Saturday, March 19, 2011

Describe--er, show me where it hurts

   On some occasions as you sit in one or another of the workshops you give for writers, you cannot help performing a curious dance consisting of focus on what is being read, a few dips and twists of schadenfreude, swatting at the flies of irritation at some word or stream of words that yanks you out of a narrative, and an outright irritation at the way you were allowed for so long to approach such personal areas of story telling as description.  Some of the tools can be explained, in particular those called to your attention with examples:  The X scene in story Y, where character Z confronts Character A.

More often than not, however, you had to learn by seeing how published authors managed.  Even then, with description in particular, you were not always the brightest Crayola in the box, and it was some time before you were able to set aside your personal hubris of thinking your descriptions were superb.  This belief was of a piece with you taking immense pride in your dialogue, thinking you'd nailed the trick because, by golly, your dialogue sounded the way people do when they talk.  Yes, well.  And you'd thought your descriptions of particular weight because--get this--they demonstrated your range of vocabulary.

You are after this point:  description needs to be presented in tandem with point of view.  Description is not how you see things, not how the writer visualizes things, nor is it mere stage direction; it is the product of point of view.  "It was a dark and story night" may have done well for Bulwer-Lytton; look at the mileage he's had from it, but his trope now stands as a prime example of intrusive author.  In that bargain, he even has who knows how many bad opening sentence contests named after his writing.  We need a character to pull it off.  "You want me to go out into that fucking dark and stormy night, you gotta be out of your fucking mind."  Now we're getting somewhere.

The description of anything is the perception of the character whose turn it is, in fact allows you some if not total insight into the head and sensory apparatus of that character.  You in particular were told about the gun mounted on the wall in act one being a portent.  Watch, the instructor told you.  If that gun isn't fired during the course of the play, you will feel cheated.  Oh, how stubborn you were as a teen ager, thinking to yourself that you would not ever have a use for a gun on the wall in the first place because that was not the kind of writer you were.  Damn well told you were not; you knew bupkes--beans--about causality.  Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph meant getting the reader caught up in the story; it was a device.  Yeah; it also meant starting the story where the story began, and while it was true even then that you had no taste for Bulwer-Lytton, you nevertheless thought you could lure the reader in with a hooker that demonstrated how, oh boy, this is gonna be one hell of a clever ride.  Even though an enormous segment of the reading public does not get off on the kinds of reading you most admire, that is no excuse for trying to catch their attention with literary cute or even funny cute.

The years you spent working with the carnival, learning how to be convincing when, as a shill, you "won" something, and learning how, as an agent or barker, it was not the loudness of your voice that brought them in were not years spent in vain.  Put you in front of a baseball-throw booth and more often than not, by tossing a ball to some guy, he'd come over, either to take a free shot, or hand you the ball and say no thanks, giving you yet another chance to lure him in.  Different with the ladies.  You'd pretend to be juggling, purposely muff, sending baseballs all over the place, and of course the ladies would help you round up the loose.  Men.  Always showing off.  Etc.  Of course the goddamn milk bottles were weighted.  Of course you'd have one display set up with the weighted balls on top so that the merest tap would send the whole display tumbling.  Look at that, folks.  If the little lady'd been playing for real, she'd be able to select any prize on that third shelf.

Get you out of the story; get your characters in.  What appears to you to be a glorious, romantic sunset doesn't matter to the character who, seeing it, senses something ominous in the air or becomes chewed up by the hounds of loneliness because he'd been dumped by his squeeze.  Got to stop objectifying the details, let the characters experience them so that the reader can experience from the filter of the character rather than the talking head of you.

Let me describe how deep my feelings go.  Er, no thanks; I'm kind of busy reading stories that work.

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