On Descriptions in Writing

Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
edited March 24 in Author Workshop
Yesterday evening, prior to going out with friends, I took a brief nap, and dreamt that I had agreed to adopt a dog, a very intelligent Queensland / Husky mix and it would not stay in the carrier that had been provided for it, so I had to negotiate with it to get it to stay by my car while I went into the house to speak to its former owner, a man battling a terminal illness, but oddly peaceful and convivial about it. As a result of that conversation, I went to the wharf/museum, but the client I was there to speak to wasn't in. I did have to jump over a small hole in the floor, and nearly fell through weak boards on the far side, but managed to right myself without dropping the bundle of blankets that I was carrying, much to the relief of two tourists.

As they returned to their casual stroll among the exhibits, I went down the stairs to the bookstore and gift shop on the first level, where, to my surprise, a kitten fell out of my blanket bundle. The bookstore clerk chided me: Had I placed the softer blanket inward, and the coarser blanket on the outside, the kitten would have stayed put. I adjusted the blankets, picked up the kitten, and went about my way.

That has little to do with my point... or maybe it I'm wrong. You see, as I was in that hypnogogic state somewhere between full wakefulness and the dream world, I realized an important truism of writing: We don't really need to describe a scene. We merely need to enable the reader to visualize it. I didn't tell you that the Queensland / Husky mix was grey and white, but I'm betting that you imagined it. And I didn't tell you that the bookstore was brightly lit, with a pale yellow carpet, or that the kitten was a tabby, but again, I think that you imagined it.

You see, the description is not so much the words we say, but how clearly we express the clear idea in our own heads. An actor best acts when he is able to imagine the scene that he or she is acting, and by body language and ineffable expressions communicates this to the viewer. In the same way, an undefinable and ineffable choice of words can communicate things we could not dream of describing in detail.

Interestingly, one of our own forum members, Dr. Potet, has commented that in his translation of a Filipino book (His translation is titled Ma^itre Tace) there is a character who is never described, but whom readers always picture as a blonde. I can tell you from observation that blonde Filipinas are more scarce than hen's teeth. But this is the word-picture that forms in the mind.

In another example of this phenomenon, when I read a Nero Wolfe novel, I always imagine the floor plan exactly backwards. Rex Stout, through Archie, always describes the characters turning left as they enter, to go into the front room or into the office, but I imagine them turning right. The house is clearly described. The fault does not lie with the author. But my mental picture of the house is exactly backwards.

So the communicated description does not need to match the details of what we imagine, but the clarity with which we imagine it will match the clarity of the reader's perception, just as the clarity of an actor's imagination will communicate the clarity of the scene to the viewer.

I can only hope that this makes sense, and is not merely a pointless rambling. Of that, you will be a better judge than I. And with that, I surrender the soap-box.

Comments

  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    Gosh, you do post a lot of words!

    That has little to do with my point... or maybe it I'm wrong. You see, as I was in that hypnogogic state somewhere between full wakefulness and the dream world, I realized an important truism of writing: We don't really need to describe a scene. We merely need to enable the reader to visualize it.

    By describing it? That's the normal method.

     I didn't tell you that the Queensland / Husky mix was grey and white, but I'm betting that you imagined it.

    Not really, because aren't some light brownish and some even white? What I was thinking was, what's all that got to do with anything? Get on with your point.

     And I didn't tell you that the bookstore was brightly lit, with a pale yellow carpet, or that the kitten was a tabby, but again, I think that you imagined it.

    Not really. I just scrolled down looking for what point you are trying to make. :) 

    You see, the description is not so much the words we say, but how clearly we express the clear idea in our own heads.

    Hints help, or they could be anywhere. There's a big difference between a well-lit shop and a 'sleazy' one. It colours the whole mood of the scene. What mood would you like to put across by having a description?

     An actor best acts when he is able to imagine the scene that he or she is acting,

    They have a director who tells them, and directs them, and often even a built scene to act in.

     and by body language and ineffable expressions communicates this to the viewer.

    Indeed, but that is visual, whereas words on a page are words. Should one not describe that body language and the ineffable expressions?

     In the same way, an undefinable and ineffable choice of words can communicate things we could not dream of describing in detail.

    But it's all words. Printed or spoken. But if you see an actor being angry, it's obvious, but just, "hello," said Fred, in the written word, could be any mood, whereas, "hello," said Fred, angrily, describes him as being angry. But I have no problem with putting what I see in my head on to a page as words. These are out of my head. :)

    Interestingly, one of our own forum members, Dr. Potet, has commented that in his translation of a Filipino book (His translation is titled Ma^itre Tace) there is a character who is never described, but whom readers always picture as a blonde. I can tell you from observation that blonde Filipinas are more scarce than hen's teeth. But this is the word-picture that forms in the mind.

    Well if a description is given then it would be more accurate, then, would it not?  I don't think I have read anything with people in that does not describe them. Some writers make a point of it, even if they only appear in one paragraph. They must assume readers want a description? And it can be important. What if a character is beautiful?  Or ugly? Would you not want to say so? because it puts a whole different perspective on how the characters are perceived by others in the story.

    In another example of this phenomenon, when I read a Nero Wolfe novel, I always imagine the floor plan exactly backwards. Rex Stout, through Archie, always describes the characters turning left as they enter, to go into the front room or into the office, but I imagine them turning right. The house is clearly described. The fault does not lie with the author. But my mental picture of the house is exactly backwards.

    You need to seek help, but I do know what you mean.

    So the communicated description does not need to match the details of what we imagine,

    It depends on how important they are to a story if they should be described in detail or not. I have never read anything with descriptions missing.

     but the clarity with which we imagine it will match the clarity of the reader's perception,

    Why not write it down then? It's your story, not the reader's.

     just as the clarity of an actor's imagination will communicate the clarity of the scene to the viewer.

    They are usually acting within a scene, which the viewer can actually see ... if the props are not important then they would not bother building them. So it's the same with writing.

    I can only hope that this makes sense, and is not merely a pointless rambling. Of that, you will be a better judge than I. And with that, I surrender the soap-box.

    I prefer a sofa.

    It will be interesting to see what others think.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    I should add, at this point, a single incident which most made me realize the point of the clarity with which a scene may be described without detail:

    I was at a friend's house, and saw where his young son had drawn a sketch of his grandmother. It was little more than scribbles; an ovaloid head, crooked lines for facial features, and scribbles for eyes -- yet, in those scribbles, I could clearly see expressed the down-turned mouth and the rolling eyes of an exasperated grandparent.

    I could blink and see scribbles, or blink again and see the facial expression. There was nothing to tell me of light and shadow, nothing to suggest the proportions of features, no shading, no contour, no texture, and yet with just a few scribbled lines, this lad had captured the expression of an emotion. It was quite amazing. The question before us is whether that can be done in words.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    You are yet again confusing images with the written word. And yes it can, if there's a need to. When I am writing I see the scene in my mind. Indeed as an image. Then I put it in to words. Just as you have done above, using words.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    Alright, allow me to clarify the question: Can we create so clear a scene in the mind of the reader as the young man did with his handful of crude scribbles?
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    I understood the question, but what whoever drew it was thinking at the time they drew it is irrelevant, unless the story is about a 'shrink.' What you described is the impression you got, not what the boy was thinking when he drew it. You wrote what was in your mind when viewing it. Someone else viewing may see it entirely differently and try to guess differently what was in their mind. (Which is often the case when the artist is not around to ask. There's often as many opinions as there are art critics.) You managed to describe what was in your mind, and you asked if it was possible to do that via the written word. Well you did  :) 

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    When I pointed the scene out to the child's mother, she immediately saw it as well.So I think that it was something in the drawing, and not in my own mind. You understand, I hope, that Rorschach drawings are largely discredited...
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    Did you ask her of her impression before you told her yours? It could be like those images of Elvis seen in burnt toast, that one can only see when it's pointed out.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    Believe what you will, Kevin. Believe what you will.
  • Are you guys married?  :p
    I really liked your original post Skoob_ym - I think I understand what you were getting at. Then I sort of got lost in the back and forth that followed. Oh well :/ I had fun reading it though, and it made me think... 
  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    edited April 1
    Back to the original post (whew!)... I tend to agree with Skoob_ym.

    When I include descriptions (whether of characters or scenes) I try to make them meaningful. That is, I try to create descriptions that not only tell the reader how something looks, but what it is like. For instance, I try to make a character's description tell as much about their personality as their appearance. So, in cases like that, my descriptions try to create an impression that is not purely visual. 

    Here is a trivial example. Saying that a character has "red hair" tells you one thing, but saying that she has "unkempt red hair" tells you something about the person herself.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    Believe what you will, Kevin. Believe what you will.

    It's not a matter of belief, it's a matter of personality. The mind dictates what it is perceiving, and everyone's is different. But you keep saying that some things cannot be described using words, and yet you are using words to describe them in this thread.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    Back to the original post (whew!)... I tend to agree with Skoob_ym.

    It's still all to do with the original post. Is it hard to describe things just using words. Is that what you are agreeing to? Which he keeps doing using words without realising it! Skoob

    When I include descriptions (whether of characters or scenes) I try to make them meaningful. That is, I try to create descriptions that not only tell the reader how something looks, but what it is like.

    Well, of course, no one is arguing about that.

     For instance, I try to make a character's description tell as much about their personality as their appearance.

    But instead of describing a personality, as you would describe what they are wearing, how they behave and what they say can put across their personality. It does not have to be all done at once, either. It can be written so that the reader slowly realises what sort of person a character is. Just as it often is in real life. You know, like someone you eventually realise you can trust, or not.

     So, in cases like that, my descriptions try to create an impression that is not purely visual.

    Words create an image in a reader's mind, so it's all visual. I am sure I am not the only person on the planet the effect happens to. It's the same mental mechanism that creates dreams.

    Here is a trivial example. Saying that a character has "red hair" tells you one thing, but saying that she has "unkempt red hair" tells you something about the person herself.

    That just at that exact moment she does not have a comb handy? That she's a follower of trends and it's this week's trend? It's very windy? It could mean many things, which could be clarified at some point, if it's important.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    Back to the original post (whew!)... I tend to agree with Skoob_ym.

    When I include descriptions (whether of characters or scenes) I try to make them meaningful. That is, I try to create descriptions that not only tell the reader how something looks, but what it is like. For instance, I try to make a character's description tell as much about their personality as their appearance. So, in cases like that, my descriptions try to create an impression that is not purely visual. 

    Here is a trivial example. Saying that a character has "red hair" tells you one thing, but saying that she has "unkempt red hair" tells you something about the person herself.

    Exactly. The descriptions suggest things to the reader's mind, and it is the subtlety that is possible in a suggestion that was the point.

    "Unkempt red hair" tells us something about how the character sees herself, to some degree, at least in that moment. "Carefully coiffed red hair" would tell us something else about how the character sees herself, or about how she sees that moment, or that event.

    We could spend a page describing the character's state of mind, but simply describing the hair might do just as well.
  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    edited April 2
    You got it! Precisely the point of my little example!

    That being said, I've been prowling through some of my writings to see if I've followed my own advice!
  • Lao Tzu once wrote "The true Tao cannot be described." Yet he went on to write a book of over 5000 words describing it. Go figure. :)
  • The  unkempt red hair means to me either the person just woke up or perhaps they don't really care about their appearance. Which one it was I'm sure would later be told in the writings.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    Exactly. The descriptions suggest things to the reader's mind, and it is the subtlety that is possible in a suggestion that was the point.

    Subtlety does not often work in words, because readers can miss it. Or they can think something entirely different from what you want to put across.

    "Unkempt red hair" tells us something about how the character sees herself, to some degree, at least in that moment.

    Not really, at that moment she may not know her hair is unkempt, until she can find a mirror or some one tells her.

     "Carefully coiffed red hair" would tell us something else about how the character sees herself, or about how she sees that moment, or that event.

    It may do at some  small point in time. She may be going to an interview and 'dressed-up' or even a date, just for that occasion. But it could also become unkempt occasionally for many reasons, some of which I mentioned. It does not always denote personality, just circumstances in time. It's like assuming she must be a naturist because she goes to  bed naked. The rest of the story will tell if she is, or not, if it matters.

    We could spend a page describing the character's state of mind, but simply describing the hair might do just as well.

    Not really, unless she's only in the story for a paragraph. There's a lot already been discussed about the subject, and still on line now, here's just one example >>  http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/11-secrets-to-writing-effective-character-description and for balance sake here's another  >>  https://www.wikihow.com/Describe-People

    There's 1000s more.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    The  unkempt red hair means to me either the person just woke up or perhaps they don't really care about their appearance. Which one it was I'm sure would later be told in the writings.

    And as the story developed, you would discover more, no doubt, learning why they were just now awakening at this hour of the day, or why their appearance was so relatively unimportant to them in that moment. Exactly.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    And as the story developed, you would discover more, no doubt, learning why they were just now awakening at this hour of the day, or why their appearance was so relatively unimportant to them in that moment. Exactly.

    Quite so. But weren't we on about what a particular short description (taken out of context) could mean?

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    The point is efficiency.

    I could write this:

    "The woman currently under discussion in this phase of this description had 93,113 hair follicles on her scalp, which is about 2.7% more than average for her hair color and type. Of these 93,113 follicles, 92,086 exuded hairs of greater than seven inches in total length, all of which reflected light primarily within the 640 to 690 nm range, with a 77.3% rate of entanglement with adjoining hairs, either by natural curl or by external dishevelment, along with a 42.1% rate of auto-entanglement, with or without recombination of entanglement with adjoining hairs, some of which exhibited a 3% higher-than-average sebaceous secretion content."

    Or I could say, "disheveled red hair," as Ron did, above.

    Which is more efficient?

    Can we be more efficient?
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    You are just taking things to a ridiculous extreme just to be pedantic and argumentative. You could try going to the start of this thread to fully take in my opinion, then maybe you will understand what I have said, which were not contradictions to other postings, just other methods in the use of text, and that just "dishevelled red hair," does not describe a person's personality. That's just on the spot judgmental and could be totally wrong. See, I had to type that again in case you missed it. I assume you also don't bother clicking links? Take it or leave it. In the next few words, just say, "and then she got out her comb," that may suggest she cares about her looks, but only at that particular time, as I described with examples in time above. No matter. On you go.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    When I start a thread, I regard myself as taking part from the beginning. I'm sorry that you missed my point. Write however you like. Enjoy.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    I got your point (the point that you always agree with Ron.) You are missing the point that "disheveled red hair" in no way describes a person's personality, it just says she had "disheveled red hair" at that particular moment. She could have just come in from the wind (I did say that.) The next moment she could have combed it (I said that, too.) What does that say about her?

     I am glad I write in almost the same manner as many many other people, famous or otherwise. (I wish I could find samples to paste in of such famous novels.) And in the same manner as recommended in many many guides, some of which I gave links to. You disagree with those too!

    I will try again with you, though,  http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/11-secrets-to-writing-effective-character-description

     But I will boast and say I have always written that way, but I have learned from reading 1,000s if not 10,000s of often famous fiction. On cannot help but absorb it :)

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

Sign In or Register to comment.