Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stephen King Tells Me How to Write Description

Subtitle: Sometimes the Voices in My Head Are Helpful

Stephen King at a USO event.
(Photo credit to The USO)

This week I did some critiquing for a wonderful fantasy story, and reading her descriptions got me wondering about the Essence of Description.

Doing all this critiquing, writing, and analyzing description may have driven me just a smideony bit crazy. My brain felt like it was going to implode. Or explode. I think it could have gone either way, really.

(Photo credit to Shaheen Lakhan)

I struggle with description. I use too little. In my opinion, this story I was critiquing had a little too much but that might just be my personal preferences at play. It was some really good description, whether it needed to be trimmed down or not.

So while I was racking my brain for some good guidelines on description, I remembered that Stephen King had some advice in his book On Writing. On Writing is one of those books you hear about over and over again if you’re a writer, and for good reason. It’s entertaining. It’s got great advice, and that advice is coming from Stephen freaking King. The man’s sold millions of books. He’s obviously doing something right.

Can you believe these? They're from a 16th century medical text on brain surgery!
(Photo credit to Shaheen Lakhan)

And, so, with my brain on the verge of, uh, self-combustion (let's go with that), it decided to do a little interview with Mr. Stephen King himself. (All quotes are from On Writing. Bibliography below.)

Me: So, what does description mean to you, Mr. Stephen King, writer of great acclaim and yet tangible figment of my imagination?

Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot.

(Photo credit to Skamelone)

Me: Okay, well, that’s good to know, but can I get a little more detail?

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.

Me: Yeah, some trick. Wish I knew it. Got anything else, Mr. King?

I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue).

Me: Got it. No J. Crew catalogues. I’m guessing the Gap’s out too. Good. I hate writing description anyway. But what should I include?

I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players. Nor do I think that physical description should be a shortcut to character. So spare me, if you please, the hero’s sharply intelligent blue eyes and outthrust determined chin.

Me: Sure. Locale and texture. Yeah. That’s not actually all that helpful. I’m not sure you’re understanding the question, Mr. King. What should I include?

… good description usually consists of a few well chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.

Me: Cool. That’s a start. Can you give an example?

One of my favorite restaurants in New York is the steakhouse Palm Too on Second Avenue. . . . Before beginning to write, I’ll take a moment to call up an image of the place, drawing from my memory and filling my mind’s eye . . . The first four things which come to my mind when I think of Palm Too are:
(a) the darkness of the bar and the contrasting brightness of the backbar mirror, which catches and reflects light from the street;
(b) the sawdust on the floor;
(c) the funky cartoon caricatures on the walls;
(d) the smells of cooking steak and fish.
The Palm Restaurant, NYC
(Photo credit to Jennifer Martinez)
And a link to Palm Too's site.

Me: Those are some pretty cool details. I think you might have a talent for this, Mr. King. Can you show me how that’d work in a story?

King: Sure. Just let me whip something together as we speak because I am a masterful writer and you are but a mere peon.

Me: What the hell?

King: I didn’t say anything.

Me: Oh, never mind. It must have been the voices in my head. Carry on. You were going to give us an example paragraph.

     The cab pulled up in front of Palm Too at quarter to four on a bright summer afternoon. Billy paid the driver, stepped out onto the sidewalk, and took a quick look around for Martin. Not in sight. Satisfied, Billy went inside.
     After the hot clarity of Second Avenue, Palm Too was as dark as a cave. The backbar mirror picked up some of the street-glare and glimmered in the gloom like a mirage. For a moment it was all Billy could see, and then his eyes began to adjust. There were a few solitary drinkers at the bar. Beyond them, the maître d’, his tie undone and his shirt cuffs rolled back to show his hairy wrists, was talking with the bartender. There was still sawdust sprinkled on the floor, Billy noted, as if this were a twenties speakeasy instead of a millennium eatery where you couldn’t smoke, let alone spit a gob of tobacco between your feet. And the cartoons dancing across the walls—gossip-column caricatures of downtown political hustlers, newsmen who had long since retired or drunk themselves to death, celebrities you couldn’t quite recognize—still gambolled all the way to the ceiling. The air was redolent of steak and fried onions. All of it the same as it ever was.
     The maître d’ stepped forward. “Can I help you, sir? We don’t open for dinner until six, but the bar—”
     “I’m looking for Richie Martin,” Billy said.

Me: Damn, you are good at this. That’s a great description, and it’s woven into the plot seamlessly. You didn’t take a break from your book to describe the bar. You wove it right into the character’s actions. That’s amazing!

King: Yeah. I know.
(Note: I’m pretty sure this was the Mr. King in my head, and not the real, live Stephen King.)

Just because its a little creepy and a little cool.
(Photo credit to Monsieur J.)

Bibliography (b/c that's how I roll)

King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Scribner, 2000.

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