Thursday, August 19, 2010

When Description Goes Too Far

Casey shot daggers at the blank computer screen, the obnoxious cursor blinking in a blinding flash of black, black, black. Slamming her fist on the desk she jabbed her pointer finger on the mouse and thrust it to her inbox. Grumbling and grousing about her insolent brain refusing to come up with Thursday's post, she jabbed at the new email box. My mind refuses to capitulates! She complained and whined to Sherrinda, Pepper, Mary and Krista, before sending the email hurtling into cyber space. Casey groaned and buried her head in her knees, rocking back and forth. It would never come! She would be a moron on Thursday when the followers opened the window to.... yesterdays post.

Back To Reality
No, I do not act like that... all the time.

Did you get a thoroughly robust laugh out of that ridiculous piece of bad writing? But the truth of the matter is, we have all read fiction that was so completely ridiculous in its descriptions that all we want to do is laugh. It jerks us out of storyworld and if it happens to often and is too ridiculous, all we do is put it down, probably never to pick it back up.

When we put descriptions in our fiction, we have to be careful not to take it too far. Yes, we want to wordsmith our manuscripts, but when does wordsmithing get taken too far? The obtuse answer is in my above example. Our primary focus should always been to be storytellers. We need to tell a good story. Let the strong word pictures and interesting words that paint a vivid image come later when we go through the manuscript to edit. But even in that we have to be careful. We want our stories to make sense, to flow and draw the reader in, not leave them laughing at our stunning prose that we were sure would wow their world.

And prose is just that, prose. And in prose we can make some pretty serious errors.

All books need description. We need to see the characters. We need to see the surroundings. We need to see what is happening, but what the reader does not  need to see is a bunch of ridiculous occurrences that jerk them out of the dream of reading.

One of the words that always jerks me out of the story is, "He loped across the room."

Umm, I don't know about you, but I live in a small western community and I ride horses. And when you lope with a horse, it is smooth run, but at one point three legs are off the ground. And lope in a person I can only imagine as a skip run. Umm, not a good word to use to describe running in my opinion.

Beware of words that seem to take a simple act and blow it out of proportion. We do want to put a new twist on something old and worn out, but in that fixing up, we need to be aware that we can take it too far. Just like I did with my example above, I took all that anger and frustration too far. On top of that I was telling. I basically told you that I was angry. I used strong words, yes, but I gave you no taste of my emotions. All I described is a temper tantrum, not an over worked person who can't think beyond the blinking cursor on her screen. And all you wanted to do when you were done reading (if this were a novel, which thank goodness it isn't) would be to get as far away from that heroine as possible.

Now, I am not saying big words are bad. I like big words. I like to search for the word that will take my sentence and catapult it into space. I like to make my paragraphs stronger and put a new twist on an old description, but in doing that beware of telling your story.

Instead when you write, use words that infuse the strong emotion you want to get across. Take this excerpt from Susan May Warren's Flee the Night (Tyndale Publishers, 2005)

The past couldn't have picked a worse time to find her.

Trapped in seat 15A on an Amtrak Texas Eagle chugging through the Ozarks at 4:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Lacey . . . Galloway . . . Montgomery-what was her current last name?-tightened her leg lock around the computer bag at her feet. She dug her fingers through the cotton knit of her daughter's sweater as she watched the newest passenger to their compartment find his seat. Lanky, with olive skin and dark eyes framed in wire-rimmed glasses, it had to be Syrian assassin Ishmael Shavik, who sat down, fidgeted with his leather jacket, then impaled her with a dark glance.

Nothing about this short passage is filled with million dollar words, instead Susie uses Lacey's emotions and her awareness of the surroundings to bring forth her fear.

And that is the difference between wordsmithing and storytelling. Worry about storytelling first, let the words come second. So, let me have one more crack at that above paragraph and see if I can't make it better. : )


Casey glared at the blinking cursor and heaved a sigh. She blinked, once, twice, in time with the black line and blinding bare white screen.

The desk needed to be dusted. The moth balls under her seat were huge and where were the bag of carrots she had brought with her? Oh yeah, at the bottom of her stomach. Casey shoved herself forward, pursed lips and fingers poised just so over the keyboard. Come on. Come. On. Think of something!

She navigated the mouse to her email and clicked on the new mail box. Again white screen met her, reminding her of her incompetence. She could do this! She. Could. Do. This. The sharp jab of keyboard keys filled the air and the air swirling around her was short and breathy. Without giving another thought she punched the send button, sending her plea heralding to Krista, Sherrinda, Pepper and Mary. Please save me!


Henya said...

Most helpful. Thanks.

Casey said...

My pleasure, Henya. Nice to see a new visitor to the Alley. :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

I love the Before and After examples you included in your post, Casey. Great rewrite!
And I love Susie's books. The Team Hope series is a must-read!

Casey said...

Thanks Beth, I'm glad you think it was good. Sometimes- okay most of the time- I'm not sure how my rewrites will be received. Ha! :)

I know! I need to read her Team Hope series, I am dying to read this one I took the excerpt from, it is just a matter of time. :)

Thanks for stopping by!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I'm not surprised the carrots made an appearance in this post LOL
Thanks Casey. Your post brought to mind a comment my daughter made about a famous author who irritated her when he included a 3-page description of a sword. She did pick the book back up because it was "that famous author" shows that anyone can get hooked into description that needs a weight loss program. :)

Casey said...

Well of course, Mary! I had to show some kind of attitude. *grin*

Description has become a thing of the past in today's fast pace age. No one wants to sit through a long block of words that don't further the story and every word has to have a purpose and a reason for being there, to move the story ahead.

Hey, I like that, a weight loss program. Where were you when I was titling this post?? :)