Description is Tricky

Hannah Mosk commented recently that her first drafts are very short. They end up being mostly dialogue. She goes in during revision and fleshes the story out to its full potential. I'm getting better at this, but it used to be incredibly hard for me not to do anything but dialogue. That's where the story moves along. That's where the excitement happens, the test of wills between protagonist and antagonist. Oh sure, you can write about Indiana Jones running away from the boulder, but it isn't until he runs into Beloch and the Ubutu that things really heat up.

I receive complements on my description and it always confuses me. I don't think I'm very good at it. In fantasy especially, it is customary to describe everything from the sky to the scent of the air to the dew on the grass. Perhaps I'm tired of over-description and that's why I limit what I describe. Or maybe I'm just not good at it, so I avoid it. I don't go into a lot of detail about what my main character looks like (I think this is a reaction to all the time spent trying to make the "cool hero" when I was a younger writer). I've received complements from people who said they prefer to envision the hero how they want to envision them and the author forcing a description on them lessens the character. I don't agree with that, Our appearances say a lot about us, the hardships we've faced, the decisions we've made, the nuances that distinguish us from others. Amorphous beings running around interacting with other amorphous beings isn't appealing to me.

(I will note that unless it improves the situation/description, I intentionally don't describe characters' skin color. If you want the hero to be black or Arab or latino, I have no problem with that. That kind of thing is infrequently relevant to the stories I tell.)

So I try to walk that line of just enough description. I don't talk a lot about the sun or the wind or dawn or whatever. I use similes to put it into a context the reader understands (without breaking the verisimilitude of the setting) and move on. Skewed similes are a great way to show the differences between the story setting and real life. But I don't dwell. Forward action. Is that good? Is that too Michael Bay? Is that a product of a life spent in front of a TV/movie screen as much as in front of a book? *shrug* I don't know. I do know that I was reading ROSEMARY AND RUE by Hugo Award-winning author Seanan McGuire. She crafted an awesome paragraph of description. Awesome in the Eddie Izzard sense of awesome not the hot dogs and socks kind of awesome. It was so awesome that I stopped and admired the craft of the paragraph.

I stopped and admired the paragraph and immediately realized I had left the story. The description was so literary that I left the story as a result of its literariness. It wasn't over-written, that's bad writing. This was good writing, but it was just dropped in the wrong place. The story was on a roll and I came to a screaching stop to admire the majesty of the paragraph's sunset when I should have been worrying about the protagonist and what happened to changelings at sunrise.

It's those moments that make me think that maybe I don't suck at description. Maybe I put as much description in a story as I want to find in stories I read. I still think it's a weak spot of mine. Am I shorting my setting? Or worse, will all my settings seem the same because they don't have enough description to tell them apart? Time and manuscripts will tell. This has been on my mind, though. I'm writing JEHOVAH'S HITLIST (or DOWN BELOW THE UP ABOVE), a walled city beneath a giant platform city in the sky after the oceans have risen and the world has transitioned into the cities above and the ghettos below. Am I describing Down Below enough? It's tricky. None of them have been up on the wall. Almost all of them were born well after the oceans rose and don't know anything except their little city. How do you describe the microchosm of their existence when they themselves don't understand it? There are only so many times I want to know that the city is dirty, full of trash, absent of wood or plastic, etc. At some point, we need to get on with the story.

How about you? Is there a particular feature of storycraft you have difficulty with?