Monday, January 7, 2013

Thick or Thin: Painting the Picture

There are times when I go through life, plowing through, never noticing some of the fascinating details in my day. Head is up, but the inner wheels are spinning and my brain has allotted just enough energy to my eyes to make sure that I don't slam my face into walls and such. I could drive down a street never noticing the colors of the cars surrounding me.

Sometimes, however, I am tuned in to only the out of place. Did anyone notice that all the cars surrounding me are all white? That's strange. Who stole the color? These nuggets are grabbed, stored, and will most likely reappear in a story just for a giggle or to give a sense of depth to the story. However, the world is just serving as a backdrop where all the action is taking place. At these moments, I am not noticing the tiny pink details in the drapes. I see that there are drapes, and if there is not a clown about to pop out from behind them--I pay them no mind.

Ah, but when I am on, when all the writer senses are fully engaged, I notice every little detail. The sheen of the grass from the morning due. The color of the tuft of fur on the kitten's front paw. The prickly parts of the mango scratching my tongue when it was cut too close to the flat, oval pit. Every possibility observed and recorded for future use. Words describing these details dance around my head, searching for the best way to recreate the exact same image in the reader's mind. These details from our everyday world give a story realism.

The problem is trying to avoid going into overload when relaying these details on paper. Do I really need to describe the orange that the character is eating, or can I just simply state the character is eating the orange? This is all part of the writing process. We must decide when to leave out the details, when to only pay attention to the nuggets that stand out, and when we should give an object a full, enhanced, description that works like a fancy 3D printer for the reader, providing the exact same image that we conjured when we wrote the passage. When should it be a pair of boots, a pair of muddy boots, or weathered, brown leather workman boots with tattered yellow laces?

The answer simply is -- it depends.

Let's look at the boots. My character walks into the room. I notice he is wearing a button up shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of boots. That is sufficient, if there is no reason that I might need to know more. I can picture that, and I can move forward with the story.

Ah, but I have spent all day scrubbing my house to perfection. I make a quick trip to the store. Upon my return, I am horrified to find that my sparkling kitchen floor is now caked in mud. Standing in front of me is an adorable four-year old boy, wearing a happy-to-see-me smile and a pair of muddy boots.  Mystery solved.

However, what if I was hiding under the bed from the criminal that was snooping through our estate, and the only thing I could see of the man who broke into my home, shot my beloved dog, and rummaged through my belongings was that he was wearing a pair of weathered, brown leather workman boots with tattered yellow laces? That is something I would never forget. I would hand that information over to the police in as great detail as possible.
We paint pictures with our words, but we need to know how thick to apply it. Is it blue, is it crimson, or is it the soft pink hue of a baby's wind-chilled cheek? It all depends.

What is your take on details and descriptions? Do you believe less is more, or do you want to be able to picture precisely what the author is picturing? Is writing the descriptions in a story something in which you excel, or do you struggle?


  1. This is a great post.
    I've been thinking about the details my character would focus on in his world. I noticed, when I was driving through California, that so many cars on the motorway were white. And, the trucks were wider than the lanes and just like the ones we normally only see on TV - I thought that was odd;)
    When it comes to descriptions I'm a recovering over-describer ;)

  2. Stories with no description strike me as a bit vanilla, but it is easy to go overboard. How descriptive to be depends on so many things--genre, the narrative voice, etc. But overall, it's a pace slower, so it's good for creating a sense of ease or space, and it can ramp up tension when there's imminent danger lurking nearby (it also shows the heightened senses when one is hyped up on adrenaline).

  3. I guess my style is minimalistic, although I do add lots of detail. I just tend not to go on longer than a few sentences about most things. :-D