Style and Description

I had dinner with an old friend, who was also one of the first readers of Spring That Never Came. When we got onto the topic of that story, she observed that she had “miscast” one of the characters in her mind, thinking at first that a later description of him contradicted what I had earlier said.

When she went back and looked, she turned out to have been wrong, but it pointed up to her that I was fairly minimal in my use of descriptive passages.

Which is true. In Spring, it was largely deliberate, though I confess that I avoid excessive description in general, both by nature and due to my various influences, and I thought I should explore that a little, here.

"The golden glow of flowery description suffused the air between the towers of Shanghai, looking suspiciously like smog."
“The golden glow of flowery description suffused the air between the towers of Shanghai, looking suspiciously like smog.”
To begin with, my reading style tends to skip long descriptive passages, or else my eyes glaze over and I have to read the passage three or four times before it penetrates. There are authors who circumvent this in various ways and whose descriptive passages don’t cause me to stumble and repeat even once, but they are rare. In general, more than a few details lumped together and I start to treat it like somebody else’s grocery list — possibly important, but not to me. I skip on to get back to the drama.

Then there are the writers who have formed me as a reader and a writer.

Robert A. Heinlein is a biggie. I inhaled mass quantities of his work between the ages of twelve and eighteen. And if you’ve read him, particularly his earlier work, you know that he had a distinctive way of handling description, which is not to describe, but to drop a detail here and a detail there as the story keeps barrelling along. By the end, you have a fairly comprehensive image in your head of whatever it is, but you may also have your own impression of what a character looks like based on how they act and how others react to them, which may or may not match up to the accumulation of details. Heinlein is also the author who declared that the ideal science fictional sentence was “The door dilated.” That is, you don’t stop the story to discourse on the mechanics that permitted that to happen or the engineering history that led up to that becoming a common thing. You just state it, and let the implications work themselves out in the reader’s mind.

I’m telling you right now, I still think that’s a good idea of how to handle all kinds of things. Not always the best, not always possible, but a good default mode. (Among Hoyt’s Huns*, we call that sort of subtle description “Heinleining”.)

Another author who has had enormous impact on me, for good or ill, is Fyodor Dostoevsky. (I was reading The Brothers Karamazov in my sophomore year for fun. I don’t even want to know what that says about me.) Mad uncle Fyodor would very often go on long jags of nothing but dialogue. No description, not even describing the physical actions of the speakers. And yet, it’s not quite like reading drama, because his characterizations are so strikingly vivid that you can see in your head what they’re doing just by how they are speaking. Not what they are saying, but their tone of voice.

Then we come to screenwriting. I am a failed screenwriter. I spent years studying the craft, working out a plan of attack on Hollywood, and writing writing writing.

Now if you’ve studied screenwriting at all, you already understand why I don’t blink at a lack of flowery description, but if you haven’t, here’s a quick guide to the common wisdom for describing characters in a screenplay.

When a character first appears, you give a one-line description so the reader has an idea who he is dealing with and has something to picture. But you do not describe too specifically, because you want to leave the director and casting director a wide latitude in selecting an actor for the part.

The canonical example is from Lawrence Kasdan’s script for Body Heat, wherein you are introduced to “TEDDY LAURSEN, rock’n’roll arsonist”. And that’s all the description you get. (Honestly, after that, do you really need more?)

So no, I tend not to linger on description much. I give necessary details, and perhaps an evocative detail or two, and then let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. If it’s important, it goes into the story. If it’s not, I’d rather not be Dean Koontz or Dan Brown and go on and on endlessly just to show off the reading or research I’ve done.

In the future, perhaps, I will try to give a bit more detail, but I’m not sure how it will go. It’s just not how I’m wired. I’m less about pretty descriptions and more about getting to the point (i.e., the actual story).