Authorguy's Blog

Beyond description

Posted on: January 12, 2012


I think I may have mentioned at some point in the distant past (like last week) how much I dislike description. I look at it as the author showing off most of the time, displaying his vast ability to visualize the scene and blah blah blah. I’m not sure what the ‘blah blah blah’ stands for since by that point I’ve skipped on past it and started reading the next bit of dialog.

Which reminds me, by the way, that dialog tags also fall under the heading of descriptive prose. ‘He muttered’ is a dialog tag with descriptive content, which looks like a verb. ‘Muttered’ is a verb too, of course, which works just fine when it’s not a dialog tag, i.e., you don’t really care what it is he’s muttering. It’s the subvocalized expression of angst and/or perturbation that matters, not the content. Adverbs also fall under this heading. While one can make a case for them, and some have done so, I would still argue that while ‘speaking softly’ is not the same as ‘whispering’, really it would be better IMO not to use either one.

Nor is it especially hard to do this. As I pointed out here, it’s perfectly feasible to replace

Mary arrived late, which is why she wasn’t killed by the meteor.

with

Mary got out of the cab, checked her watch. “Late again.” Looking up, she spotted the giant crater. “Not that that’s a bad thing…”

It’s more active, dynamic, humorous, and engaging, at least to me. If you don’t find it so I’m sure you can come up with your own examples. It helps that the guy who wrote the post chose a particularly clunky sentence.

An even better example comes to mind, which says paragraphs worth of description in just a sentence. The problem with these sorts of lines is that they depend on background knowledge, which, if you don’t have it, leaves you with nothing but a slightly funny line. In the movie What About Bob? Bob is trying to guess the names of the doctor’s family members in a portrait on the wall, and fails miserably. The doctor says, “This is my wife Faye, my daughter Anna, and my son Sigmund.”

Which tells us that he’s a) a psychiatrist, b) obsessed with Freud, while it c) hints at his complete domination in his household, implies that’s he’s d) egocentric and e) a complete ass.

The basic idea is the same in both cases. Rather than the scene being described, it is instead being perceived, related, processed. As the character is processing the scene so is the reader. What matters to him matters to you. What he misses you miss, so when he gets blindsided, so do you. It also tells you when you’re making a mistake. If you have to go to too great a trouble to set up a joke, perhaps you shouldn’t be going there.

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