Monday, May 23, 2011

Images - writing tip

Question: Arline, one member of my group says I have too much description, another that I need more detail. I do try to "show, don't tell" and maybe some of my description is telling...because I don't always see everything clearly in my mind. Is there an easy way to do description without "telling?"

Answer: Yes. Use what you have. That sounds simple, doesn't it. You would have thought I would know that from Jump Street, but I didn't. I thought if I wrote a story about a wedding, I had to make up the church, spend a lot of time picturing what it was like, creating every detail in my mind before I wrote. Then I'd go on to do the same with the wedding dress, and then the next imaginary detail. Now I just describe my church, or a church I have been in, a bell skirted wedding dress I saw in a magazine, the lace-encrusted shirt my son received as part of the rented tux when he acted as his friend's best man. The secret is the reader will take the few details I include and imagine a church of his or her own. Then as long as the characters are real, everything else will be, too.

Specific Images are the key. And One Specific detail, instead of piles of adjectives. Look at the following and tell me which is the better description. Which is telling?

This way? Late for her job because her car wouldn't start, my son’s new girlfriend drove his shiny little red car to work and got stopped by a state trooper for speeding. The uniformed trooper had no sense of humor and he handed her a printed white speeding ticket.

Or this way? When her car wouldn't start, Kathy "borrowed" her boyfriend’s red '63 Austin-Healey Sprite convertible. Her blonde hair flew in the 80-mile-per-hour breeze. Flashing lights brought her up short. The Trooper called her, “Ma’am,” but frowned as he leaned down to hand her the ticket.

And yes, my son does have a red, 1963, Healey. His back surgery went well and he is coming along fine, by the way....

1 comment:

  1. Boy, I had a real awakening in the early days. My locale was a dated coffee shop. I think I put in at least one page, maybe more, describing it in all its dreary details. I went over the façade, the orange and brown booths and décor, the hanging fixtures and on and on until I thought I had done a really outstanding bit of writing. When I looked at it a month or so later, I thought "Wait a minute. Everybody knows what a dated coffee shop looks like. So I had to throw everything away and just give it a couple of licks and the whole scene went much more smoothly and the coffee shop didn't overshadow the action that took place. I'm sure a wedding, a church, all those everyday things need little description to get the message across.
    If the locale is something really different, something that the average reader is unlikely to have seen, then I imagine it makes sense to go into more detail, especially if it's important to the story.
    I know I'll never be "great" but I do try to make sure that everything helps advance the story. If it doesn't, I try ot cut it out. I think they call it padding. I understand that in the pulp magazine days when writers got paid by the word, padding was a way to get a little more money out of the editor. These days I don't think many of us can get away with it.