1. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    Imagery vs "less is more"

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by NaCl, Oct 6, 2008.

    I often struggle with wanting vivid imagery, yet attempting to write by the modern notion that that "less is more". How do you deal with this seeming conflict of interest? How do you know when enough is enough?
     
  2. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    Good question. I suppose by describing the situation from the character's perspective, as opposed to a broader, less experiential one. The character can view his/her surroundings, equating them with his/her personal experience. The character's view can still be vivid, though pithier due to the story having to move on. I find it more interesting when I know how a character feels about whatever is going on, though I'm not a great fan of lengthy descriptive pieces.
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i don't see what pov would have to do with either, as a good writer can create vivid, reader-engaging imagery while still hewing to the 'less is more' axiom... and i've read way too much from not-so-good ones who overwrite anything regardless of pov...
     
  4. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's all a matter of style. Different authors handle it in different ways.

    Personally, I hate to see the plot take a backseat to description. I usually break up descriptions to make them less obvious; I try hard not to dump the whole picture on my readers at once. For example, if my MC meets a new person, I won't give that person's full description the moment they meet. I usually open with the basics: general appearance (size/build and a short description of what he's wearing) and one distinct feature that's eye-catching. These two things can give a reader a general idea of who we're dealing with without dumping too much description on them at once. As my MC goes into dialogue with the newcomer, I drop a few more hints of the man's appearance, such as eye color, hairstyle, more details of what he's wearing, facial features, etc.

    I do the same with scenery. It allows me to paint a vivid picture, but the reader never has to sit back and watch me paint; the story goes on while I slowly develop the picture. It's also more realistic this way. In real life, people don't walk into a room and immediately take in all there is to see. We notice a few outstanding details, but even after being in the room for ten minutes or more, we're still picking up little details we didn't notice at first.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The problem isn't with having descriptive scenes, unless you're breaking the flow of action scenes. The problem is overdescribing. For each detail of descri[tion you need, ask:

    1. Does describing this deatil really add to the reader's "presence" in the scene?
    2. Have you already described or implied the detail ("the frosty air on a frigid cold morning made him shiver from the chill").
    3. Is it better to describe it now, or wait for another opportunity?
    4. Can you replace several descriptive elements with a single, evocative word or short phrase?

    Following guidelines like these will let you still have vivid decriptions with an economy of words.

    Also, well-chosen verbs can often do more than several adjectives and adverbs. "The arctic wind howled" tells a tale of biting, blinding, noisy, cold-to-the-bone wind without you having to describe every aspect of the wind.
     
  6. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    I recently read a Louis L'Amour story about a gold miner. The entire story had only the one character, a gold miner in search of his fortune. The story began with him discovering a few large nuggets in a stream. Then, L'Amour went into several pages of description of the area in which the goldminer was working and the signifance of the gold nuggets. It was a classic "info dump", but it was fascinating as it explained the signifance of smooth nuggets versus coarse nuggets and the meaning of the veins of quartz inside each chunk of gold.

    After explaining these things and describing the local environment in considerable detail, the MC began following clues upstream looking for the mother lode. He came to a fork in the stream. One side flowed with crystal clear water, tumbling over and around rows of smooth boulders, visible upstream. The other fork was cloudy and spread across a wide, sandy delta before vanishing between two ragged cliffs high above. The info-dump gave me enough knowledge to understand what I was seeing and to anticipate which way he would choose. I found myself getting excited about the possibilities. Anticipation is the core of all sports and suspense stories. Without the earlier description, the reader would not have been prepared to feel the anxiety and excitement of this discovery.

    This story prompted my question in this post. How does a writer judge that important division between "info-dumps" and well placed description? Cog's answer begins to offer standards by which such decisions can be made . . . but I'm looking for more specific guidelines. For example: what primary factors would you assess in making such a decision: (using Cog's terms)

    1) "Presence" - Cog talked about the value to the present scene. Can "presence" also provide a basis for upcoming scenes, especially in a one-character story where the story might move quickly from scene to scene? (L'Amour's initial details proved to be sufficient that no further interruptions were needed as the action moved quickly thereafter.)

    2) "Implied" from verbs. Is it better to use those verbs to imply a scene or might they be better used to directly enhance the action? (L'Amour used his verbs to describe the threats that developed as the miner extracted gold, rather than being forced to use them to describe the scene.)

    3) Timing. Is it always better to build a scene over time or are there circumstances when the "info-dump" builds anticipation in a series of fast developing scenes? Interruptions for description can break the tension of a good story.

    4) Economy of words. Generally, I would agree that economy is preferrable, but I can also imagine situations where lengthy descriptions might build a better ambiance in the story.

    Thanks to Cog, we have the following issues to consider in making the Imagery vs Less-is-more decision: "presence", "imply from verbs", "timing" and "economy of words".

    Can anyone think of more guiding issues in making this decision?
     
  7. Palimpsest
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    Palimpsest Senior Member

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    Funny, just last weekend I was talking with my mom and aunt about how I've been mourning the loss of descriptive prose. When the definition of a good book becomes one driven by an airtight plot, you expect every sentence to be A Clue... so, no more describing what they're wearing because that's shallow, no more describing landscapes because that's boring, no more describing food unless it's poisoned or has a note rolled up in it from a mysterious informant or whatever...

    It's a thrill to read a story that comes together tying everything neatly, but, I sometimes miss just being taken somewhere else. This is a good bit of writing advice: skip writing/publishing the parts that readers will skip reading. But, what people will skip might be a matter of personal preference.
     
  8. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    As Cheeno said, and I agree wholeheartedly: imagery is viewed best when it is through the eyes of the character.
     
  9. Little Miss Edi
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    Little Miss Edi Contributing Member

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    Go crazy with your description. Then, when you've finsihed your first draft, read it back and be brutal with the red pen. It's much easier to remove then it is to add and there's no need to get your brain all tied up when you're trying to write with the 'is this too much/little/long/short' question. Good editing will give it a nice balance. :)
     
  10. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    Now the guidelines include editing:

    1. "presence" - use description sufficient for the present scene only,
    2. "imply from verbs" - in lieu of detailed description,
    3. "timing" - introduce info in carefully metered (to borrow Congress's word-of-the-month) tranches,
    4. "economy of words" - say more with less,
    5. "editing" - write with descriptive abandon; edit with ruthless precision.

    Any more suggestions?
     
  11. Teele
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    Teele Contributing Member

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    I think Edi hit the nail right on the head. I know for myself, I used to think more description was better, because more description meant more words and therefore more length, meaning (apparently) that I was a better writer.

    I'm slowly learning that less is more. However, I would also introduce the element of 'purpose'. How significant is the scene/person/thing you are describing? If it's there and gone in a page, you probably don't need to go into intimate detail However, if, like you said, the scene is incredibly important to the future of the plot, it may merit spending a little more time on it.

    Of course, this property balances and intertwines with all the others. A necessarily long description can be whittled down by presence, implications, economy, etc.

    As a practical step, if you have to make a long description, read through it a few times...perhaps the next day. Does the description bore you? Are you anxious to get through it to the action? Does it seem to run on? If the answer is 'yes' to any of these questions, perhaps some editing is in order. ;)

    There's my two-bit rant.
     
  12. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    Did you hear what I said?

    Through the eyes of the character.

    If one is a shallow character he will gloss over the details. If he is a lover of nature he will be entrenched in describing the scenery only a naturist can describe. If he is homeless person in a city person, he may not even describe his surrounding. If he is middle income city dweller he may recall tidbits of exposed skyscrapers, for that is where he works.

    Again, imagery works best through the eyes of the character. A prime example is London's "To Build a Fire."
     
  13. Teele
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    Teele Contributing Member

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    True enough, and very good point. Though a difficulty can still arise: the character may have a very intimate knowledge of the person/place/thing you are attempting to describe, as in NaCl's example. A description, even as seen from the eyes and mind of the character, could still be long and significant. Often, though, this isn't the case.

    But yes, you are correct in that every description should come from the eyes of the character being described. No disagreement here!
     
  14. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good point EyesforYou. Let's call that "relevence".

    Now the guidelines include:

    1. "presence" - use description sufficient for the present scene only,
    2. "imply from verbs" - in lieu of detailed description,
    3. "timing" - introduce info in carefully metered (to borrow Congress's word-of-the-month) tranches,
    4. "economy of words" - say more with less,
    5. "editing" - write with descriptive abandon; edit with ruthless precision.
    6. "relevence" - description should be relevent to the character development or plot promotion.

    Any more suggestions?
     
  15. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    Relevance should be on top. ;) Then everything should come after that.

    If, therefore, it is irrevelent to the story, there is no need for "prescence" "imply of verbs" "timing" "ecomony of words" or "editing."

    One must know if describing the imagery is relevent or not--if it enhances the story or it does not.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, I would say rather, "Through the eyes of the POV observer." That may indeed be a character, or it could be a virtual viewpoint with a specific visual/auditiry/tactile/etc. range relative to the character or the scene setting.

    Many times with third person limited,you see and hear the story world from half in and half out of a character. You can observe the character's movements, see what he or she sees with no parallax offset, hear selected thoughts, and yet be able to pull back just enough to see something reaching for him or her from behind.

    Be conscious of your POV, and its perceptual limitations. If your POV is perched on your character's shoulder and looking forward as he does, and paying attention to what the character is paying attention to, don't have him toss back his sleek black hair, unless he is so obsessed with his appearance that that is what is the center of his attention. "Gee, I'm having a great hair day today!"

    If it's a typical guy watching a girl he likes approaching, he may well notice her golden blonde hair. Maybe he'll even notice her eye color, if it's one of her more noticeable features. But for heaven's sake, he won't be noticing that her dress is cornflower blu and falls just short of her knees! He''s probably far more focused on her legs. If you ask him later what color top she had on, he probably has no clue, just how well she filled it.

    So leave out the details your POV observer wouldn't pay attention to AT THAT MOMENT IN TIME. That also means that if she is running down the street pursued by snapping Rottweillers, he won't be paying ANY attention to her shiny hair.
     
  17. Iris Reola
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    I just write however it first comes out. I know that I can go back later and remove irrelevant details (or add important details) to improve the story.
     
  18. Dcoin
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    Dcoin Contributing Member

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    I think also variety is important throughout the book- meaning that not every scene needs a thick layer of description, or a bare bones type. I have found that mixing between the two makes for a better read.
     

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