DescriptionNovel writing

The art of description–Part 2

From Scott:

In my last entry, we discussed the use of descriptions in your writing. The key focus of the blog was the number of descriptive words that should be used. Put in too few, and you risk leaving your reader confused and drawing his own conclusions. Include too many, and your reader may become bored. Either way, you will likely end up pulling your reader out of the story, and you don’t want that. I was reminded of this the other night while listening to the radio. A song I like came on, but at the end of the first verse, they threw in a bunch of techno filler music. My mind was elsewhere, not even focused on the music, until that happened, and it snapped me right back to reality. You’ll have the same effect when you pull your reader out of the story. You don’t want her in reality; you want her in the world you have created.

So now let’s take a look beyond how much description to put in your novel and discuss when you should put it there. Most prominently, anytime you open a scene in a new location you need some description to orient the reader. For example, in my two thriller novels, the main character is Jim Hunter. In each novel, the first time he enters any given location, I have to provide descriptions for the scene so that the reader gets all of the environmental input that Hunter does.

However, there are certain locations he goes to repeatedly, such as his home and his office. Once I’ve established those scenes, there really isn’t any need to go into it when he returns there. Sure, I can give a line or two, like the first example from the previous blog, which was fairly stingy on details. And if anything is different, I should certainly mention that. But there’s no need to go back and describe the same things again. The reader already has that information. The following passages from The Pythagoras Enigma demonstrate this. In this first excerpt, Pythagoras enters the barn where he is holding his victim. Although it isn’t his first time there, it is the reader’s first trip, and therefore more description is necessary.

A dusty film lay over everything in the interior. Cobwebs dangled from the walls and ceilings, and some of the rotten rafters dangled from their moorings. The barn looked as if a stiff breeze might bring the whole thing down. A layer of straw covered the dirt floor.

Pythagoras shuffled his feet into one corner of the barn until he heard the hollow thump. With one foot, he scraped the straw off the wooden door in the floor. A rusty metal handle had been screwed into one side. He grasped it and gave a firm pull.

The hinges screeched in protest as the door swung up and fell out. He shined his light into the gaping hole beneath, revealing the rickety ladder that descended into darkness. He descended the ladder two steps at a time until he stood in the hidden cellar. A few feet away, the woman lay on a low table. An IV, the catheter in her arm, dangled from the wall. The slow drip of medicine ensured that his victim would not wake up. Not that it mattered if she did. Her screams would not be heard outside of the cellar. Nylon ropes secured her hands and feet to the table. She could not have escaped.

Now in this next one, Pythagoras reenters the barn. Notice how the book completely skips over that fact and goes straight into the action.

Pythagoras briefly considered taking a few photographs, but he decided against it. The moment would be seared into his mind forever, anyway. Detective Katie Jonah, her hands cuffed behind her back, swung gently back and forth in the grip of a noose. He had opened the hidden hatch in the barn and used his pulley system to gradually lift her off the ground. She had fought to the very end, standing on her tiptoes and gasping for breath. At that moment, he had paused for fifteen or twenty minutes, enjoying her final moments. In the end, he grew weary of the sport and raised her just a bit higher.

Now, he would need to dispose of the body. He already knew where he would do it, it was just a matter of when. And there was no better time than the present. Besides, if he kept her around too long, she would start to stink. But first, he had one last task. His final act in preparation for taking his next target.

An exception would be if something in that environment has changed. It could be something that you want to make completely obvious to the reader, so you would give it a prominent description, or maybe it is something that you would like to present more subtly in order to surprise the reader with it later. But if the scene hasn’t changed, there’s no need to go deep into the description again.

What happens if, in the course of one scene, the characters enter multiple locations? Obviously, you will have to describe the new location. But the amount of description will depend upon the situation. Let’s say that Jim Hunter is driving through Bloomington and stops at a bank, as part of his investigation. When he enters that bank, I’ll describe the interior the same as if the scene had started right there. But what if Jim is in hot pursuit of a suspect? You can’t interrupt a high-stakes action scene to put in a paragraph or two of descriptive prose. For one thing, if Jim is in a life-or-death struggle, chasing a man with a gun into a building, he would not notice the little details of the rooms he chases the man into. His focus will be on the man and his gun. Once the tension winds down, you can slip a few descriptors in here and there, making the scene-setting a bit more subtle. Consider this passage, also from The Pythagoras Enigma:

The deserted streets of Bloomington, Illinois simmered in the leftover heat of a blazing August day. The muggy air did not stir, not even the hint of a breeze. He wiped sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his black sweatshirt. He had overdressed, considering the sweltering temperatures, but it could not be avoided. Stealth would be the key tonight, not comfort. He leaned out from behind the rusty garbage bin, checked to his left and right, then darted across the debris-covered alley to the building’s lone door. He put his back to the corrugated steel wall and drew a deep breath.

The rear entrance to Nate Brashtin’s modest warehouse would be locked and alarmed. On an ordinary night, Jim would require Krista’s assistance to gain entry. But on this particular evening, he had an advantage. Nate’s wife, Julia, had hired Jim to investigate her suspicions of her husband’s infidelity. She provided Jim with a key to the door, as well as the code for the alarm. He slid the key into the lock, turned the knob, and made his way inside.

Now the scene is changing, from outside the building to the interior. The description doesn’t interrupt the action immediately, however. Jim’s first priority, and his focus, are on the alarm. Once it is deactivated, then he begins to notice what is around him.

He eased the door shut behind him before he tapped the code into the alarm box. Only when the blinking red light turned green did he relax. So far, so good. He started to lock the door but changed his mind. If something went wrong, Marcus needed a way to get inside and back him up. Not that Jim expected any problems. This would be a quick mission, in and out in fifteen minutes if all went well.

He retrieved his phone and sent a text to his team. “I’m in.”

With the phone safely back in his pocket, he activated a dim red flashlight. By its faint glow, he navigated the short, carpeted hallway to the facility’s primary office. Beyond, the hall led past three more doors and into the storage area, which took up most of the warehouse.

The scene-setting goes on from there, mixed with Jim’s actions. Since this is an ongoing series of location changes, I tried to keep the descriptions of the areas mixed in with what Jim was doing. That way, I don’t keep clobbering the reader over the head with pretty words every time Jim opens a new door.

So that’s all for now. In my next part in this series, I’ll go into more detail regarding different techniques you should use to set the scene.


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