Saturday, October 26, 2013

Three Paragraphs - Description

In writing fiction there are, essentially, three separate types of paragraph: description, action and dialogue.  The proper use of these paragraphs is one of several essential basics required to write a successful story.


Description is often one of the first things you will do when starting a new story.  Granted action and dialogue can be equally strong openings, but description is the most common way to begin a story.  Even if it is not used for the opening, it will appear at least near the beginning of every new scene as description is used to set the scene and introduce new characters.

The rhythm of a description paragraph is dependent on the observational skills of the person through whom the object is described.  A good observer will typically mean that you will use long but efficient sentences.  An unobservant viewer will require you to use short, vague sentences, sometimes with a little out of voice extra information so that the reader has more information than the character.  A slow observer will use long, overly wordy sentences that give far too much definition to some parts and hardly any detail to others.

It should be noted that the same character can be all three types of viewer at different times.  A character with a typically Sherlock Holmes level of observational skills might become unobservant if they are dealing with a pressing emergency and, as such, information might slip their view.  Likewise a normally unobservant character can become extremely skilled in observation when the subject happens to fall upon something they care about.  An altered mental state, such as concussion or being drunk, can account for a slow observation.

Group observations deserve some specific discussion.  When describe the general view of a group of characters, the resulting description should have something of a scattershot feel.  The rhythm might feel uncoordinated or unbalanced depending on how used to working together the group is.  Overall, some parts of the scene will be well detailed and others will be vague since you have multiple skill levels of viewer involved.  It can be generally useful to consider the group as a whole a single character instead and apply the whole a skill level.

However, note that while the rhythm and voice of the narration are determined by the viewing character or characters, the primary purpose of description is to draw in and inform the reader.  As such, there will be a level of information and control involved that the characters themselves do not notice.  The controlling melody of the individual instruments, to continue the discussion of rhythm.

Description is the only one of the three paragraphs in which you can stop the progress of time.  You are essentially taking a snap shot of a character, place or object and establish it in the mind of the reader.  During that point, for the most part, time does not flow.

This means that, theoretically, you can interrupt the story at any time for more description.  In practice however, it is best to avoid that.

Description is primarily useful for the following: introducing new items (characters, places, objects) and establishing the status and appearance of items at key points within a scene (beginning, after some actions, end).  Once the base description has been established, action and dialogue can lead the reader along quite well.

Description is split by item.  If you find yourself describing a new item, then you should have started a new paragraph.

Item is a fluid definition.

A crowd of unimportant people that are more or less part of the setting rather than characters is an item all together and deserves one paragraph, not one paragraph per person.

A minor character that will have significant impact on the current scene will deserve a small paragraph, probably one or two sentences in length.  Usually they will mostly be defined by dialogue, action and the reader's own imagination.

Major supporting characters deserve a full paragraph when introduced and will likely be redescribed with greater detail and depth as the story moves along.  They are mostly defined by how they view and react to the lead characters however.

For lead characters, each part of the body might be considered a item on itself.  You could spend one paragraph on their eyes, another on their hair.  Yet more on their mode of dress or how they carry themselves.  In addition, they will likely be redescribed many times over the course of the story as the supporting characters will add to the introductory description of this character.  It is no joke to say that you can easily go past one thousand words and several paragraphs the first time you describe your lead character.

Description is directional for the sake of the reader.  Pick one place to start and move from that place until you finish.  If you're describing a room, you can go from the door the character is entering to the back wall, from left to right, top to bottom, center to outside, spiral in or out.  Likewise, for a character you start on something small, like their eyes, and zoom out or go from their head to their toes, clothing down to attitude.

Anything so long as you are moving in one discernible direction.

This is true even in cases of group observations where several parts of the scene or person might be witnessed simultaneously.  The reason for this is to give the reader a sort of guide rail to following the description.

You do not have to tell them about your starting point or ending point, in fact it is usually common not to do so, however, you need to be clear in your mind where you're starting and where you're ending.

As for what words or starting points to use, that is a matter of style and preference. 

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