Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saying a Lot with Few Words

Last month, Josh and I posted a description of our bedroom to illustrate that different characters will describe things differently, depending on their perspectives. Because we are both writers, we both enjoyed the exercise, and I asked if he'd be interested in doing more cross-post blogs.

I read off some of the topics I had on deck, and this is the one he picked.

The subject of conciseness originally came up because my writing group had critiqued a piece of my short fiction. I'd crammed a lot of characterization and world-building into 4000 words. I set my story in a desert world, but I never came out and said what the setting was. The others in the group said they liked how I'd managed to convey a lot of imagery and setting without taking up a lot of my word count.

In that particular story, since my space was limited, I didn't describe the setting initially. I had a character who didn't have any basis for comparison to understand there was anything unusual about his barren surroundings. Instead of going on about that, then, I had him quickly bored from being cooped up inside, and reading the equivalent of cereal boxes. The world's description didn't come in until he left familiar surroundings, and saw color (a white tent) for the first time.

I don't know how many words I saved myself by allowing those small pieces to stand in for paragraphs, even pages, of description, but that's my usual approach. I don't like to stand still or linger on background in my stories. If I mention the surroundings, they're either standing in for a larger part of the setting, or they're relevant to the plot. If I can make them pull double duty, by both standing in for a bigger piece and serving the greater story somehow, all the better. My characters notice only things that stand out to them, so what they notice should say something about their states of mind, or what surroundings they've had before, or hint at their personalities.

I've always felt that I'm sparse on description, but, apparently, some part of the setting is making it onto the page. One doesn't want one's stories to take place in white rooms with no doors or windows, after all. But a window can be implied by the scent of rain wafting through a screen, or a square of sunlight on the ceiling. Space can be implied by actions taking place while people navigate their surroundings. Description need be no more detailed than that someone grunts in surprise pushing open a door that didn't look that heavy.

In my view, description is as much about what you don't write as what you do. To get the idea across quickly, leave readers space to fill it in, themselves, while sketching out what needs to be there. You need to be succinct without coming across as terse.

To read Josh's take on the subject, click here.

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