Mark Terry

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Writing Workshop, Part 1B: Description

October 1, 2009
Okay. I've got a couple new descriptions and two follow-ups. Let's discuss:

This was my original description:

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.

My challenge, then, was to go from a largely positive description to a negative one. I wanted to do it by making only small changes (to make a point).

Okay, negative version.

His toothless mouth reminded Nick of a snapping turtle. He could almost imagine the wiggling tail of a recently masticated rodent dangling from his gaping jaws. Lifeless blue-green eyes looked out at the world, one wider than the other, from beneath a snap-brim hat that only old men and fat guys smoking cigars at the racetrack wear. Seventy? Eighty? Ninety!? His skin seemed oddly smooth, although there was a yellowish cast to it as if he were heading toward liver failure.

I changed interpretations, but no real details. He's still toothless, still reminiscent of a snapping turtle, but I took that snapping turtle image one step further by imaging what it ate. I changed "intense blue-green eyes" to "lifeless", then mentioned the one wider than the other. I left the snap-brim hat there, but interpreted it again, creating another image, "fat guys smoking cigars at the racetrack." I kept the oddly smooth skin (weird, isn't it?), but noted another detail, a yellowish quality.

The point of this is that we can steer our audience based on the details we use and/or our narrator's/pov character's interpretation of those details. A crying baby can be an adorable example of innocence that brings out the mothering instinct or a squalling bundle of neediness. Do you emphasize the big blue eyes and the helplessness or the high-pitched persistence of the screaming, the red face and the clenched fists? What's the POV character's reaction?

Now, Stephen did something interesting. His first one was a little negative.

Stephen Parrish (original):

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.


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.

I think if you go back to my previous post about the 5 points, you'll notice that this is really about the narrator's POV, and he uses a lot of active description: "fiddling with his snap-brim cap" and then wonderful interpretation: "neither his flimsy clothes nor his paper-thin skin protecting him from the chill." After reading this a couple times, I mostly want to stand up, toss my own snap-brim cap in the air and shout, "Bravo!" Folks, read this and learn, okay? There is SO MUCH in this paragraph. Bravo, Stephen, bravo! (That said, it depends on what you're trying to accomplish. But this is excellent).

A couple new writers stepped into the arena.


Richmond Writer (with her comments)

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?
Richmond commented:

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.

No disqualification. I would note, just for the record, that I was going to describe the eyes as turquois, but my spellcheck kept coming on, so rather than look up the damned word, I used blue-green. Yeah, lazy. I've used modifiers in my descriptions, which isn't necessarily a great idea: lifeless, intense, etc. Does "teal" suggest something different than "blue-green" or "aqua" or "azure" or "turquois?" Yes, although I'm not always sure our interpretations of them are the same. Aqua might suggest tranquil, azure might suggest intense, turquois might suggest exotic, teal might suggest, well, I don't know, I suppose a female POV. Being attuned to the differences, though, can make your writing more valuable. And I certainly think using teal or azure or aqua or "eyes the color of faded denim" bring more to your writing and description than, say, "blue." But, just like sometimes a cigar is a cigar, sometimes the eyes are just blue. Depends on what you're trying to convey.

Scott J. Kreppein

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?
Welcome, Scott. The old looking-in-the-mirror trick eh? Well, I like it. He stared into a "glass" rather than a mirror. Interesting choice of words. Gives a different feel. "Joints felt weaker." From shock? Or because he's old? You give a sense of feeling, you're showing how he feels, which is a little different than how he responds. Could you have said, "Herbert stared into the glass, his reflected eyes widening in shock." Would "His joints felt weaker" have worked better as, "His joints felt like jelly" or "his joints felt filled with ground glass." A lot of it depends on what you're trying to accomplish, but I'd try to lean more toward showing than telling. I really liked the lines: "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?" This could be a fantasy story, ala "Big" or "13 Going on 30" or it could be that most of us, in our heads, seem to feel like we're in our 20s instead of, er, whatever we are. Nice.


Thanks everyone for your involvement.


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Nice workshop on description, Mark.

I can't remember if you mentioned this already or not, but I think it's important to note that description generally slows the pace. In commercial fiction, it's usually wise to use it sparingly and try to incorporate as much as possible into the action.

Also, I'm not sure if you mentioned similes and metaphors, which are also useful sometimes.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

When I was reading this a second time I remembered in Darwin Lambert's book he says the local people described Saul as having one eye on them and one on the mountain.

It held double meaning because he had one eye that looked right. He also was an outsider that moved in to protect the mountain and it's people.

Is it plagiarism to use that? It isn't like it was Lambert's description, it was the way the people of the mountain described this man.

5:19 AM  

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