this can have on your plot, especially the pacing of it, is obvious. Try swallowing huge chunks of mozzarella cheese between every bite of your pizza. The effect is similar, I promise you!
Worse yet, unbalanced description is not very natural when it comes to how we perceive the real world. When you meet someone for the first time, especially in passing, do you really pay that much attention to them? The human mind loves to generalize and categorize things to deal with the amazing breadth of input our sense provide. On first sight, most things in our environment are categorized and then put into a box, then otherwise ignored until we force ourselves to focus on them.
That’s why unusual things draw our attention so easily. They don’t fit in a predetermined category and our brain sends the signals that we need to focus on this thing closely. Even on things that we focus on, data doesn’t just come in like a computer readout. Different people focus on different aspects of people and objects. Not every detail is immediately apparent or important. On top of that, the situation the observer is in dictates a lot about where his/her focus will be. A character in a dangerous action sequence will have far different priorities and focus than one sitting at a bar, for example.
You can use this naturalistic approach to description and observation to balance out your descriptions. As we naturally pick up details over time as focus and perception change, you can likewise parcel out description over a scene instead of clumping it all up in one paragraph. Consider what a character’s focus might be and use that to describe the most important details at the time, bringing the rest out as they come to the fore.
You can even use this technique to add to your characterization efforts. What a particular character sees first in another can be a clue as to their priorities, background, and knowledge. How a character sees their world can be as insightful as how they interact with it.
So, how do you handle description? Do you have any tips or tricks for writers and readers alike? Discuss below!
Until Friday, good luck, good reading, and good writing!
It’s time, as I anxiously wait down the hours to the end of the Kickstarter (yes, the plug! IT IS SHAMELESS!), to start a new segment of articles (and to some day properly categorize all of them) with Writing is a Bad Habit, a general series of articles on good and bad writing habits. I figured I would kick things off with one of the big cardinal rules of good writing: ‘Show, Don’t Tell!’.
On the surface, the meaning of that rule isn’t entirely apparent. In essence, we are story-tellers, so isn’t everything we do telling? How do you ‘show, not tell’ with the written word? A lot of pictures? Obviously not, something that most, if not all of you, probably already know. What the phrase means to an author is that it is better to ‘show’ characterization and plot through action and reaction instead of directly ‘telling’ the reader about it. This particular rule crosses over into countless bad writing tropes, such as Informed Ability and Designated Hero/Villains and the like, but for tonight, we’ll stick with the basics.
Think about it from the reader’s perspective and take a very glaring example. If you’re about to go into, let’s say, the major climax scene of the book, the ultimate resolution of that book’s conflicts, would you, at that point, cut to a third party observer in the room, who then narrates to the reader the scene he sees? No, obviously not, you would want to go through that scene from the point of view of the protagonists, to provide the proper emotional investment. Even worse, would you then cut to AFTER the end of the action, and have the protagonist describe the event while filing a report or dictating to his/her assistant or writing about it in his/her journal? Again, obviously not, but these extreme examples serve to showcase how this kind of activity can hurt your novel.
Let’s take something more subtle and a much more common misstep. Let’s say the protagonist has a very bad temper and you want to make sure the reader knows this, as that bit of characterization is vital to your plot. To absolutely make sure they don’t miss it, you create a scene where two associates of the protagonist begin to talk about him/her and one of them makes note of his/her hair-trigger temper. You have now just broken the ‘Show, Not Tell’ rule and almost certainly lessened the interest of the reader. The reader isn’t an idiot and most readers do not appreciate being treated as one and hand-held through every bit of characterization.
Now if instead you depict a scene with the protagonist at work and he/she crashes into a co-worker while trying to deliver a report. It was an honest accident on both sides, but the protagonist starts yelling and cursing, flustered with rage. Any reasonable reader would then instantly infer the protagonist has an awful temper for flying into a fit at such a minor and innocent incident. That is ‘showing’, not ‘telling’.
Now, there may be times when you feel that you have no choice and, perhaps, you may be right. Even the best of writers has to sometimes do a short info dump or a quick explanation handed out here and there … it’s better to have your readers able to follow your work than to be totally lost. However, you should make every reasonable attempt to avoid it. The more you have to ‘tell’, the more of a disconnect you will suffer with your readers.
The best way to avoid this bad habit is simple practice and patience. Re-reading and editing can also help spot areas where you may delve into being too ‘tell-y’, allowing you to rewrite those sections before they become published or distributed. Never hesitate to rewrite a scene multiple times if you have to. You won’t regret the extra time invested to increase the quality of your work.
What experiences have you had with the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule? Have you ever had to skirt around it and do you feel it was vital, or have you since regretted not finding another way around it? What are acceptable breaks from this rule? Talk about it in the comments section.