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Author Topic: Vividness in Description  (Read 4771 times)

Offline Dan D Jones

Vividness in Description
« on: October 21, 2011, 08:13:43 PM »
This article isn't really written for writers.  It's fairly deep and technical.  But since many fantasy and sci-fi fans tend to be science geeks too, some of you may find it interesting.

http://poeticstoday.dukejournals.org/content/31/3/433.full.pdf+html?sid=12722f05-f8de-45c1-8726-132921cc82c3

The link is to a PDF entitled Crying, Moving, and Keeping It Whole: What Makes Literary Description Vivid?

There's a somewhat less technical synopsis here:
http://esciencenews.com/articles/2011/10/21/vivid.descriptions.faces.dont.have.go.detail?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+eScienceNews%2Fpopular+%28e%21+Science+News+-+Popular%29]
[url]http://esciencenews.com/articles/2011/10/21/vivid.descriptions.faces.dont.have.go.detail?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+eScienceNews%2Fpopular+%28e%21+Science+News+-+Popular%29
[/url]

The gist is that readers tend to respond stronger and more emotionally to physical descriptions that don't go into vivid detail of the specific features.  The description should be more holistic and designed to draw an emotional response by focusing on the impression of the character's features rather than a literal description.

Offline Douglas Hulick

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #1 on: October 22, 2011, 12:02:21 AM »
Or, as I've often put it: let the reader paint the picture in their own head. Give them enough to run with, and they will do a good amount of the work for you. ;)

Doug

Offline Jon Sprunk

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #2 on: October 22, 2011, 12:59:02 AM »
Or, as I've often put it: let the reader paint the picture in their own head. Give them enough to run with, and they will do a good amount of the work for you. ;)

Doug

That's how I approach it. Too little description makes a story seem bland; too much makes your head hurt.

Offline Overlord

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #3 on: October 22, 2011, 06:53:24 AM »
Agreed. What is great about Fantasy is that you are allowed and expected to 'fill in the blanks'. Your version of Mordor for example will be different than mine. But, that is OK because it isn't real.
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Offline Francis Knight

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #4 on: October 22, 2011, 02:24:25 PM »
Or, as I've often put it: let the reader paint the picture in their own head. Give them enough to run with, and they will do a good amount of the work for you. ;)

Doug

That's how I approach it. Too little description makes a story seem bland; too much makes your head hurt.

Too much makes me want to spork my own eyes out and/or put down the book because there's been so much description I;ve forgotten the plot! (This has happened. Not the sporking, the putting it down never to be picked up again)

The little details are important. This MC notices this one because it's important to him in some way (either as a person, or as part of the plot. In this room, an artist for instance will notice colours and the play of light more than perhaps an architect who might marvel over the flow through the house and an assassin might note the best places to snipe from...) In first/third limited what the MC notices is also a part of character.

Telling details (ie the one or two well-wrought details that give you a emotional picture in your head better than half a page of precise description) are both more subtle, to my mind, and more effective, especially when describing people.






 






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Offline AnneLyle

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #5 on: October 26, 2011, 10:12:12 PM »
Same here - I throw in the odd detail that I think the character is likely to notice, and let the reader fill in the rest. Ultimately it doesn't matter that the reader sees a different thing in their head to me, as long as they enjoy the story.
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Offline Funky Scarecrow

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #6 on: October 27, 2011, 03:40:00 AM »
The interesting things are what happens inside a character's head; everything external to that which isn't informing a character's internal existence is a distraction. It's fine to describe your character's costume, accessories and hair do in microscopic detail if your character is vain/foppish/snobbish/neurotic about appearances, but if your character is a stoic warrior or distracted archivist it's inappropriate.

Excessive description of location is to be particularly avoided. Other than giving your reader a clearly understandable and roughly imaginable space for the action to inhabit, location is secondary to the characters in it. The only exception to this, is if the location is a secondary character in its own right, such as Miéville's Bas-Lag, Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, Fowler's London or Rankin's Edinburgh.

Description of food: Is your character cooking the food? A chef, maybe? A gluttonous gourmand or, far more harrowing, suffering under the insidious and crippling grip of an eating disorder? No? Then quit it! Seriously, if I read one more banquet scene that goes on for two pages describing course, after course, after bloody course I'm going to hunt down the unlucky author who described it and drown them in the rich, thick gravy they're so sodding fond of droning on about at length. People mock the fantasy tradition of Hearty Stew, but at least it gets the chuffing food description out of the way quickly and efficiently. It's usually period authentic, into the bargain.

I sound like one of those types who insists on sacrificing everything on the altar of characterisation, don't I? I'm not, I promise. I like plot and action as much as the next person (and the next person flaming LOVES them), I just think excessive description rarely fits into the holy trinity of character, plot and action.
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Offline Overlord

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #7 on: October 27, 2011, 09:31:00 AM »
Same here - I throw in the odd detail that I think the character is likely to notice, and let the reader fill in the rest. Ultimately it doesn't matter that the reader sees a different thing in their head to me, as long as they enjoy the story.

I was listening to a Patrick Rothfuss interview the other day and he said something similar. He said: "I give three good, important details and then as far as I'm concerned the reader can fill in the rest" - I think that is a pretty good way to do things. If you know three things about a character; he is well built, wears a black cloak and has long black hair that falls down across his face, concealing his features.

OK, that was a 2 second and unedited description, but you can already see that this guy is: kind of mysterious, probably not all that nice and physically intimidating - you certainly wouldn't want to come across him in a dark anyway. We ask the questions; why is he wearing dark colours? Is it to hide himself during night? His hair that conceals his features; we presume is done on purpose... who is he hiding from?

I think it was a great piece of advice :)
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Offline Francis Knight

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #8 on: October 27, 2011, 01:40:29 PM »

Description of food: Is your character cooking the food? A chef, maybe? A gluttonous gourmand or, far more harrowing, suffering under the insidious and crippling grip of an eating disorder? No? Then quit it! Seriously, if I read one more banquet scene that goes on for two pages describing course, after course, after bloody course I'm going to hunt down the unlucky author who described it and drown them in the rich, thick gravy they're so sodding fond of droning on about at length. People mock the fantasy tradition of Hearty Stew, but at least it gets the chuffing food description out of the way quickly and efficiently. It's usually period authentic, into the bargain.



Amen, brother!

It bothers me more so though when the food described means nothing (Roast flubburt steak with wibblesplat sauce and a sprinkling of hurdfar). I have no idea what this tastes like, no idea what it is other than food, it doesn't add to the setting (IMO) because it doesn't mean anything to me....*

If you're going to use words describing something, make sure they aren't just empty words. Make what you're describing relevant and something that will have some sort of meaning to the reader.



*As always, this can also be done well, but I've seen it done too poorly, too damn often (done it myself too when I were a newb lol), and then it just feels like the author is saying 'Look at me, I can worldbuild!'
My tongue has been in my cheek for so long, I've eroded a new mouth.


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Offline Dan D Jones

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #9 on: October 27, 2011, 02:53:53 PM »
It bothers me more so though when the food described means nothing (Roast flubburt steak with wibblesplat sauce and a sprinkling of hurdfar). I have no idea what this tastes like, no idea what it is other than food, it doesn't add to the setting (IMO) because it doesn't mean anything to me....*

If you're going to use words describing something, make sure they aren't just empty words. Make what you're describing relevant and something that will have some sort of meaning to the reader.


*As always, this can also be done well, but I've seen it done too poorly, too damn often (done it myself too when I were a newb lol), and then it just feels like the author is saying 'Look at me, I can worldbuild!'

Agreed.  So, from a writing perspective, what's the difference between when such descriptions are done well and when they're not?  How does an aspiring author ensure that he/she does it correctly?  Here's my thoughts:

Description in a story should serve multiple purposes.  Regardless of whether you're describing a character, a meal, a setting or any other aspect of a scene, that description should work to advance the story and not just be flowery filler.

Descriptions of food, for example, can be an effective technique if used correctly.  If your protagonist is a noble's son who's horse throws a shoe during a violent storm and he's forced to take refuge in a peasant's hut, his reaction to being served peas and onions with unleavened flat bread can be illustrative of his character.  Is he exasperated at being forced to consume this common fare or is he grateful to have something warm to fill his belly?  If the miller's daughter saves the life of the prince and is the guest of honor at a palace feast, you'd expect her to stare in wide-eyed wonder at a roasted goose stuffed with a chicken which is in turn stuffed with quail. A dour priest would surely turn a scornful eye on a tray of puff pastries, honeyed sweet-cakes and decadent chocolates, particularly if the cost of such frivolities would feed a poor family in his parish for a week.

Anything described in detail should be in keeping with your viewpoint character.  Would that character actually notice this detail or would he/she merely file it as normal and think nothing of it?  What is the character's reaction to whatever's being described and how does that reaction inform the reader of character or motive?  Is the detail important later in the story - i.e. is it a Chekhov's Gun1?  If you can't provide justification for a detailed description, then cut it or, better yet, don't write it in the first place.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun


Offline Francis Knight

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #10 on: October 27, 2011, 03:38:19 PM »


Description in a story should serve multiple purposes. 


I like your examples of how food description could work, and that's how I feel about it too

(I said this in another thread but I can't remember which one! lol) Personally, I feel that pretty much anything should be serving multiple purposes. Make those words work for their living!

There are several things a scene can do for instance; advance plot, foreshadow, develop character, add tone/atmosphere, build world etc etc. A good scene will do at least two of these. A scene that only does one feels flat and doesn't add much. So a scene that is there purely, say, for the purpose of showing how your magic works might be flat, but it would be way better, would have more depth, if it also advanced plot and possibly developed character too.

Description is much the same. If it's there just to describe something, it's not working hard enough and then I want to spork my eyes out (especially if a whole page is devoted to describing something trivial that never crops up again. <--pet peeve). Description should serve a purpose. All your words should serve a purpose within the story.



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Offline tcsimpson

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Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #11 on: November 05, 2011, 07:43:16 AM »
I see a lot of agreement on not using a lot of description and a lot of what sound like absolutes too. All your description should serve a purpose, not too much description etc etc. But haven't enough writers proved there aren't any hard and fast rules? Someone brought up Rothfuss. He may stick to what he feels about description but can anyone use more adverbs than him and litter said tags with them more than him? If you haven't noticed, go back and look at Name of the Wind. Not that I hated it, he's a favorite author of mine and NOTW is one of my favorite books. But his story was so good, I didn't care how he wrote. Same thing with me for Robert Jordan. Tons of description in his books. Many have called it pointless description but he sold millions. I could say the same about Brandon Sanderson and his descriptiveness. All authors I love. Doesn't his prove that you should simply write how you feel and what moves you? Don't get me wrong I'm not saying to give me every single nuance of a character's face, but I tend to love seeing the surroundings described, the world itself and what not. In battles, the same thing. I think many authors listen to this whole not too much description thing and gut and gloss over their work to the point where it reads bland and dry and doesn't stand out. That's just my 2 cents.

Offline Francis Knight

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #12 on: November 05, 2011, 10:43:04 AM »
I don't think anyone's said absolutes. (Have they?) Myself, I was only saying how I feel about it personally. Some writers personally prefer much less description than I do, and some more, or less subtle. Same with readers. Some like acres of description, some would rather spork their eyes out lol.

It's really largely a matter of taste (and perhaps, trend. The Wheel of Time for instance started quiet a while ago, when things were different, and so were readers) and there are no absolutes except if it works, do it. Oh, and even if it works, someone will hate it! You just need to try to balance it so it works for the most amount of people/your target audience.

There's no better substitute than reading lots of other writers' description and seeing what works for you and what doesn't, and how they got the effect.
My tongue has been in my cheek for so long, I've eroded a new mouth.


Duellists Trilogy (as Julia Knight) coming soon from Orbit!

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Offline foxmc

Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #13 on: November 12, 2011, 04:29:46 PM »
'write how you feel and what moves you'

Spot on!

Keep practicing this and you'll keep the reader with you with minimum description. At least that's what I'm attempting anyway.

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Re: Vividness in Description
« Reply #14 on: December 01, 2011, 10:28:39 PM »
There's no black line that measures the cutoff point for how long your descriptions should be. That said, take a look at the first several pages of Ivanhoe. Good grief.

A great example to look at would be Tolkien. He described all manner of things and went into great detail with the history of his Middle Earth. I skipped 95% of the songs and poems because they bored me. I skimmed a lot of details. Was it wrong for him to include them? Not really, because Tolkien was in love with the world of Middle Earth. LOTR is a story about a world just as much or more than it is a story about an adventure. Even people like me who started skipping ahead can appreciate that the description is there, because it makes the world deeper.

Orson Scott Card is on the minimalist side with his descriptions. He says basically that unless a description affects the story somehow he doesn't include it. Settings need a mood, but not the names of 10+ specific fauna found there. Characters need more than male/female pronouns to describe them, but you don't have to know that they have brown hair, brown eyes, and are of average height.