Critique Technique, Part 39 — The Gray Haze

Fog over a village

Painters have a lot of different tools at their disposal to create an image: oils, watercolors, acrylics, computer graphics. Photographers have light, composition, angle, framing, the capabilities of their camera and film or electronics, and of course Photoshop® and its cousins. Sculptors have stone, wood, found objects, metal, even sand.

We writers have words—hundreds of thousands of them in the English language alone—so there should never be a problem with creating a clear image, right?

Alas, we know that’s not true. It’s not how many or how few tools we have at our disposal, it’s how we use them that matters. The next five articles are going to deal with how writers use words poorly to describe what they want the reader to see, hear, feel (emotionally and physically), smell, taste, sense psychologically, and so on, and how critiquers can help them do it better.

What Matters

When we talk about vague or inadequate descriptions, there’s a tendency to ask how much description is the right amount. That’s the wrong question, for at least a couple of reasons. First, every genre has its own standards. Literary fiction often spends a great deal of time and effort on description in order to place the reader fully in the physical and/or psychological setting of the story. So can other genres, but still others spend far less. And quantity is not the most important factor anyway.

For another thing, the descriptive needs of a work—fiction or non-fiction—change from moment to moment. For example, let’s say the characters in a story take several drives through a river valley. It might be appropriate in one scene to spend a lot of time describing the valley but say almost nothing about the car or its passengers. In another scene, the car may be more important than the valley and so should get more attention.

In a third scene, it may be the experience of the road and drive itself—whether the road is straight or curved, flat or hilly, the drive is leisurely or panicked, and so on—and how that is presented to the reader.

In a fourth scene, the experience of that and previous drives might matter most, so the factual details may be less important than the peoples’ memories of the drives and their responses to them.

Lack of Focus

One of the causes of inadequate or vague description is the author not knowing what she wants the reader to focus on or why. When this happens, the author’s mental senses will skim so lightly across the sensory field that she picks up little or nothing and as a result, describes little or nothing. Let’s say the characters of the example are driving through a valley on a hazy day. The lack of description can reveal a number of things.

  • The people in the car can see the fields and trees and river around them but the author doesn’t know if the sights and the haze have any meaning or import.
  • Maybe the passengers can hear the engine, the air rushing around the car, or the tires rolling over the pavement, maybe they can’t, or maybe those sounds don’t matter.
  • The author doesn’t know if there are any scents coming off the fields, the forest, or the river, or if they matter.
  • The road must be straight, smooth, and flat because there’s no sensation of movement, and so on.

The result is that the scene is bland at best and maybe even unnecessary.

Another cause of poor description is the author knowing he needs to describe things, but not knowing how. This can show up as anything from excessive description to none at all, or descriptions of things that don’t matter. Perhaps the most common error here is simply using bland, generic, or uninformative terms. In a work I once reviewed, the author described a character’s voice as “upper-tier baritone.” OK, baritone I understood but what did “upper-tier” mean? As it turned out, this adjective was unnecessary because he showed what he meant through the way the character spoke.

Clear the Haze

So how can you help a writer clear away the gray haze and give the reader a meaningful sensory experience? The first step is to know the general conventions of the genre, even the sub-genre, of the piece you’re reviewing.

The second is to determine, if possible, whether the author intended to work within those conventions or outside of them. With this background information in place, you can get to the words themselves.

The next step is to determine what’s necessary and appropriate to the story. The writer doesn’t want or need to engage all of the reader’s senses in every scene, but certain ones, especially beyond sight and sound, will draw the reader in. Identify those. Don’t forget, this includes things like mood too, which can be created by what is described in physical terms. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of this. Tell the writer which senses you believe should be engaged, or engaged better, why, and how the story or scene would be stronger if she did so.

Now determine which objects, sensations, impressions, etc., need to be described in special detail. In one story, a glass on a windowsill may be a minor object; in another it could be key. The first glass needs little more than a mention; for the second one, whether it’s clean or dirty, full, half-full, or empty, what’s in it, how it looks in the light, etc., may matter for many different reasons. As a reviewer, you can help the author home in on those characteristics.

The last key is to pick the most evocative descriptive terms. Remember how Mark Twain described the difference between the right word and the almost-right word as the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug? You’re looking for the right word or phrase, the one that reveals something important, that puts the reader inside the scene with the characters, rather than watching it from the outside. The right word or phrase sharpens the image; the vague and generic word or phrase dims or diminishes it.

Questions For You

Let’s consolidate what I’ve discussed so far into a few questions you can ask as you review a piece.

  • What are this genre’s or sub-genre’s conventions regarding the amount and kind of description writers should use?
  • Does the author intend to work within them, is she intentionally avoiding them, or does it seem that she may not know what they are?
    • If she’s avoiding them, what’s her intent for doing so? What is she trying to achieve?
    • If she does not appear to know what they are, this is something you can discuss.
  • Is the author giving you the kind and amount of description that draws you into the scene, or is his work suffering from “white room syndrome,” where there’s little or no description?
    • If there’s too little, or it’s too vague, what specifically can he add or change to bring the scene to life, as much as it needs to be? How can he capture the lightning rather than just the lightning bug?
    • Are the needed details physical, sensory, psychological, or emotional?

Unintended vague description is a writer’s bane. It’s a particular problem for the new writer, but not just for them. Early drafts can often lack this kind of detail. As a reviewer, you can help the author pick out what needs to be described, come up with the best words to clear away the haze, and make her story sparkle.

How have you helped writers overcome vague descriptions? Keep your answers clear and sharp in the comments box below.

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