1. IDontDrinkKoolaid

    IDontDrinkKoolaid Member

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    I'm bad at descriptions (creatures and people)

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by IDontDrinkKoolaid, Oct 29, 2017.

    I have a problem with describing objects and creatures in a natural and attractive way, I always end up with very disconnected or awkwardly connected sentences. This is particularly frustrating because I enjoy writing about weird and fantastical creatures, and I really value giving the reader a clear view of what I'm talking about.

    Although I enjoy writing and write a fair bit of non-fiction, I'm new to creative writing, and I seem to have two big problems: the first is the subject of this thread, describing things like creatures and people, and the second is describing action as it happens over time. I've always been a fan of the writing style of the Silmarillion, where the stories are written as if someone was telling a story, instead of it happening in front of us (I never really enjoyed that kind of storytelling, it always feels like I'm reading bad erotica, or something), and that's the approach I take to ameliorate the second issue; the first, however, I can't seem to find a way to fix. Every time I try to describe a creature, for instance, it ends up reading as a list of physical traits, and anything I might be tempted to add to embellish it will only come out as unnatural and awkward - filler, basically.

    I read a lot of non-fiction (mostly philosophy), but not a lot of fiction, since I don't like most fiction out there; I enjoy storytelling a lot, however, and I really want to become better at writing my own stories. I think I'm ok when it comes to non-fiction and even the telling of the story itself, but as soon as I attempt to describe something physical, I turn into a 5 year old with the writing skills and eloquence of a potato.

    I was wondering what books could perhaps shed some light on how to go about these kinds of descriptions. Any other tips or suggestions would be greatly appreciated as well.

    Thank you in advance.
     
  2. izzybot

    izzybot (unspecified) Contributor

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    Well, if you like the Silmarillion but not most other books, I guess I'd recommend really studying it and figuring out how its descriptions and action work. Outside of that, my main advice would be to read and study whatever applicable descriptions you can get your hands on. I'm a big advocate of learning by example, rather than reading craft books.

    RE: descriptions, I have two methods that I kind of go to. One is a slow build, where you pick out some place to start (a place that should make sense for the narrator; a lot of people first register other peoples' faces, so that's not a bad one), and try to follow the logical wandering eyeline around the subject, and if there's anything unusual about the subject, you finish with that. Say you want to describe a gorgon with this method. You'd start with describing the woman portion, as if she were just a regular human, and finish with "and then there was the fact that her hair was a collection of hissing vipers". Second method starts with the remarkable aspect, and lets the unremarkable aspects fall by the wayside. Who cares about her clothes? Her hair is snakes!

    That's for dedicated descriptions, anyway - I don't actually tend to use those and prefer to dot descriptions into dialog/action/thought as I go. I used to almost exclusively go with dedicated descriptions, but I found that it was kind of tedious and ultimately didn't matter nine times out of ten, especially when it comes to people. People know what people look like. Just say she's got short brown hair and move on. Objects, I think, are much the same - I'll toss in a "wooden chair with chipped green paint" for flavor, but readers are going to get the picture and you have to trust that. Original fantastic creatures are really the only thing I'd give a dedicated description to, and I do mean original, because most of us are going to have some mental image just from 'dragon' or 'gryphon' or 'harpy'.

    I love designing creatures, and even then I want to give a broad overview of what the thing looks like at first, and let the details drip in as the narrator interacts with it. I'm working on a novella at the moment that involves a merman, and since I didn't invent those and the narrator is familiar with them too, the only initial description is that ... he's a merm. We all know vaguely what that means. From there, as the narrator gets closer and such, I point out the pertinent bits - he's bleeding blue blood, he has a white-scaled tail, webbed hands, gills on his neck. A little later I mention that his hair looks like kelp, there are koi-like patterns on his tail, and he smells strongly of salt. Later still I mention that he has shark-like teeth. By this point, hopefully, the reader has a good idea of what my version of a merman looks like, and I did it without pausing the narrative and by introducing them at a familiar point: merms in general.

    If you want to describe something original - or something that the narrator just isn't familiar with - I'd take a similar approach. What's familiar? What does it kind of look like? Then, how does it differ? How does it differ drastically? Focus on the details, but don't overload on them. For a monster I designed for a short story once, I described it as looking like a massive boar with no snout, with a beaver-like tail and short but vaguely cat-like ears. Compare things to the familiar. Then the narrator saw its face, which is where the details come in - it was flat and human-y but with no nose or lips and too many eyes, but prominent human teeth. The rest of the body didn't really matter apart from the fact that it was big and had that tail (because it uses the tail as a weapon) - what I want to stick is the face, the details. In this case I wanted it to be horrific, but you know, whatever your goal is. If you want it to be remembered as pretty, focus on the pretty details, etc.

    I think I had more to say but I got distracted and lost my train of thought, so ... hopefully that's helpful some way or another.
     
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  3. IDontDrinkKoolaid

    IDontDrinkKoolaid Member

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    Thank you for the insight.

    I know I have to read fiction if I want to write good fiction. What I was asking when I asked for books was books which need to describe lots of unusual things, like weird creatures and such.

    I agree with you on the "describe as you go" approach, but I always get caught up with the fear of leaving the reader too much in the dark. To be honest I think I just get too caught up on the details.
     
  4. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    Read The Martian Chronicles by Bradbury, he does a great job of
    describing the odd and absurd.

    Though I am a firm believer in giving the reader the important info
    so that they may imagine things the way they choose, and not forcing
    them to see what I have imagined. :)
     
  5. Magical Writer

    Magical Writer Member

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    I too like to have the details dripped in so it doesn't slow the pace down. As long as the important details are given the reader will fill in the blanks, Its good to fill in those less important blanks. Feels more real as the readers had some input. If its something practically hard to describe there's the chance the reader might not get it if over described and the whole scene they'll be trying to figure it out.

    Too much detail throughout and the reader could lose interest or fall asleep, and for me the readability takes a hit. I like the story to keep flowing.

    I started reading Inheritance Cycle must be five years ago now. Managed to soldier on like a beast to book three but each time I pick it up for another attempt I remember why It was collecting dust. Not to say that's the same for everyone but for me lots of description isn't a page turner.

    Maybe read a book you enjoyed and write down what worked for you in terms of description and see how they did it, then try to implement your own descriptions into it.

    In the past I've googled things to look at and try to describe, a kind of writing exercise. Practice practice practice :agreed:
     
  6. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker are two writers you might want to investigate. In particular, Neverwhere by Gaiman, and Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War by Barker. Both stories are YA fantasy with plenty of what you're looking for.
     
  7. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I'm sorry, but all of these I-want-to-write-novels-but-not-read-them threads are a bit ridiculous. Reading more fiction would mean you write better fiction. You said you don't like most of the fiction out there. Do you even know what's out there? And if you really don't like the fiction that is being published, maybe writing it isn't your thing either.
     
  8. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Currently Reading::
    "Sleep Donation" by Karen Russell
    The best thing you can do is build a journal. When you're reading, read as an author and be on the lookout for what works. Copy/paste the section into a file. (source it too, sometimes you'll regret not doing that). You'll be surprised how quickly that file grows. When you're able to look at pure examples that you wish were yours, you'll be able to see the elements that really work. Structure, sensory approaches, imagery, etc. Just general technique. It helps to have your rhetoric down cold so that you know what to say about it.

    Take this perfect opening of setting. (Some would argue it's character too.)

    "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."​

    Just looking at the structure of the description, on the first pass I see this (forgive my shorthand):
    • Anastrophe (can continue for long to exist sanely). A technical description branching into the poetic, joined by a ; to build up a series of parallels.
    • Building on personification (sane, stood by itself, held). Another sentence in parallel. Second part in statement/expansion (80 years, 80 more).
    • Technical description, nearly architectural (nothing else of the house's shape is mentioned), small series of <sub linkverb adj> in compound sent. Last ; stressing silence of nature (wood/stone). Big finish, nearly an aphorism. (whatever walked there . . .)
    And then a good exercise, actually a near perfect one, is to take that outline and do ten descriptions with it. It'll take a while, but you'll match upon the structure, and you'll start to make that opening paragraph your own. What you create with it walks alone, so to speak, haha. Imagine if you have about 500 of these descriptions collected. It's a valuable resource and really teaches you creative approach.

    It would work well in a writing group . . . Everyone finds twenty paragraphs for the week, and then at the meeting, everyone combines their work with everyone else's. Extremely valuable, IMO, and lots of points for discussion. (I wish I had a group :( )

    If you want a book that works well for description, I'd recommend Ron Rozelle's. I like that guy a lot.


     
  9. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

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    I like to mix descriptions with actions. That prevents the description from being just a list of traits.

    Alison was a athletic girl with shoulder-length blonde hair.
    vs
    As Alison jogged, her blonde hair bounced weightlessly on her shoulders.
     
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  10. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I think that "a clear view" may not be a reachable goal. That is, if you have a clear and detailed image in your mind, and you want to transfer that image to the reader's mind largely un-altered, that may simply not be possible. I'm not saying that YOU lack the talent; I'm saying that it may simply not be possible, period. The level of excruciating detail required to perform that exact transfer, and the memory and visualization task for the reader, is just too much.

    But building a vivid and interesting image in the reader's mind is totally achievable. To do that, you latch on to the reader's existing reality and lure them into building their own image. Unfortunately, to see this, I think that you're going to have to read a fair bit of fiction, like it or not.
     
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  11. Skibbs

    Skibbs Member

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    If this post helps: I find English is a lot like Maths - which is odd due to the fact I am more talented in English than Maths - in the sense that description is all about putting suitable words next to each other. To elaborate on this: if you put the right symbol (+ - * /) next to the write number, you get a correct answer; however this may just be my abstract view.
     
  12. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Um... no.
     
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  13. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    Agreed. Math is much more complex. :)
     
  14. Skibbs

    Skibbs Member

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    As I say, I have a very abstract view on a lot things - I just suppose it depends on how your brain is wired.
     
  15. IDontDrinkKoolaid

    IDontDrinkKoolaid Member

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    Wow guys, thank you for all the answers.

    To clarify, I think I've been misunderstood when I asked about books that could help me with this; I was precisely asking about fantasy stories with a fair bit of description in them. I know very well that to write well you must read, since writing is not a natural thing, and your only frame of reference is the work of others.

    I never said I didn't want to read novels. From my experience, most novels I find in bookstores are quite formulaic and boring, but if I find something that seems to be up my alley, I'll read it. I feel like most fantasy things that get put out there now-a-days are "young adult" fiction, and as much as I love romance subplots (I don't), I just can't get into it. I'm probably wrong, but luckily for me, I don't want to write to sell my work, and there are plenty old gems to read! The reason why I said I didn't read a lot of fiction, is because I just really got into it a year or so ago; maybe I should've rephrased that.

    What?
     
  16. MDUwnct

    MDUwnct Member

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    Since you do not mention a specific genre, I will list by fun fiction, Douglas Adams, Piers Anthony, Robert Asprin, Terry Brooks come immediately to mind. More serious but extremely well written fiction: Stephen R. Donaldson's , Katherine Kurtz, Dean Koontz, David Eddings, John Saul, John Steinbeck, Amy Tan, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ken Follett, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tess Gerritsen, John Grisham, Jonathan Kellerman , Diana Gabaldon, Cassandra Clare, Dan Brown, Anne McCaffrey, Sue Grafton, and my list could cover many ages as I LOVE fiction. Give me a genre and I can be more specfic.
     
  17. Talltailor

    Talltailor New Member

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    IDDKA,

    I think anthologies are a good place to start. There are an absolute ton of them published in America, as well as in literary magazines. Here in Europe, we have choice,
    but in the states you can easily find a bag of great short story writers. Also try Tor now and again as they occasionally offer ebooks online through the ibook store or on amazon in kindle for free. I hope this helps. Often these collections rock. One story that comes to mind in a collection was How to talk to a Hunter by Pam Houston. It is awesome.
     
  18. Mark Lemohr

    Mark Lemohr Member

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    I started by reading two pages of a writing style that I liked and then immediately trying to emulate it with my own story. It was very clunky in the beginning, but after while the switch flipped and my own style developed. I often hear readers complain about over-description by authors. I have to respect the fact that anyone who reads is intelligent and has an imagination of their own. I only use one to three sentences to describe anyone or anything and let the reader fill in the rest on their own. This gets them involved in the story and hopefully keeps their yawning to a bare minimum. Happy writing! Mark Lemohr
     

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