Update on The Superhero Murders: While transferring my notes from paper to digital, I found some poorly defined arcs, but I also managed to smooth out a couple turns that had bothered me. Still, I found that I trudged through the opening scenes even just copying the notes over, so something needs fixed there.
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Description tends to be a hot topic among writers. Like so many other aspects of the craft, there are no global rules.Each writer needs to figure out their own rules based on what works and what doesn't work for them.
One group complains that the world has become all too fast, that readers don't want anything but the most critical, surgically relevant, descriptions weighing their reading experience down. Apparently, it's a very old complaint.
The other group consists of literary painters. Reading is a journey taken slowly and leisurely, like an old time Sunday drive down the fence-lined, dirt-and-gravel back roads of the literary country.
Me? Well, I've been giving it some thought and I tend to agree with both sides a little.
The personal rule I'm developing is this: don't describe; instead, establish, setting, mood and character (all with respect to the POV, of course.)
Achieving a sense of place in a scene can take nothing more than a word, like kitchen for example. Here, the reader's mind (probably) fills in a generic room with some common details like a sink, refrigerators, cabinets, and counters. And this may be all I need, but place is inevitably tied to time, so how about some morning rays streaming through the small window over the sink?
Mood is elusive. It is more than mere description, but it can be aided by description. So, if I want a dark and tense scene, I could filter those morning rays through a tattered, dirty curtain. Oh, and the light bulb is broken too. There is a big kitchen knife stuck point-first into the counter next to the cutting board and a couple beer bottles in the sink--one of them shattered into jagged pieces. Mood is usually subtle, so nothing more than these tiny cues are needed for now. Even a sprinkling of key words, if that is all the time I have, can add a smidgen of mood. I could be creative and literary--flyspeck--or just mundane and simple--dingy.
What about character? The beer bottles and knife say something about the occupants. I could reinforce those in a few ways. If I want to indicate that the occupant is a cop, he may have left a belt and gun sprawled on the center island. If the occupant is a working slob, muddy work-boot tracks could crisscross the faded linoleum and the scent of rotten garbage lingers from an overflowing trashcan in the corner. If he has a temper, the reader could discover fist holes in the drywall.
The last element I strive for in description is completeness, such that several senses are covered (I only hit two so far), and details that surprise the reader.
In all these cases, more or less could be done depending on how I want to craft the scene. If I'm aiming for a slower pace, more description might be a useful tool, as long as it serves a purpose (such as the ones I've mentioned.) What I want to avoid is empty description.
So far, nothing has happened, there's no action. Every bit of description is a balancing act. I'm trading forward movement for place, mood, and character. Some writers try to weave these things in with the action or dialogue.
Generally, I try to achieve a lot with a little. I use as little as possible while still achieving my goals. It could be nothing more than a word. Every writer has to decide how much description works for him or her.
Disagree? Did I forget something important? Comments are always welcome.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.