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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Description in Writing

Description is a necessary part of writing. I return to Arlo Guthrie Jr.'s advice that whenever you introduce a character you must provide a 100 to 300 word description that defines the physical characteristics, not necessarily internal characteristics of the character. Internal characteristics must be developed through showing us the character--don't even think about telling us what they think. Tell us what they look like--you can skillfully slip into this description something about the person's character. Telling is necessary in setting the scene and then letting the character loose in the novel. This is not a break from the rule of showing and not telling. This is setting the scene.

Character description example from Aegypt

Mr. Audrey.” Paul clasped the Englishman’s hand as he dismounted.

Lionel Audrey was a medium-height man with thinning brown hair. He wore a heavy wool suit, but he had removed the coat. Perspiration salted his brow and made his face glisten. Audrey
looked young, but his eyes were surrounded by wrinkles. He squinted out from under his thick glasses as if the glass wasn’t the right prescription, or as if he sought to penetrate further than just the surface. In spite of this impression, Audrey’s attitude was breezy and facile. He didn’t speak; he lectured in an arrogant Oxford accent.

You can see how this gives life to the character and sets him apart from everyone else in the novel. When Audrey is reintroduced and mentioned, there are many characteristics that can be used to refer to him that brings the character back into the minds of the reader.

Likewise, you must set the scene. Tell us about the weather, the environment, the feel of the place, and what it looks like.

Scene setting from Aegypt (place description):

The sun rose like a flame. The horizon boiled with the vigor of the lifting sun, and across the scorched rock and sand, the wind sang along with the moving light. Shadows moved in its wake
across the already hot plain. Paul already felt the sweat on his back and neck. The still air in the fort left the perspiration warm and heavy under his clothes, and he longed for the morning wind to make its way to him.

Without warning, a swirl of air touched him, but it wasn’t any relief. The breeze was hot and filled with the acrid dust of the Chott Djerid depression. He could feel it in his lungs, and he lit another cigarette to wipe the vile taste away. Below him, the wind-born dust swirled in tiny dust-devils around the diggings. The desert itself seemed to be trying to cover over the
gaping wound there.

The Tunisian workers were already stirring, ready to enter the cooler depths of the pit, ready to dig for the gold they hoped to pilfer under the noses of the archeologists, and they would. Paul had seen it happen too many times before. Their culture was different. The Englishmen wouldn’t or couldn’t understand that.

Paul took a long drag on his cigarette, nearly burning it back to his fingers. The sun stood like a flaming ball precariously balanced on the horizon for a moment, and Paul wondered briefly whether it would go forward or fall back.

He looked down at the diggings. The shadows wavered crookedly across the dark opening. Paul fancied he could see the essence of the ages spilling out of that black hole. It lingered in the waste as if the ancient plain were as timeless as the secrets hidden under that dull and
shifting surface.

This tells us a lot about the time, day, weather, and scene. This allows the reader to fall into the narrative and see what is happening. We also discover something about what is going on without telling the reader--we show the reader. We pull it from the knowledge of the main character without telling.

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