Description Workshop with Isolde Martyn.
9/25/2011 10:27:20 PM
Off The Cuff, the writing group I attend and adore, was honoured to have our friend and historical romance writer, Isolde Martyn spend the morning with us, running a workshop on description.
We were asked to give an example of a scene from a book or film that has remained with us. I chose The Sound Of Music, one of my favourite things, and the scene where the children are singing goodnight to the party guests – you know the part – where little Gretel is alone on the stairs until she is picked up and carried to bed by a sibling. This scene always, always chokes me up and that is the reason I love it – it strikes an emotional chord. When written well, description can do the same.
It’s all very well telling the reader that Gretel sat alone on the stairs, but add a description of say, her small frame, her wide eyes, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees and the expansive and sweeping staircase upon which she is sitting, and one starts to get a feeling of vulnerability and scale – and I have used a very simple form of description to start creating that feeling.
Description can provide details of the setting: Goldilocks clapped her hands when she saw the little wooden cottage; its window glowed orange from the warmth within, so inviting after a solitary walk through the empty forest.
It can create the atmosphere: It was a dark and stormy night…
And it can relax the reader after a period of high tension: The glossy pebbles jostled and jingled as the white-foamed waves worked their way between them.
It can also provide ‘layering’ – clues as to what is going to happen: That sweet, sickly smell was familiar and she was instantly transported back to her twenties and the months of endless parties she’d enjoyed, when in the morning, countless bodies lay strewn around her house, their owners either drunk or doped…
The passage /passing of time can be dealt with very nicely by using good description. As a writer, I do not want to be minuting everything my characters do and as a reader, I would be bored rigid by it. I can let the reader know that time has passed by giving information, for example, like the weather or season or maybe the time of day: The warm evenings of summer had given way to the billowy breeze of autumn and Carrie had resorted to wearing her old angora jumper.
What Carrie did during her warm summer evenings, in this case, is irrelevant to the rest of the story, so pass the time with description.
One of the major things description can do, is to clearly show from whose point of view the story is being told. Is the character in first person, running through the forest, brushing past the ferns, swearing as his ankle is stung by yet another nettle, or is it in the author’s point of view, detailing this man’s progression through the woods from a vantage point, describing the look of discomfort on his face as he rubs at his ankle?
I am still learning my craft – four years down the line, I am only just beginning to make sense of how to write and how I write. I tend not to over describe, but sometimes wonder if I leave too much to the reader’s imagination. With the advent of travel, television and the internet, people today know what a castle is, to use Isolde’s example, and if they don’t, they will look it up. There is no longer the need for lengthy descriptions as in days gone by.
Too much description and information can slow the pace down, stop the momentum and ultimately lose the reader. Use research wisely. As the writer, it is important to gain a solid understanding of what one is writing about, but it is not always necessary to transfer all that new knowledge onto the page, descriptive or otherwise. It may not be as interesting or pertinent to the reader as it is to you.
Lastly, try to avoid lists: The seafood platter was almost alive, the ingredients were so fresh. It was overflowing with white crab meat, flamingo-pink tiger prawns, tender lobster claw, flakes of poached salmon, aphrodisiacal oysters, octopus, dolphin-friendly tuna and mussels…..What was I saying?
Following the workshop, I have thought about Truth Or Dare? and wonder if I need to add a little more description – I tend to be quite sparing – I am not what I call a ‘fluffy’ writer, but now I know how description can draw the reader in, I realise it can be a very powerful tool if used intelligently.
Please take a look at Isolde’s website www.isoldemartyn.com – it is well worth a visit.
Lastly, those experienced writers amongst you, please set me on the right track if I have wandered too far. Thank you.
9/27/2011 12:28:41 PM
Hi Laura, you make the point well regarding description, many a good book has been spoiled for me by the author telling me every little detail about everything. It can be hard to know when enough is enough, i find the trick is to just think of your readers, i would hope most of them are reasonably intelligent beings and therefore will as you say know what a castle looks like, that trees are green and that water is wet. I agree you need description when you’re building atmosphere or if your characters are somewhere most people will not have been- a laboratory or military base that kind of thing. Also, depending on the scene, a description of every little thing may be essential to keep the reader on edge especially if you’re trying to build tension or suspense.
I think you seemed to be spot on with what you’ve picked up from the workshop, and even though I’m not an experienced writer I’d say you’re definitely on the right track.