Mark Terry

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Writing Workshop, Part 1A: Description

September 29, 2009
I want to thank Stephen Parrish and Jude Hardin for helping me out with this exercise. Anyone who wants to join in, please do.

Yesterday I posted the photograph of this gentleman and wrote a brief description of him. Then I invited y'all to do so as well. Let's see what we have.


His toothless mouth opened in delight, although it reminded Nick of a snapping turtle. Blue-green eyes still looked out at the world with intensity from beneath a snap-brim hat, belying his years. Seventy? Eighty? Ninety!? His skin seemed oddly smooth, though there was no doubt about the age. No wrinkles, but nobody was going to compare his skin to a baby's bottom.

Well, okay. In retrospect, I think "snapping turtle" should have been "sea turtle" because we have kinder, mellower thoughts about sea turtles (say, Crush from "Finding Nemo.")

Stephen Parrish:

The other witnesses all described his toothless smile, as though a man were defined by how often he flossed. When they got to me I told them straight away about the eyes. One opening wider than the other. Neither intent upon the concerns of the other. And behind them, no one at the wheel.

Jude Hardin:

Dad's eyes hadn't tracked right since the day a Nazi clouted him with a brick. The blow didn't knock him out. He got up and cut the guy in half with his bayonet. He looked happy to see me now, almost like he recognized me this time. Someone had helped him shave. He wore a wool driving cap and a red sweater and the kind of toothless grin you see in babies and insane asylums.

What surprised me--and pleased me--was that nobody gave what I think of as a photographic description. Nobody wrote:

The eighty-six year old man wore a beige driver's cap, had blue-green eyes, one wider than the other, and a wide, toothless smile. His white and pink skin had the texture of parchment and his ears stuck out. He wore a red sweater.

There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but there's nothing particularly right about it either. It's static and leans toward the boring. Nonetheless, there are times when a straightforward photographic description is worthwhile. When doing so, I suggest doing it in a organized fashion, start at the top and work down, etc., but really, for fiction, let's try to steer clear of it unless you're trying to place the reader's emphasis somewhere else. Like what, you ask? How about this?

The eighty-six year old man wore a beige driver's cap, had blue-green eyes, one wider than the other, and a wide, toothless smile. His white and pink skin had the texture of parchment and his ears stuck out. He wore a red sweater. He also carried a long butcher knife in his right hand, dripping scarlet blood onto the black and white tile floor.

In this case, the static description tends to lull the reader into drifting. Then you're yanked back by the startling detail. If you're doing that, it's also advisable to use longer sentence structure, etc., in the early part of the paragraph, but that's a topic for another day, I think.

I think there are five elements to good description (there might be more) and Stephen, Jude and I used 4 of them, and maybe used just a tiny bit of the fifth. Ready?

1. Point of view. None of us used a third-person omniscient point of view. Our old friend there is alternately being described by "Nick," a nameless witness to some apparent crime, and our old geezer's son, also nameless. I'm going to applaud all three of us here, because the description then tells us something about our old friend, but also tells us something about our narrator or point of view character. Unless you're writing journalism or 3rd-person omniscient, typically the writing is coming from someone's point of view. Use it.

2. Non-photographic. None of us used a straight photographic technique. We placed the description into a narrative. Go, us! (Particularly Stephen and Jude, who gave us stories in a few sentences. Go, you!)

3. Details. All three of us focused on specific details. Our old chum here is dramatic enough that we tended to choose the same details: age, the hat, the wide open toothless mouth, something about the eyes. Jude added in the red shirt. I focused on the texture of his skin. Stephen and I mentioned the eyes, but different things. I noticed the differences in how open his eyes were, but chose instead to focus on the intensity and color. Stephen interpreted the intensity differently, providing them as being vacant, but mentions the difference in how open they are. This leads me to point #4.

4. Interpretation of details. I also call this "steering." The photographic description I gave earlier does not interpret the details. The eyes are just blue-green. They are not intense or vacant, they don't give the reader a feeling. In effect, you're merely showing the reader something, details, facts, but no interpretation of those details or facts. This can be a rather tricky topic in the arts. Spielberg is a great and effective filmmaker because he manipulates his audiences so effectively in the way he shows the details. You get the swelling music, the close-up of a terrified face. Some critics feel he's too manipulative, that it's better to just show the audience something and not telegraph it. I think you can go either way, but keep in mind that Spielberg's one of the most popular and successful filmmakers of all time, even if he's not always (but often is) the most critically recognized. Spielberg may very well take the reader by the hand (or throat) and drag them off, saying, "Here, idiot, this is what you came for," versus a filmmaker who just points the way and lets viewers interpret.

Anyway, I steered you with the snapping turtle, the "intensity" of gaze, the odd comparison of his skin not resembling a baby's bottom, even though it was very smooth. Stephen has a great line about not flossing (which tells us much about the pov character), but it's the final lines that are the martini shot, so to speak: "One opening wider than the other. Neither intent upon the concerns of the other. And behind them, no one at the wheel." The first sentence is a straightforward description. Then he interprets it. Then he clinches it with a sentence that pulls together the entire description. It's not, after the eyes that have no one at the wheel, it's the man. Very nice.

Jude (my man!) told us a whole story here. Do you realize just how much STORY Jude put into six sentences? Stephen did as well, with some sort of crime scene and the suggestion of other witnesses and that he's describing talking to the police about what happened. But Jude goes back 60 years, gives us a villain, tells us about the narrator's relationship to our old gent, gives us backstory, and tells us something about how our narrator feels about things. And again, he's got a martini shot as well: "...and the kind of toothless grin you see in babies and insane asylums." This doesn't just describe the grin, it describes the old man. And maybe it describes something about the attitude of the narrator, one that either did not have a great relationship with his father, or one of someone who's grown tired of caring for an Alzheimer's patient. Or maybe, in this case, it also tells you something about the reader because readers brings their own experiences and points of view to the mix as well.

5. Passive versus active. None of us really did this. It's a little hard to do when asked to describe a photograph, but it's a very useful tool for a writer. None of us really had the old man doing anything. I suggested some action with the mouth "opened" but it might have been more effective to suggest: The old man opened his toothless mouth in a wide grin and one blue-green eye half-fell in a salacious wink.

In other words, it's better to say, "... he ran a blunt-fingered hand through his red hair" than it is to say, "he had short fingers and red hair."

So, any other thoughts? What am I missing?

The next challenge, and I point this to Jude and Stephen, but anyone can join in. The three of us steered the reader to a specific conclusion. I have our old geezer being friendly and enthusiastic. Stephen has him as befuddled, as does Jude. Can we change our interpretation of the same details to mean something else entirely?


Mark Terry


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mark. Along with everything you mentioned, I also think it's fun to try to do something interesting with the language itself. That's what I was going for with that last sentence. You don't want to over-do it, of course, to the point where it seems like you're performing, but a little bit spices up the old prose sometimes.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I love the story in description thing. I'm having trouble coming up with words for my WIP, let alone for something else.

LOVE that picture, Mark!

6:49 PM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

Harvey was a clean shaven toothless old man. The wool cap kept his bald head warm and shaded the alert teal eyes. It was the eyes that caught Shannon's attention. Could he have seen the killer exit the convenient store?

Passive voice was used twice and "teal" reveals a female writer/protagonist. I took liberties to shade the eyes and make him bald so I don't know if that disqualifies me.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Richmond. That's great. I'll get back to this topic on Thursday.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

I admit I was embarrassed whenever grandpa picked me up after school. The other kids made fun of him, called him "the snapping turtle" because his toothless smile made him look like one. Sometimes they even threw stones. He waited for me outside the gate, fiddling with his snap-brim cap, neither his flimsy clothes nor his paper-thin skin protecting him from the chill. When he spotted me crossing the playground his face lit up with love the other kids would have envied, had they understood it.

At home he'd tell me stories. The details always varied, giving me the impression he was searching for truth. The stories never had endings. Instead he would suddenly grow quiet, and a pair of eyes that always seemed to work independently of each other, as though two different personalities were lurking behind them, would grow moist in timely unison.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Scott J. Kreppein, Esq. said...

Herbert stared into the glass with shock and wonder. His joints felt weaker. The world seemed to move slower. He was overwhelmed by disbelief.

That was his newsboy cap, his favorite red shirt, and his eyes, but he had aged seventy years. As he looked deeper, however, somewhere in there staring back at him was the twelve year old boy he knew he was. How had this happened?

5:47 AM  

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