Last Wednesday I talked about description and emotion—how if you use words or images that have an emotional value, a reader will become personally involved. Today I’d like to talk about selective description. This is the act of narrowing down what you describe so that it has a stronger value. In simpler terms, it’s the act of figuring out which descriptions are more useful than others.
The first step in selective description: avoid sampling.
“Sampling” is a term I came up with for someone who writes like they are snacking on appetizers; they eat (or describe,) a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and we the readers have trouble imagining the scene.
Usually “sampled” images are contradictory. Say, a vase of wilting flowers, and a sunny hallway. The wilting flowers have a bad connotation: death, decay, corruption. The lighted hallway has a pleasant connotation: sunshine, warmth, laughter. Both are realistic images but together they suggest opposite things. Know that everything you describe will have an underlying meaning or feel—readers come to expect this. They look for the bigger meaning.
Sampling messes with this. Usually the writer is trying to make a scene authentic, so they think of everything they might experience in that scene. But in real life, we ignore most of what goes on around us. It’s better to place yourself in the world you have created, and then imagine what is realistic for that world.
Remember how last Wednesday I said to choose which sense are most prevailing, instead of describing each one in turn? Before you describe something, think of what makes it unique. What are a few things you would instantly notice—things that would stand out in your fictional world? Play up those qualities, and describe things that support them.
You don’t want to go overboard on this. In Noah Lukeman’s popular book The First Five Pages, he says: “Aim for complexity of thought, not expression. This means don’t lay on descriptions. Let the thing being described be complex, and write simply.”
There’s a movie called Stranger Than Fiction that does an amazing job of this. Each character has two or three qualities that set them apart and, in a way, define them. Harold Crick is the main character. He’s proper and dull. He counts everything—the number of strokes to brush his teeth, the number of tiles in a bathroom, the number of steps to the bus stop. He wears sweaters or suits everywhere. These outside quirks tell us that inside, he’s resigned to his life, but he’s not happy in it; and that leads to some deep revelations. Simple writing: complex thought.
The second step in selective description: show only what is pertinent for the moment.
Writers tend to over-describe things, especially when introducing a new character. “Mark had stylish salt-and-pepper hair,” we might write, “Over an angular face. His eyes were an intelligent green, and his smile was charismatically crooked at the corners. He wore a pin-striped vest…”
This doesn’t tell us what kind of man Mark is. Maybe he’s a little proper, maybe he’s a man of class. We aren’t certain. It’s too much information too soon, and we have nothing to bounce it off of. Once we get a feel for who Mark is, we’ll care how he looks. But right now his pin-striped vest isn’t pertinent. It has no importance.
Really, details do not matter until the item itself matters. I won’t care about how your Photon-Blaster works until it jams during the Mexican standoff. I won’t care how Mark looks until he turns out to be the serial killer. Etc.
This leaves the question of what is pertinent to a scene. Well, what image are you trying to get across? What does the reader need to know? (By need, I mean would they get confused if you cut it out?) Pick a few details or quirks that support your big image. If Mark is our serial killer, what would support that? Maybe he toys with a little pocket knife. Maybe he always turns up in dingy bars. These add something to his personality. They make us curious. They matter.