Friday, November 20, 2009

Inappropriate descriptions

I’m back! Finally recovered and caught up on the classwork I missed while I was ill. NaNo is shot, of course. Especially since I’m also on the first round of edits for the manuscript Samhain Publishing accepted. But I did manage to get around 4000 words of the new novel done, and I’ll keep writing.

Plus, I did a bit of reading while I was recuperating, which was when I found an, um, interesting use of description. It was a paragraph describing how the heroine happened to be an orphan, and it read something like this.

Her father had shot her mother three times in the chest with a Winchester pump-action 12 gauge shotgun before putting a .357 caliber bullet in her head.

Focusing on the hardware rather than the humanity is not a good way to make readers connect emotionally to a character. In fact, presenting a traumatic event in this police-report way is likely to have the opposite effect. Either the readers will detach from the story, or they’ll wonder if the author has a gun fetish, or both.

This technique’s distaff counterpart is the detailed description of the characters’ clothes and accessories. It has its place – Confessions of a Shopaholic and the Gossip Girl novels wouldn’t be the same without their brand-name references. But with the Shopaholic novels, the description recedes as the tension ramps up. And the Gossip Girl novels maintain the same flip, breezy tone no matter what’s happening to the characters, so the descriptions don’t seem wildly inappropriate.

Sometimes it’s necessary to include such details. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackalwould not have been the same without the meticulous listing of everything the Jackal buys as he plans the shooting of President de Gaulle. But that listing comes well before the actual assassination attempt, and only after the readers have been hooked on the situation and on the calm, dangerous assassin.

Most writers enjoy writing some kind of description – with me, it’s scientific equipment and clothes – but this has to be held in check and used in the correct place. Much like the Winchester pump-action 12 gauge shotgun, come to think about it.


Randall said...

Geeze! No one else has said it yet?

Welcome back, Marian. We missed you.

Marian said...

Thanks, Randall! It's good to be back, especially with the recent Harlequin developments. I'm following those with some interest.

Hope things are going well for you too. I checked your blog to see if there was any news, but... you know. :)

Randall said...

Well, if you want one with content, you should check out my Livejournal. Warning: possibly too much news.