Thursday, May 26, 2011

Description Lists

Here is a technique I often use when I get stuck writing a scene.

Sometimes if you have problems visualizing a scene or a setting in your mind (or in some cases an object), those issues will appear on the page, too. Many times in the rough draft stage this will manifest itself as a lack of detail, or maybe just vague details when describing or setting the scene.

Unfortunately, if you are having difficulty visualizing a scene, chances are your readers will have the same problem. In fiction, its important to immerse your reader in the story by drawing on multiple senses...but if the details are not sharp enough, then you run the risk of disengaging your reader early on.

For example, if you were to write a description of a room, what details would you include? It's easy to describe a room as being spacious but full of furniture. But everybody has a different definition of the words "spacious" and "full of furniture". It may be engaging on some level, but if in a subsequent sentence you state that the room the main character frequently trips over the sofa, does that mean he is clumsy, or that the sofa takes up most of the room?

Let's take it a step further.

Let's describe the room as being as having a vaulted ceiling. Let's say it contains it contains a large sofa, two end tables, a television, a piano, a floor lamp, and a wandering cat.

That's better...but it's still not engaging enough.

So what's the solution?

If possible, go to the place you want to describe in a scene or a novel (or short story, etc.). Or, if you need more concrete details about an object, put that object in front of you if possible. In some cases, you may have to use a photograph (or several). In other cases, you may have to find a substitute (more on that below).

Now, grab a notebook or your laptop and write down as many details as you can. Keep in mind that many of these details may or may not end up in the finished product. The point is to pull in as many details as possible so that when you do write that particular scene, you'll have an ample pool of information to draw from. These details can be visual, aural, or even involve taste, smell, and touch.
For instance, a subplot in a story I once wrote had a woman painting an outdoors scene. Although I could visualize the process in my mind for the most part (especially what she was painting), I wasn't happy with what I initially wrote in the rough draft. It was okay, but the details didn't "pop" off the page like I wanted them to.

Since I didn't really have the time to travel to a nearby forest (and this was before the days of image search online), I sat in front of a window overlooking a small set of woods. I then proceeded to write down extensive details about those woods and compiled them into a list. I then referred back to that list as I wrote particular scenes. Not every detail was put to use, but it had the remarkable effect of making the scene feel much more alive. I also pulled out a paintbrush to remind myself of things such as the sound of a paintbrush hitting a canvas, etc.

Circling back to our room example, you could compile a list like this (focusing on one object in particular...a mounted fish on the wall):

walleye, driftwood, glass eyes, dusty, shiny, scales, sharp teeth, white belly, brown, gold, painted, white-tipped tail, swimming, fins, smooth

(Now, if you really wanted to go far with this description, you could look up taxidermy to get even more specific.)

Writing these lists also forces you to slow down and really think about the description process in general. In another post, I'll elaborate on the infinite number of ways you can describe an object, and how that can be affected by the characters in the scene and the mood you want to portray. For now, though, I hope you can see how easy it is to compile description lists that may come in handy in many future projects.

No comments:

Post a Comment