Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How to write description

Sometimes before I go to sleep I pick a book from the piles of read books by my bed, open it to a random page and start reading. When I'm not caught up in the plot, it's easier to pay attention to the writing.

Here's a passage that jumped out at me from Lois McMaster Bujold's Captain Vorpatril's Alliance:

And then they were crossing out of the tube into another foyer, and escorted by Christos through a pair of sleek doors clad in fine wood marquetry to a hushed hallway graced with mirrors and fresh flowers. And then into a broad living room backed by wide glass walls taking in a sweeping panorama of the capital, with the sun going down and the dusk rising to turn the city lights to jewels on velvet for as far as the eye could see, under a cloud-banded sky.
It's the kind of paragraph that whizzes past while you're reading, depositing setting information almost subliminally. How does she do this?

The first thing I noticed: there isn't a single instance of the verb "to be."For a passage of description, there is a remarkable amount of action here. The characters are moving through the setting: "crossing into" and "escorted through" "and then into," so the reader is carried with them. But even the inanimate objects don't just sit there. They are "clad," "graced," "backed." The sun goes down, the dusk rises and turns, the eye sees.

The next thing I noticed is how much Bujold doesn't tell us. Do we know whether the room is carpeted? Do we know what color the furniture is? Is there a couch in the living room? Does it matter? She gives us only the most telling details, enough to convey luxury, taste, beauty. The rest we can fill in for ourselves.

It's not so obvious in this particular passage, but the details Bujold chooses are the ones that the POV character would notice. This is Tej seeing the setting, a woman trained in aesthetics who has never been to this residence before but is familiar with luxurious settings. Tej notices that the mirrors and flowers "grace" the hallway; Tej appreciates the beauty of the sunset. If Ivan were narrating, Ivan who is escorting Tej to meet his mother, he would not have seen any of the things Tej did. He might have noticed anything that was different from the last time he was there, but his eyes would have gone first to his mother, not to the view. Description reveals character, can even reveal emotion, by showing what the character sees.

So there you have it: Three Rules for Writing Description:

1.    Use strong verbs that contribute to the atmosphere you want to create.

2.    Only describe the telling details.

3.     Be aware of who is narrating the scene, and describe it through their eyes.

Another thing I noticed about this passage that might not have universal application: if you're writing an action novel, or a novel for young people, you don't want readers to get hung up on description and get bored. This passage is only two sentences long (and the second one isn't even a real sentence). The description all takes place in prepositional phrases. We read prepositional phrases more quickly than main clauses because we know they're less important grammatically. Our eye seeks out subject and predicate and takes in modifying phrases along the way. The structure of Bujold's sentences speeds our absorption of the description. Brilliant.

I suppose this is more a question of pacing than description per se. So how about A Rule About Pacing:

1.    Use grammar to control how your readers make their way through a page.

Easy, right?

1 comment:

  1. Easy peasy.

    (cough cough cough)


    Trying harder in current story now.