Your Slant

We are impressionable creatures, and what we write tends to reflect what we read. Fledgling writers often strive for the neutrality found in media reportage. This approach has drawbacks for numerous reasons, but I’ll confine myself merely to the effect it has on a writer’s approach to writing descriptions.

Most descriptions that I edit show one quality above all: an earnest desire to describe an object as accurately as possible. Those who take the neutral approach employ words that define the object, particularly the right colors. If you are careful enough, such descriptions can drill down deeply enough into details to create a visual image.

I would like to advance another way of seeing them. A description often reminds me of an Impressionist painting. The artist does not convey the subject’s meaning through painstaking rigor to get the cheek blush just right or the wheel’s shadow in chiaroscuro. Rather, the vibrant colors and thick impasto are meant to invoke feelings in the viewer. What a great summer day! What a beautiful woman!

When you only have black etchings on white paper, the best descriptions often reveal aspects of character. Rather than getting every detail of a Hawaiian lanai correct, why not focus on those details that describe the narrator’s reaction to the feast? Let’s say the owner has mounted a collection of whalebone knives on one wall. Okay, you could describe the knives’ curvature, or their mottled surface from age. But why not tell the reader how seeing them impacts the protagonist? “On one wall hung a row of whalebone knives that made me wonder if their owner carried on ghoulish activities in the dead of night.” Or describe the owner by his knives: “On one wall he displayed a row of whalebone knives, but the collection seemed forlorn hanging behind his huge new flat-screen TV.”

As readers, we’re intrigued by the narrator’s reaction first; we can participate in that emotion. So, you don’t have to toil for lonely hours over the perfect bon mot. Tell us how you feel about it. Then all you need are the broad strokes.

Exercise: Check your descriptions in any given chapter. Have you assigned personal qualities to any of them? A certain number of them want to remain neutral. A road sign is a road sign, for example. An occasional hill does rise off to the right in Nebraska. Try to focus on those objects about which the narrator could offer an opinion. Depending on her major characteristics, shading can be added to add humor, paranoia, anger, delight, or a wide variety of emotions. Give us her first impression, in other words, and then get down to the details.

“People on the outside think there's something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn't like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that's all there is to it.”
—Harlan Ellison

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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