N is for New Knowledge – Fine Art of Description

DSCN6715The panels at Norwescon are full of good advice and creative ideas. I focused mostly on writing related topics, and although some of it is repetitive, it’s always helpful to review tips and pick up more.

One panel packed with great tips was The Fine Art of Description.  The panelists were Tegan Moore, Kay Kenyon, Laura Anne Gilman, & Renee Stern.

I especially appreciated the section on layering description. Here’s what experienced and professional writers recommend:

Layering of Description

Renee: Reveal things in the order that the character would notice them. When a person walks into a situation, they will usually notice how they feel emotionally. Are they afraid? Comfortable? Relieved? If they are looking outward, usually other people will be noticed first. Weak writers instead often describe the physical details of the room or the food on the table first and then talk about the characters. Be sure to notice and describe things organically in the situation.

Kay: There should be levels to the description – emotion/internal, sensory/external and action/interaction. Only deliver the telling details – the ones that are unique or need to be known. And don’t define everything. This style is richer since the reader can fill in the spaces with their own images in a way that goes beyond what can be written. And the reader will  be fully engaged. The description should do two things at once as often as possible. For example a garden can be splendid place full of morning light, or flowers can be beaten down by rain, depending on the character’s emotion or situation.

Laura: And the description shouldn’t slow down the action. Intertwine it. Put the rain as dewy on the character’s skin and tell how it affects them, like dampening their spirits. Or describe sheets of rain impeding the character’s assault on the king –  instead of talking about the weather and then telling about the character being in it.

Tegan: Specificity and Precision with your words is important. Was the rain misty or torrential? Take time to figure the right one.

Another type of layering has do do with necessity and filtering of detail.

Kay: Make sure you are having your character think something they really would think in that moment, rather than what you as the author want or need to tell the reader at that point in the story or for your planned Arc. Description should be filtered by the situation and by that character.

Laura: Yes, if you want a character to notice something, it needs to be triggered – properly motivated by prior action or emotion. For example, if they had to skip lunch in the prior scene, they would likely notice the food in the room first. Or if they were returning after being away for a year, they would first notice the things that have changed. And besides what happened prior, it depends on who they are. The assistant walking into a meeting would notice with relief that the pastries they’d ordered had arrived, while the boss would notice the dignitaries at the meeting and be focused on protocol. Don’t have them talk about things outside of what fits their perspective.

Tegan: If you need extra detail about a situation, it can sometimes be useful to have an outside character learning about a situation as the point of view character instead of someone on the inside.

Kay: It’s also good to layer the order of reveal for pacing and plot purposes. It’s alright not to tell all about big things until later. Like you can mention there was a Sundering, but make the reader wait to find out why and how it unfolds.

Laura: So don’t just describe the moment, but weave in the story to come. Like mention the coffee is missing, but later reveal that the Ambassador’s party is allergic to caffeine.

Kay: Or perhaps the coffee is present when they’re known to be allergic, and the fact it’s there implicates the assistant in charge of the coffee is trying to kill them. But don’t explain the connection. It gives the reader the joy of saying, aha, I noticed this.

Tegan: Ah, I see what you did there!


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