On Descriptions and Breathing

First of all, I’m not entirely convinced I should be writing about this, but De asked:

@ChuckWendig @doycet I want one of you to write a couple of blog entries on DESCRIPTION, when how and why. I suck at it.

So… Okay. Fine. I’ll say something.

Now, to be clear, she asked about this awhile back, during nanowrimo, so I didn’t write about it then — the posts had mostly to do with that, and advice on description writing doesn’t (necessarily) apply in that context (actually, I can see how it might, now, but whatever). Chuck did write about it, though, and his advice is good, so I suggest reading it.

When De first asked about descriptions, I didn’t actually understood what she was talking about. (This particular failing of mine is depressingly common when it comes to My Brain and Things De Says.)

I thought I did. I thought she was talking about the @desc command.

Did I just lose you? Did the Nerdilus dive too deeply, too fast? I’ll back up.

Back in the Ancient Days, I played multiuser online games with no pictures. (I don’t have the heart to include a picture of the game interface in the post. Look here.) These games had many collective acronyms, all of which were far easier to pronounce than MMORPG.

Obviously, with no graphics, everything within the game exists only insofar as it can be represented by the written word. People. Things. Buildings. Rooms. Combat. Everything is description. When you ‘look’ed at something, you saw a block of text describing a thing.

‘look book’
> It’s a book.

I played on a lot of these games, and I ran a couple others, and I wrote a lot of descriptions of a lot of stuff: all those things I just mentioned, multiplied by some number that ends with ‘illion’.  The command to write an object’s description is “@desc thing=whatever you want”. I think, at one point, I made “@desc ” a hotkeyed macro on my keyboard.

So you will forgive me this failing: when De asked me to talk about writing descriptions, that’s pretty much what I thought of. I didn’t think of any examples of descriptions from the stories I write because quite frankly, I don’t really write them. Seriously. I went back and looked at a bunch of existing work and there are damn few examples of a moment when the narrator or the main POV protagonist takes a moment to stop the action and describe someone or something in any kind of detail. (You know the passages I’m talking about, and if you don’t just pick up any of the Anita Blake books and look for a bit where some hot new guy is introduced. His description will get a page of text, at least.)

Having started with that assumption, I kind of waved my hands around, muttered something about Zelazny’s Rule of Three, and said I’d try to think of something more to say later.

I then waited so damn long that De wrote about it. (You got that? I took so flipping long that the person asking for thoughts started writing down her own. I suck.) In reading her post, I realized that I’d failed to understand her full meaning. I think I get it now. I was thinking too small.

I probably can’t explain it any better, but at least I’m facing the right direction.

Based on De’s post, I now read her use of the word description to mean “pretty much everything in the story that isn’t dialog.” That’s oversimplifying, probably, but I’m a simple guy. (Here, let me rephrase it so I don’t offend anyone: “Description, in the way I understand De to mean it, is ‘everything in one of my stories that isn’t dialog’.”)

De wrote:

I suspect the people who are good at it don’t have to think about it.

Maybe? I don’t know if I count as being good at it, but it’s definitely not something I think about very much. Honestly, this is probably the first time I’ve ever really thought about it.

Here’s my thought: to me, description is the story, breathing.

That’s going to sound over-precious, so let me break it down as much as I can.

  • Description conveys facts.
  • Done well, they convey more than one fact, some of which are delivered subtly, without the reader noticing.
  • They happen all the time, and the way they happen – the when and the how of them – also delivers information and affects the mood and tone of the story.

That’s still a little artsy-fartsy, so let’s just work with an example.

I’m going to start with something that isn’t description. Dialog. From the second line of this post:

“So… Okay. Fine. I’ll say something.”

A serviceable line. Over-punctuated. Choppy. Too many… ellipses. Much like this one. It’ll do.

(Damn, my mind is just all over the place with this post. Too much to say.)

Let’s start with ellipses.

Ellipses are not to be trusted. I have rules about ellipses:

  • Only allowed in dialog. The narrator should always know what he’s going to say.
  • Only allowed even in dialog IF the character is actually letting a word trail off in some audible fashion. It may not be used to denote a simple pause between one word and the next.
  • You get to use more ellipses if the character speaking is supposed to be extremely hesitant about everything they say. Maybe.
  • In all other cases, if you have an ellipsis, there should probably be words there, instead.

The example dialog, checked against these rules, passes. The ellipsis gets to stay.

However, lots of writers fill their dialog with ellipses to show pauses and rhythm in speech. I would like to suggest that there’s a better way, and that’s by breaking up the dialog with description. Consider:

“So…” He tipped his head, frowning at me. I didn’t reply, and he shook away his confused expression. “Okay.” He looked at me once more, sidelong, as though expecting some kind of trick. “Fine.” He dropped into the overstuffed chair and slapped the arms with both hands. “I’ll say something.”

That’s overdoing it a bit, but it clearly has a big effect on the the rhythm of the line. It’s slow. It’s halting. It’s not entirely comfortable. There are gaps which you might even guess the guy is speaking simply to fill.

“So…” He kissed her on the forehead, right at the part of her hair. “Okay. Fine.” He gave her another hug, which she returned, laying her head against his chest. “I’ll say something.”

Ugh. Schmultzy. Smoother, however. Kind of flow-y. It’s not just about the description, but what the description does to the dialog.

“So…” A sharp movement of his head, trying to shake the image free. “Okay. Fine. I’ll say something.” He didn’t look at me. I wasn’t surprised.

Pop. Pop. Pop. The dialog is choppy already, so let all the choppy bits stay together to increase the clipped feeling. The description is partly sentence fragments, also, because we want it to feel jagged.

Gloomy, all these examples.

“So…” He bent his head far enough to meet my eyes. I smirked at the question in his expression, unable to keep up the act, and his eyes went wide. He threw his arms in the air, spun in a circle and whooped, drawing the attention of several bundled up pedestrians stomping by. “Okay. Fine.” He grinned, breath steaming in the mid-February cold. “I’ll say something.”

I started to reply, but he’d already turned away to let out another whoop, echoing over the ice-gray Hudson.

I don’t know if any of this even helps. De?

The point of description, aside from the information it conveys, is the rhythm is creates in its delivery; the way it’s woven into the dialog. The breathing. Sometimes it’s short and sharp and panting, and sometimes it’s heavy and labored, and sometimes it’s smooth and contented.

I wish I could tell you how I know this, or why I think it. I can’t. I acknowledge that that probably makes the whole thing less valuable.

Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Who are your experts?

People like to get advice when they’re working on something they’re not too sure about that could easily blow up in their face.  When my lovely wife is trying out a new-to-us, Classic Family Recipe, she calls her mom (which I’m pretty sure her mom loves).

Now, if she times it right (or, to be honest, wrong), she’s going to get a lot more advice than just her mom’s.  I remember one call in which she asked about cooking a proper New York strip steak and ended up with her uncle on the line, giving her a ten minute coaching session on how to cut the thing once it was cooked. One of her sisters will remind her not to leave the gas stove burning all night (a: we have an electric, b: we’re not actually stumbling morons), another sister will suggest she just go out to eat.  It’s charming, and familial, but it’s not necessarily all useful, you know?

But how to do we know what the crap advice is?  Kate’s mom happens to be a good cook – we know this because we’ve eaten her food – but if she were just “ktsmom113@yahoo.com”, posting her suggestions in a forum, how much credence should we give her?

Not… you know… a lot.  Unless the advice itself is good.

“But… Doyce?” I pretend you are asking, “How do we know if the advice is good? If we knew enough about the subject to tell the good from the bad, we wouldn’t need the advice.”

That’s a fair point, pretend-you-in-my-head; well said.   It’s a tricky situation, and it’s not as though you can just look at what the person has done or not done in their life to determine if they’re a qualified expert.  

Kate’s mom has a degree in chemistry, not culinary arts.  I have a friend, De (hi, De!), who gives me wonderful (and harsh, and uncompromising, and brutally honest) writing advice (which I take! I really do!  It just takes me a few days to agree…); but she hasn’t published a book any more than I have (to which I’ll add “yet” to placate both our egos) – where does she get off giving me advice on writing, and what turnip truck did I fall off that I’d listen to her? (The answer is: because she knows writing, and her advice makes my story better. Duh.)  I have another friend who happens to be a very successful author, but I’d never take her advice on finding an agent (for example), because it would probably amount to “while in college, meet someone who will eventually become an agent, stay friends with them while you both learn your respective trades, then have them represent you”, because that’s what she did.

Good karate advice. Crappy fence painting advice.
Good karate teacher. Crappy investment analyst.

It’s confusing, so how do you check?

  • Are they at least involved in the field in some way?
    If it’s writing advice, are they a writer? Or an agent? Or an editor?  Are they, perhaps, married to one of those types of people (you rarely find an expert’s spouse trying to give advice on their spouse’s field of expertise, but that doesn’t mean they can’t – it just means they have some sense).
  • Do they study the subject?
    I don’t self-publish (epublish or make any of my work available via POD services/Amazon).  I have nothing against it, but right now I’m working through Hidden Things with a tradition writer -> agent -> publisher approach, and that’s where my energy is going.  However, while I’m not actually in the trenches of self-publishing at the moment, I am studying the HELL out of it, and I can quote you cost breakdowns and comparisons and marketing tips and distribution methods until you run screaming from the room.  There are people out there who could give you better advice, by virtue of being in those trenches, but my advice would not, probably, be bad.
  • Do they listen to/make use of the experts?
    There’s a web site out there that specializes in telling writers how to find an agent (okay, there are hundreds, but I’m thinking of one in particular). The punchline is that the person running the site is an author who has not, herself, gotten an agent.  WHY would anyone listen to someone like that?  Well, because get gets agents to guest star on her site every couple weeks or so, to give honest, from-the-gut response to the first 250 words of people’s stories.   Funny tip: you don’t actually have to be good at the thing you give perfectly sound advice on.  I mean, that teacher from Fame made Coco the best dancer he could be even though she couldn’t dance anymore. *tears up*

“Double-triple-quadruple check” is what it boils down to, I suppose.   Ninety percent of everything is crap, including advice, so it stands to reason you need to check ten sources to even have a decent chance to getting to the good stuff.  A hundred sources would be much better.

And don’t freak out too much if the advice is coming from a weird source.

Actually, that’s a fun question: what weird source do you get good advice from? (Like Casa Testerman’s cooking tips from a chemist.)

Even better: how do you identify your experts?