By Ross B. Lampert
Painters have a lot of different tools at their disposal to create an image: oils, water colors, acrylics, computer graphics. Photographers have light, 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 posts 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.
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.
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. Yet in another scene, the car will be more important than the valley and so should get more attention.
So 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. The characters of the example are now driving through a valley on a hazy day:
- They can see the fields and trees and river around them but the sights and the haze have no meaning or import;
- Maybe they 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;
- If there are any scents coming off the fields, no one knows;
- 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’m reviewing right now, the author describes a character’s voice as “upper-tier baritone.” Okay, baritone I get but what does “upper-tier” mean? As it turns out, this adjective is unnecessary because he shows what he means through the way the character speaks.
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 into it. Identify those. Don’t forget, this includes things like mood too, which may or may not be described in physical terms. 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 window sill 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 is 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—like Mark Twain’s lightning versus lightning bug. In one story, it will be the lightning; in another, the bug. You’re looking for the right word, 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 sharpens the image; the vague and generic one, or the mass of adjectives or adverbs, dims or diminishes it.
Unintended vague description is a writer’s bane. It’s a particular problem for the new writer. As a reviewer, you can help him pick what needs to be described, come up with the best words to clear away the haze, and make his story sparkle.
How have you helped writers overcome vague descriptions?