Blood on the windows
Millions of ordinary people are there
They gaze at the scenery
They act as if it is perfectly clear
Take a look at the mountains
Take a look at the beautiful river of blood.
– Genesis, Domino, part 2
I’ve never been one for writing exercises, even as a fan of Writing Excuses. I think I’ve done exactly two of their writing prompts in all the episodes I’ve listened to. It’s not laziness–on the contrary, I’ve got my own projects to work on and I don’t have time for extra work to do.
And I’m starting to think that might be a mistake. If there is a weak point in my writing (and there is, and plenty of ’em), it’s description. I’m not just “light on description”, I’m guilty of acute sensory deprivation. I know I should do more. I just…don’t. Perhaps this is an opportunity for some practice exercises? Can I teach myself to add description more instinctively?
I’m going to try it, and I’m going to drag you along, kicking and screaming. I need a starting point, though, and fortunately Phil Collins and gang have provided me one. Let’s take a look at the mountains–or one mountain in particular–and see what we can do with it.
Prompt: My character looks at a mountain. What does she see?
Mount Kokaibo rose majestically heavenward, its forested lower slopes giving way to sparse scrub, to unforgiving rock, and finally to a snowy crown, wisps of cloud spinning out into the air.
Not bad, though this is all visual. Granted, mountains are usually far away if you’re going to be looking at them, and visual may be all you can get. Or can you?
Mount Kokaibo rose before her, covered in vibrant, steaming jungle nearly to its rough granite peak, like a favorite uncle, his bald head barely visible above the swarm of nieces and nephews clambering up his frame, trying to pull him down.
Though not technically describing the mountain, perhaps this attempt endows the mountain with a bit more personality and relates it more to its surroundings. There’s sound elements to the simile, and perhaps even some tactile connections. Moreover, it endows the setting with a sense of tone. In this example the mountain seems almost pleasant, perhaps, largely because of the “favorite uncle” comparison. But how about this?:
Mount Kokaibo rose before her, angry orange in the dying light of day. Though cloaked in festering, fetid jungle up much of its slopes, its unforgiving, lifeless stone peak thrust up from the green like a bloodied knife blade emerging from its victim’s back.
Hopefully this feels much different from the previous example. This mountain hardly feels like a place for a family campout–unless that family campout is about to be broken up by a psycho-killer. But hopefully this is a good example of how having a goal in mind can help drive your description to achieve a given feel. If you want your readers to be drawn to the mountain, use the former example. If you want to fill them with foreboding about what might happen when the characters reach the mountain, use the latter. There’s a reason why Tolkien’s Mount Doom is described the way it is compared to the Misty Mountains.
But perhaps we want only to provide a sense of mystery–we don’t know whether the mountain is good or bad–and perhaps it’s neither:
Mount Kokaibo rose before her, a massive mound of vibrant jungle receding into the rain-laden clouds that came in low off the ocean. Gaps in the clouds teased the imagination like a belly dancer, hinting a ragged gash of stone here, more teeming, glistening green there, all the while hiding its true size, or even where the peak might stand.
The more I do this, the more I’m convincing myself that I not only can do more with description, I should. What’s more, I’m beginning to see opportunities for concentrating and sharpening that description further.
For example, in the line “…the rain-laden clouds that came in low off the ocean…” the word “came” sits like a stone paperweight in the middle of a birthday cake. It does little but stand out when most of the words around it are specifically chosen for impact. It could easily be replaced with something more evocative, like “…breezed in…” or “…wafted in…” or “…lumbered in like a threadbare blanket from the ocean…”.
Of course it’s entirely possible to spend too much time on description. If a character picks up a pen during a scene and its only real purpose is for him to sign a document, spending too much time describing the pen might trick the reader into thinking they’ve spotted a “Chekov’s Gun“. A little description might tell us something more about the person who owns it (“he picked up a pen, ebony and trimmed with gold, from his mahogany desk…”) without drawing undue attention.
Similarly, there is often no reason to spend more than a few lines at a time describing something. We get a pretty good idea of the mountain from any of the above attempts. To go on for several more paragraphs would likely bore the reader, unless the information will actually prove vital later on. For example, if you can see the terrain the characters will pass through on their way up the mountain, describing it now can help prepare reader expectations. If they’ll never even go up that mountain, too much detail will just be overkill at best, and disappoint reader expectations at worst.
Description, like most elements of a story, is a balancing act between what the story needs, the writer’s style, and the reader’s imagination. After all, most readers have seen mountains, or at least pictures. If the characters are passing through the mountains it may not be necessary to describe them much beyond calling them mountains. If the mountain is important to the story, though, it might be good to give the reader more. It’s a recipe that will need tweaking to get right. One teaspoon or two might be a matter of personal choice. No salt or an entire cup? You might lose the reader altogether.
It may well be that I’m preaching to the choir here. Many authors instinctively “get it” when it comes to the right amount of description. But perhaps some don’t. Some might include too much. Others, like me, might use too little. It’s something we can learn, we can fine-tune, until it becomes more instinctive. That’s where exercises come in, and after writing this column I’m starting to think I might have missed the boat in ignoring writing exercises all this time. A little exercise might not be such a bad idea.