The Difficulty of Invisible Description


I’ve been reading Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second Dresden Files novel. In the middle of a fight with a werewolf, the narrator uses this simile:

I was flung back through the air like a piece of popcorn in a sudden wind …

I loved this image at first. It conveyed a vivid image of what happened. It did so with a completely original bit of description. In a sense, it seemed to follow all the “rules” for good writing. It shows instead of tells. It avoids cliche. So why did something feel wrong about it? Why did it pull me out of the story?

And that’s when it struck me. In a sense, the description was too good. It wasn’t invisible, which is why it pulled me out of the story. This is one of those things that no one wants to tell you, but sometimes writing can be too creative to serve its purpose.

Eventually, I realized I could pin the problem down even more. The word “popcorn” is the word that jumped out too much. In a fight scene with a werewolf, the word popcorn is too unexpected. I talked a bit about this in the post on tonal consistency. It isn’t the right tone for the moment.

As readers, we have baggage surrounding werewolves, and we have baggage surrounding popcorn. There is no overlap between these two histories. Sometimes this stark contrast can be done purposefully to achieve a desired mental state in the reader (comedy or Lynchian horror to name a few), but this was not the place for such a thing. A fight scene needs to have invisible description, and that’s often harder than the creative thing.

Let’s workshop how my own thought process goes for description. Say I’m writing a fight scene, and the antagonist yells an insult at Bob, our protagonist. My first draft has the sentence:

Bob was angry.

It’s such bad writing, but that’s what first drafts are for.

On revision, I think about the advice “show don’t tell.” I need to come up with some description that shows the anger. I replace the sentence with:

Bob’s cheeks flushed red with anger.

It’s an improvement but not by much. I call this “fake showing,” because I’m still telling the reader “with anger” and I’ve only put in a shallow, cliche idea.

How did this happen? Well, I heard the word anger, and I thought the color red. I also thought the phrase “hot head.” The description came out as something red on the person’s head. It’s dull and uninformative.

Here’s a technique I learned from one of Orson Scott Card’s books on writing. The first few things you think of will always be cliche and ordinary. That’s why you thought of it first. So make a list of 10-20 descriptions, and only start working with ones that fall near the end of the list. This forces you to exhaust all the common tropes. Don’t worry about sentences. Get the idea for the sentence down.

Anger welled in his gut. (cliche)
He shook with anger. (cliche)
Balling of fist. (cliche)
A low growl of anger in his chest. (semi-cliche, but better)
Tightening of muscles: face? neck? chest? (getting somewhere)

We could move to even more ideas, but let’s stick with this last one. I wanted to get away from the head, so let’s not use the face. There’s too much danger for cliche there. I like neck, because it isn’t so inventive as to automatically draw the reader out of the scene. I can’t recall ever reading this description for anger, but it strikes me as something everyone will immediately relate to: the tightening of the neck muscles.

Let’s try it.

The muscles in Bob’s neck coiled into a tense knot.

It’s okay. It’s a bit general and vague. Which muscles? How did it feel? We’ve replaced telling of the anger to telling of the feeling of anger.

Also, I’ve sort of lost that we’re talking about anger, and it’s cheating to tack on “of anger” to the end of that sentence. I even see this in established authors. It makes me cringe, because if it’s needed, you haven’t used he right description. If it isn’t needed, why is it there?

Let’s make it a bit more descriptive in a way that edges us back toward the anger.

The long muscle running down the left side of Bob’s neck snapped to a rigid knot and pulsed with a fiery violence.

I think the anger has come back a bit. It walks up to cliche with “fiery violence,” but I don’t think it crosses the line.

Are we done? No! Now we have to do the hard part. Will it be invisible in the scene? That’s hard to say without the context of the sentences around it. But there is a major danger with the way it is written now (I did this on purpose). It personifies a muscle by giving it an emotion. Like the simile I started with, this is a dangerous thing for invisible description. Any simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, (insert word here)-ification, will draw attention to itself.

There are tons of situations in which description doesn’t have to be invisible, like setting a scene. In those situations, the literary techniques can run wild with creativity. The middle of an action sequence can’t pull the reader out of the story, so invisibility is more important.

Now let’s try to do one more revision where we tone it down without losing the essence. I first notice some excessive wordiness, which I’ll try to contract and simplify.

A fiery pain jolted through the left side of Bob’s neck as the muscle tensed into a knot.

This is close to done. It will probably need some more tweaking in context to make sure it is invisible and conveys the anger in the appropriate amount. Good luck on your own invisible descriptions!

P.S. My parents complain that it takes me too long to write a book. Here’s a 1000-word thought process in an attempt to edit a 3-word sentence. How long does it take to edit a 90,000-word novel? Do the math.

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