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Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing

Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing


Key points: Make your descriptions release information about character or plot, too. Mood, emotion, characterization. Pay attention to word choice. Be economical with words. Watch for unintentional gaffes and gorilla in the phone booth phrases. Don't be purple! Evoke character. What does this description do to advance the story? Use description to imply the setting, not hit your reader over the head with it.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 11, Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] Mary, you pitched this podcast, so I'm going to let you introduce it.
[Mary] So, what we're talking about today is ways to make description do more than one thing. A lot of times, someone will describe a room. But you can actually get it to do more than just describe the room. You can release information about the character or the plot at the same time.
[Brandon] All right. So how do we do this? Howard, is this one of those ones where you're just going to kind of look at us and say, "Just draw a picture. It does so many things."?
[Howard] This is one of the things that I'm not particularly good at. But when I'm doing... When I've got an establishing shot, it functions in the same way. The line, the angle, the way that panel is composed has to do more than tell you, "Oh, we're looking at a space station" or "Oh, we're looking at a bedroom." It has to convey some emotion, it has to convey some character. Those things all enter into it, only I get to use pictures instead of those clumsy, clumsy words.
[Brandon] That's right, I suppose. But as I think about it, this might be a good way to approach it is approach it as you're a writer... I don't know. Just trying to tackle things from different sides. Yeah...
[Howard] No. Okay, let me...
[Brandon] Approach it as if you are Howard drawing a picture of this place.
[Howard] Okay. There is a piece of cartooning syntax, that is well-known to cartoonists, not very well known to people who read comics. That is that as things... At least for English comics... As things move from the left-hand side of the page to the right-hand side of the page, that is indicative of progress through the story. Any time things are leaning back in the other direction, leaning from right to left, it is indicative of regression. So if you have, in the last panel, a character... The last character who is talking is facing back in the other direction, that is subtly indicative of regression in the story. When I am drawing a large scene, and I want to increase our progress through the story, I want to increase the tension, I tip everything to the right. If I want to indicate that we're stalled, I tip everything to the left.
[Brandon] Wow. That's pretty cool.
[Howard] Yeah. It's really cool, and the effect is subtle. Sometimes I mess with it. We are making progress, I know we're making progress through the story, and I tip it to the left anyway. Because... That's the cartoonist's equivalent of, "Oh, it's just the cat." So...
[Brandon] Huh.
[Howard] I'm sorry. I could totally derail the episode, just with cartoon syntax.
[Brandon] No, that's cool.
[Mary] Yeah, because puppetry uses the same thing, aggressive, passive, and regressive motion. Which is anything that you want to engage in, you lean towards. I wind up doing that in the description of my characters' motions, that if they're interested in something, I wind up having them lean forward. Rather than just saying, "She was interested in what he was saying..."
[Brandon] Yeah. I mean... This is actually really fascinating to me. But I mean if you imagine yourself as doing this, as saying, "Okay, I'm going to be telling a story visually. What's going to be happening visually, and what cues can I give visually in my descriptions?"
[Dan] She looked out at the building, which was leaning slightly to the left.
[Brandon] And suddenly we're all going to be making Tim Burton films. Okay.
[Howard] That's why those films work in that way, is because he is leaning those things in order to indicate emotions that you wouldn't be feeling otherwise.

[Brandon] Most of the time, you're not going to be able to do something that drastic in your fiction. But you can give... What we're talking about here is painting a mood and an emotion, Howard called it... An emotion and a characterization of the setting or of anything, simply by the words we choose. You can do this from both ends. If you've got a character walking into a room, the words you choose can paint the mood of that room and paint the mood of that character. You can go either way depending on how you approach it. That's a very subtle balance to get right. It can be kind of hard to do.
[Mary] Like if...
[Howard] Say... Sorry.
[Mary] Okay. Me first or you?
[Dan] I'm first.
[Mary] Great. You have [inaudible]
[Dan] I'm actually going to give another nonverbal example of this because it's been used so brilliantly in a lot of movies. In 12 Angry Men, it's a movie that takes place in one room as jurors argue a case with each other. Watch this. It's amazing to watch the camera. The first third of the movie is shot from a very high angle. It opens the room up, it gives it a lot of space. Then the middle one third of the movie is shot at about eye level. It makes it very personal. You're looking these people right in the eye. The final one third of the movie is all shot from a low angle. So you feel very intimidated. The people are bigger. The personalities are bigger. You, as a viewer, are smaller. It makes it very closed in, it makes it very tense. It completely changes the mood and emotion of the movie as you move through it.
[Howard] A verbal example... What I was going to share... You've got... We talk about how characters perceive things. You have somebody who walks into a messy kitchen. You say, "The kitchen was cluttered. Dishes everywhere." The person that moves on with their activities. You have another person who walks into the kitchen and immediately catalogs, "There's a plate left on the counter from yesterday's breakfast. There's puddles of pancake syrup here and there." The things that this character is noticing tell you a little bit about how that much they care about the dishes. That's...
[Brandon] You can imply it's their house from changing one or two words. Or imply it's not their house.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] Mary.

[Mary] I was going to say something along the same lines, which is it's not just what items they're noticing, but definitely the words that you use. Like... I'll use a cardboard box for example, because that's a pretty neutral item. So you can say, "It was a brown cardboard box" and you have described it. But you can also... Like if you've got someone crawling inside it... The difference between "She scrambled inside the cardboard box. It was dark and stifling." Versus...
[Brandon] Or into the dark and stifling box?
[Mary] Right. Into the dark and stifling box is much better. But which is very different from, "She scrambled into the warm and cozy box."
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. What we're trying to do here is, we're trying to force you to have more of an economy of words. Which is really something ironic for me to say, since I write thousand page books. Yet having...
[Dan] Yet you still use these techniques?
[Brandon] I still do this stuff. I just do a lot of it.
[Howard] Economy of words allows you to write a 1000 page book that never gets boring. As we are reading descriptions...
[Brandon] Hopefully. That's the goal.
[Howard] As I read descriptions in Way of Kings, those descriptions were doing multiple things and they kept engaging me. You were building a world, which you needed to do. You needed to wrap a world around these characters, and it needed to be big. As you were doing it, those scenes... Those descriptions were multipurposed, so I remained engaged. I didn't feel like, "Oh, he's just filling out his word count."
[Dan] Trying to get enough words for his teacher to give him an A on his paper.
[Howard] Brandon Tree Killer Sanderson.
[Brandon] Um... All right. Mary...
[Mary] One of the things... This reminds me of when I first started writing horror stories, that the difference between horror and something that is just dark is the quality of the description in a lot of ways. Like I can describe something that is slimy, but if I describe something that is... That it clings to her fingers, that is a much more visceral experience.
[Brandon] Right. I mean, the difference between really good horror and slasher in fiction, I think, comes down to that. The quality of the description. It's very interesting to read the horror genre, not having read it a lot. Because you go in expecting a certain thing, and you realize that the horror genre tends to be one of the most poetic and beautiful genres with its roots way back in Poe and Lovecraft.
[Dan] When done well.
[Brandon] When you read it now, a lot of the authors have taken that and you get the same sense of just creepy ambience from everyday things, and that's all description.
[Dan] And the reason that something clinging to your fingers is scarier than something just being slimy is because it's restrictive. What you're trying to do in horror is show the direct effect that the environment has on the character. That it is impeding you in some way. It's not just dark. Your vision is obscured. It's not just sticky. It's making it hard for you to move your fingers.
[Mary] Right.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Dan] Those kind of details are what makes horror scary, because you feel trapped.
[Brandon] Why can't we be this brilliant all the time?
[Dan] Well, because we're not.
[Brandon] Oh, that's right. We're not that smart.
[Dan] Because we're trapped and our fingers are sticky.

[Brandon] All right. We're going to do our book of the week. I'm going to suggest our wonderful friend Mary has been on the podcast now for several months, and we haven't promo'ed her book yet, even though we promo'ed it years ago. So I think it's time to pick Shades of Milk and Honey as our book of the week on audible. It is a delight full book, you will enjoy it. It is kind of a... Essentially, a Regency story, which means Jane Austen era, but with magic. It is a very subtle magic. It's not Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It's not kicking you in the face. It is actually beautiful and lyrical and full of wonderful characterization. I highly recommend Shades of Milk and Honey.
[Mary] We should mention that I'm also the narrator for it.
[Brandon] Oh, wow. That's... See, that's a real selling point.
[Dan] So if you like listening to her voice on the podcast, you will love it even more on an audio book.
[Brandon] So that's Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Cool...Kowal... Coal...
[Mary] I've been on for months and still he can't...
[Brandon] I still stumble over that name.
[Howard] Okay. Say Kowalski and drop off the ski.
[Brandon] All right. Mary Robinette Ski. I mean...
[Mary] Or koala with no a.
[Howard] Koala with no a is even easier. So head out to and now you have no excuse for mispronouncing Mary Robinette Kowal's last name, you can kick off a 14 day free trial membership and download a copy of Shades of Milk and Honey.
[Dan] See, now I just want her to write furry fan fiction by Mary Robinette Koala. I will be disappointed until that happens.
[Mary] I'm sorry you'll be disappointed for such a long time.
[Dan] Oh, man. At least we have a good writing prompt now.
[Howard] I'm getting out a pencil and piece of paper...
[Dan] Regency era fuzzy fan fiction.
[Brandon] Oh, wow. Oh, Howard's going to draw this.
[Howard] I don't have any paper with me. [Inaudible]
[Brandon] Okay. All right. Before we descend completely into furry fandom... Mary?

[Mary] There is... As we were talking, you just reminded me of a story that I recently critiqued in which the author had a line that was doing something unintentional because of the words she had chosen. The line was, "She was very beautiful, with skin the color of a day-old corpse."
[Brandon] Whoa.
[Mary] Which... It was tight third person...
[Dan] This is one of my books you were reading?
[Mary] It was tight third person point of view. Which immediately tells you a lot about what the character perceives as beautiful. It was unintentional though.
[Brandon] Oh, wow. See, that can be a brilliant line or it can be a gorilla in a phone booth. I've talked about this on the podcast before, the line that draws your attention away from the important things because it's so stunning. You can actually do that with description if you go overboard. It is a danger. One of the problems with description... Any time we do a podcast on description, I worry that we're going to encourage people to be purple. Purple means lots of description, over... Going overboard on it. That is not what we're talking about. In fact, if you're doing what this podcast is saying, it should make your prose less purple.
[Dan] Well, yeah. Let's...
[Brandon] It should be making your prose more targeted and focused. You should be able to use much less description if you're doing it the right way. A line like that is brilliant in the right place. In the wrong place, because it doesn't... People are going to focus on that. If you want people to focus on it, great. If you don't, you're in trouble.
[Mary] Well, and also if your character is not someone who perceives dead people as beautiful.
[Brandon] Right. That's basically it. That's going to color what everyone is thinking about that character from then on.
[Dan] Speaking as someone who writes about a character who does perceive dead bodies as beautiful, the descriptions in my books are still very austere. He doesn't wax poetic about how beautiful a corpse is because his personality is very bare. So keeping the description very, very succinct gets that across, that it's a very spare kind of thing.
[Brandon] All right. Howard has drawn a caricature of Mary as a koala.
[Howard] Mary Robinette Koala. It was not very good. Give me time.
[Dan] Howard, you're fired. Redeem yourself now by saying something brilliant about description.

[Howard] I already said the brilliant bit about the cartooning stuff. I love the color of a day-old corpse example, but going back to purple prose... When you use alliteration and assonance, those sorts of tools? When you use them unnecessarily, they stand out and we think, "Oh, you just picked those words because they all begin with the same letter." But when you pull it off so that they don't... So that it doesn't stand out, the prose flows much easier, and I actually... I enjoy that. I'm reading a paragraph and it sounds like poetry. If you were describing water... Describing falling water in such a way that the sounds of the words that you're using... And I'm not talking about water words, I'm talking about rocks and things like that.
[Brandon] No. I understand.
[Howard] If those sounds are able to... The sounds of the words are able to also evoke water, you've written something brilliant.
[Brandon] Right. You would use... You'd use the water falling on the stones instead of rocks because stones with the "s"s in it sounds more like water sliding over rocks.
[Dan] This is where I have to give my semiannual plug for reading and studying poetry. When we're talking about... This is a poetic device called word painting. Where you use the words... The sound of the words to convey something. For example, Alfred Lord Tennyson is fantastic at this. He's got several poems about the King Arthur legend that use this. When he's talking about a knight in armor walking across a rocky path, all of the words have lots of D's and T's in them and you get this kind of dint of metal sound as he's walking around.
[Howard] Stomping, clanking...
[Dan] Yeah. It's just brilliant. So look for poets that do that well, and then try to emulate them.

[Brandon] To bring this back out, since we're running low on time, the last thing I think I want to mention is to give a reiteration of really try and make your description evoke character. This is going to keep you from going purple. It's going to keep you from doing only one thing. When you do only one thing for too long, your story starts to get boring, particularly if it's descriptions. Descriptions get boring very quickly. If you ask yourself every time you're starting a paragraph, you're going to put in a line of description, "What does this description say about the person who seeing it?" Or "What does this description say about the person that they're describing? Evoke character in one of these two ways and try and inject a little bit of mood in there, you're going to be just fine in your descriptions.
[Howard] You also have to ask yourself the question as you're writing the description, "What is this... how is this description necessary to advance the story? Am I planting a key clue here as part of a mystery? Do I want the reader to be feeling warm and happy, do I want them to be feeling at peace with what is going on here?" Because I'm about to drop an anvil on their head in the next chapter? Those sorts of things... I mean, I agree the character has to come first, but when we talk about descriptions doing multiple things, I'm always looking at what I'm writing, looking at what I'm creating, and saying, "All right. Where is the story right now? Do I need to pull back out of the descriptions or do I need to throw them in more?"
[Dan] Very quickly before we end, another great thing you can do with descriptions is conveying a lot about the setting. You don't have to say, for example... Come right out and say, "Dragons are very common in this world, as you know." But you can just have characters describing walking down the street and seeing a dragon and treating it very matter-of-factly. All of a sudden, you know that this is a setting where dragons are common, and you don't have to be overt about it.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's do a story prompt. As much as I liked Mary Robinette as a koala, let's go ahead and pick something else that has to do with description. I think we'll just go ahead and pick...
[Mary] Can I actually offer one?
[Brandon] Yeah. Go for it.
[Mary] Because this is a writing exercise...
[Dan] Nobody ever volunteers writing prompts!
[Mary] I know. But this actually is a really good one, for description. Which is to focus just on the description. Take yourself someplace and for 30 minutes, describe the environment that you are in. Don't describe the people. Just describe the space. Try to use all five senses. What's going to happen to your brain is that you'll hit a point where you're like, "I cannot possibly describe anything else." That's when you start noticing the little details. The little details are the things that make a story.
[Brandon] All right. Wonderful advice, wonderful writing prompt. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: character, descriptions, economy of words, gorilla in the phone booth, imply, mood, multipurposed, plot, purple, word choice
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