Stanchfield Cattle Co.
Wise River, Montana 59762
The Devil Is In the Details
My favorite artist is Charles M. Russell. For those who aren't familiar with him, Charley Russell was perhaps the best chronicler of the American West to ever ply the trade. Before he turned to canvas and clay, he worked as a cowhand and trapper, spent time with the Blackfoot Indians, and generally lived the scenes he painted. He knew his subject as few others could, and it showed in his work. At first glance his paintings seem to be amazingly detailed, every blade of grass, every muscle and stone set down with photographic precision. Yet a closer look reveals he actually worked in broad strokes, filling in huge blocks with an almost impressionistic flair. The eye is fooled into seeing more because the details he did include were perfect.
But what, you ask, does this have to do with writing? Because, the way C.M. Russell approached his paintings is also a fine way for a writer to approach description. Use details sparingly, but the ones you do use, make them perfect.
Here's a simple exercise. Close your eyes and imagine a formal drawing room, the type you might find in a Sherlock Holmes novel. What's the first thing you see? Is it the full set of armor, complete with halberd and Boar's-head helmet, standing in the corner? Or is it the ornate portrait of Great-aunt Florine? Whatever it was that caught your mind's eye, that's the detail to include. You don't need to describe it in exacting detail. After all, my Great-aunt Florine had a mole and smoked cigars. Your's probably didn't. But as long as your readers form a picture of somebody's Aunt, you've done your job. Which brings us to the first point.
Know your subject.
Many writers draw maps and create dense character sketches, complete with family trees and coats-of-arms before ever setting word to paper. Others spend hours pouring over books and web-sites, jotting down notes for reference. These are wonderful tools. But keep in mind, they are for the writer, not the reader. Once you have the setting fixed in your head, don't worry about including your research in the actual story. The background is there for you to pick and choose from, letting your readers fill in the gaps with their own imaginations. Even if you don't do a single iota of research, make certain the scene you are creating is clear to you, real enough that you can jump in and describe it from any angle, just as you could describe the room you're writing in. Trust yourself, and your audience will too.
Description isn't static.
Description, like everything else in your story, needs to move. It needs to be active. That storm gathering on the horizon. That's description. So is that trace of wood smoke drifting on a chill November breeze. Involve all the senses. Most of us rely on our eyes for our day to day needs, which, unfortunately, makes sight the least useful tool for drawing word pictures. Weave the other senses in wherever you can. Here's an example:
"Despite Captain Hearly's spit-and-polish reputation, Avenger's bridge smelled like every other starship in the fleet, a cloying combination of wet socks and Parmesan cheese."
Okay, I didn't say it was a good example. But it does form a sharp image. After all, who hasn't smelled wet socks before? Which is important to keep in mind, especially when writing science fiction. No matter how alien the setting, your readers need a baseline to compare it with. Use simile when you can. Better still, imply simile.
"The wind howled like a banshee," is okay. "The wind rose, a banshee wail," is better. It's punchier and more direct. It implies movement. It's specific. And that brings us to the next point.
Refuse the generic.
Don't let a character sit down at a wooden table. They can rest their elbows on rough planks, or cheap Formica or polished oak with coffee stains, but never simple wood. And if you are having trouble imagining just what kind of table they are sitting at, it's probably not important enough to bother including. Just let them sit down and find some more interesting feature to describe. Description is like spice. It's the heart of the flavor, but too much will dull the taste-buds. And this brings up perhaps the most important part of description.
Make 'em work at it.
The more you make a reader use their imagination, the deeper they will be in your story. Obviously, your vision and their vision will be different, but as long as they have a vivid picture in their minds of the world you have created, you have their trust. Use strong, emotionally charged words, loading each scene with just enough description to make them want to fill in the gaps on their own.
Broad strokes. Here's another example:
"Marcus Amelianus hated the public baths, hated showing himself naked before the world. Outside, in his white toga with the bold red edging, he was every inch a senator of Rome. But inside, he was just another paunchy, balding patrician, sweating out the hours, waiting for news of Cassius's return."
All right, not great literature. But I'll wager anyone who reads it forms a strong picture Marcus Amelianus. In fact, however, I said very little about him. Only that he's fat and bald with a fervent dislike of getting naked in public. The rest I left to the imagination. Description is more than simply building an image. It sets the mood, coloring the action and the characters, creating the backdrop your plot moves against. Like a river, it gives direction to the story. Don't be afraid to experiment, to paint outside the lines. And above all else, have fun with it. Writing description allows the poet in all of us to slip out now and then.
Okay, I've rambled on long enough. Now, I have to get busy and decide what to do with poor Marcus Amelianus.
Maybe I'll let an Ostrogoth drown him in his bathtub.