When I said I’d blog about choosing details wisely in writing fiction, I meant it; I just didn’t say how soon I’d get around to it!  Writers often have to describe scenes, characters, or objects in their stories.  Which details do they choose to mention, and why?

First let’s examine some of the things writers try to accomplish in their descriptions:

  • First and foremost, create an image in the reader’s mind
  • Convey the mood and theme of the story
  • Show the attitude, personality, and mood of the point-of-view character
  • Foreshadow a later event
  • Illustrate connections to, or separations from, other scenes, characters, or objects in the story

That seems like a lot to accomplish, a lot of baggage to weigh down a few words.  Partly for that reason, in books written in the Nineteenth Century and earlier, descriptions were long and tedious.  Writers weren’t as selective about details; they threw them all in.  Today’s readers won’t stand for that, so as a modern writer you’ll have to keep your descriptions brief.

Say you’re writing about something or someone and you want to convey the image to the reader’s mind.  How do you choose the details?  Here are some guidelines:

1.  Three is a magic number, as far as the number of details to pick.  Don’t stray too far from it either way.

2.  Specific details beat general ones every time.

3.  Nouns and verbs are better than adjectives, and adjectives are better than adverbs.

4.  Consider using a mind map to mentally play with all the details you can think of, then select the few that best serve your purposes.

5.  You don’t have to gather all the details together in one place, in one solid paragraph.  You can sprinkle some of them around later in the scene; that helps break up the narration and keeps the image fresh in the reader’s mind.

Here’s an exercise you can do to improve your skills in selecting details for your descriptions.  Pick something to describe–the scene out your window, a movie or TV character, a household object.  Now create a mind map filled with key words about your chosen thing.  Next write two description paragraphs, one in a happy mood and one in a sad mood.  Write two more paragraphs, each as if narrated by characters with opposite personalities.  Write another one that contrasts your chosen thing with some other.  Just as no two witnesses describe a traffic accident the same way, using the same details, there are innumerable ways to describe anything.

Let’s analyze how George Orwell described the scene outside a character’s window at the beginning of his novel, 1984.

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, big_brother_is_watching_you_by_teabladezz-d20dgysthere seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black moustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs…

In addition to giving a concrete image, this certainly conveys mood and theme, and also foreshadows.   I like the contrast between nature (shining sun, blue sky) and man-made items (torn paper, poster flapping, commanding corners).  Well-chosen details.

More practice will increase your skills at picking details to include.  Leave me a detailed comment if you got something out of this blog post.  Knowing the devil is in the details, I’m—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

February 9, 2013Permalink

It’s Written All Over Your Face

facial-expressions-It’s important for a fiction writer to learn how to describe human facial expressions.  A person’s face is the most communicative body area, and often it reveals a character’s feelings.  Amazing, isn’t it, how many things we can make our faces do!  There may be as many facial aspects as there are possible mental states.

Small wonder there are so many English verbs devoted to describing a person’s mien:  blanch, blush, grimace, grin, smirk, etc.  It surprised me to find the Wikipedia article on Facial Expressions only listed six “classically defined facial expressions:  Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness, and Surprise.  However, the article goes on to list “other examples of feelings that can be expressed” including:  Concentration, Contempt, Desire, Empathy, Frustration, and Love.  Maybe the list isn’t infinitely long, but it doesn’t end at six.

Writers aren’t restricted to single-word descriptions of human facial expressions, of course.  Sometimes it’s useful to describe what’s happening on a character’s face and trust the reader to recognize the expression and deduce the character’s feelings.  In Clement Clarke Moore’s poem known popularly as “The Night Before Christmas,” we encounter the line, “His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,” and we know St. Nicholas is smiling, and therefore is happy.  Although you could break down all facial expressions and describe them in detail in your story, that would get tedious, so be sparing in your use of that technique.

Of course you shouldn’t restrict yourself to describing facial expressions alone.  Your characters adopt bodily poses, make hand gestures and other movements.  These can also express mood, sometimes more accurately than the face does when a character is trying to hide his or her feelings.

Returning to my subject of faces, I should also mention that characters (like real people) can have, well, characteristic or habitual facial expressions.  These might be due to an almost perpetual non-neutral mood, or some nervous habit.  Giving a character one of these habitual expressions can help readers become familiar with the character.

While doing research for this blog entry, I came across some great references for writers.

  • Descriptive Faces–A Resource for Writersis a blog set up by writer Charity Bradford where she discusses facial expressions in detail.
  • The Nonverbal Dictionary contains a list of at least 250 nonverbal expressions, each linked to detailed discussions.
  • The Bookshelf Muse website offers a book called The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman, and Becca Puglisi.  Although I haven’t read the book, some sample entries from it are available on the site.
  • The MacMillan Dictionary has a website listing words for describing facial expressions, and their meanings.

Was this helpful?  What are your favorite ways to describe character’s facial expressions?  Can you think of an example where a writer did it particularly well?  Feel free to send me a comment on the subject.  Since this blog entry is in the written medium, you can’t see what’s written all over the face of—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

January 27, 2013Permalink

Do the Objective Correlative

No, the Objective Correlative isn’t a dance step, so far as I know.  It’s a literary term that can be hard to comprehend.  Let’s see if I can explain it in words even I can understand.

Imagine you’re an author writing a scene in which a boy encounters a rather scary bear.  You want to convey to the reader the emotion felt by the boy when he senses the bear is watching him from somewhere, but he can’t see the animal.  You could simply state the boy was scared.  That would violate the principle of show, don’t tell we’ve discussed before, and it’s rather on the amateurish side. You could instead paint a word picture of the scene, as William Faulkner did in his story, “The Bear.”

He heard no dogs at all.  He never did hear them.  He only heard the drumming of the woodpecker stop short off and knew that the bear was looking at him.  He never saw it.  He did not know whether it was in front of him or behind him.  He did not move, holding the useless gun, which he had not even had warning to cock and which even now he did not cock, tasting in his saliva that taint as of brass which he knew now because he had smelled it when he peered under the kitchen at the huddled dogs.

First we have the sudden silence of normally noisy animals–dogs and a woodpecker.  We have the sense of “blindness” in that the boy cannot see the bear.  Faulkner describes the boy’s only potential weapon in countering the situation as “useless” and not even cocked.  There’s a cold, metallic taste in his mouth.  Finally we find the dogs huddled, hiding.

In a few sentences, Faulkner shows us that terror of being watched, vulnerable, unable to even confront the danger.  Never once does he mention the boy’s emotion, and yet we feel it nonetheless because of the situation, the chain of events, the details chosen in the passage.  Moreover, a single one of the details wouldn’t have sufficed; the combination of several details completes the effect of evoking the emotion.

That is the Objective Correlative.  The artist Washington Allston coined the term around 1840 and meant it to be applied to painting.  T.S. Eliot later revived the term and applied it to literature.  I came across the concept while surfing the web one day when I came across this site.

T.S. Eliot said there are ways to fall short of having the right objective correlative.  The details in a scene might not leave readers with any particular emotion, or maybe with the wrong one.

You can use common literary symbols as part of an objective correlative.  Some of the many symbols used to represent an emotion include the color blue to mean calm, darkness to mean fear, rain to mean sadness, and a mouse to represent shyness.

Of course, readers vary by culture and background and some words do not convey the same emotions to all.  Still, the objective correlative is an effective tool for maximizing the emotional impact of your writing.  I encourage you to ‘do the objective correlative’ even if it isn’t a dance.  Did this blog entry help you understand the term?  Leave a comment and let me know.  Dancing here in this little corner of the Internet you’ll find–

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe