25 May 05 2:03 PM
Reply To: 41773
In general, I would say there are two types of description:
1) Description of physical setting (includes such things as characters' physical descriptions)
2) Description of characters' motivations and personalities
In general, I find (1) has to be used more sparingly and carefully than (2), and that (1) is more useful for setting mood and giving your story a sense of "groundedness"—so that your reader has some notion of the space the character is operating in if that is important
. Otherwise, minimal descriptions can be quite sufficient.
So if you want to increase your description, I would say focus on (2). As a rule of thumb, the more people you have involved in any one scene, the more description you can justify, because you'll need to give each character time enough to show that s/he has a genuine reason for being there, and isn't just 'furniture' for your story.
You can get more people into a scene in many ways: through memories and flashbacks if it's a single-character piece; through people coming and going throughout a story, or by allowing character traits to be given through dialogue (which is not just the words exchanged, but the whole set-up and flow of non-verbal signals) if there are multiple characters.
Likewise, the longer the time period over which the fic stretches, the more you'll have to talk about, and the more you'll need to draw connections between characters' personalities and motivations.
That said, I think learning when and how to deploy description is a bit like learning to see. It's about making the connections that you already know exist, and then learning to recognize opportunities to let them shine through in often indirect ways. It's about setting someone (your reader) up, so in a sense, you're looking at your story from three different perspectives: you are the ideal reader who knows what kind of story is going to be satisfying, you are the characters in your story to capture the internal dynamics, and finally, you're the author who knows more than either the reader or the character does because you know how the story has to go. That doesn't preclude being surprised by a development; it just means that actually working on the story acts as its own check on authorly omnipotence. If you can keep those three perspectives in mind as you write, I think it helps to generate a more nuanced, purposeful unfolding of the plot.
Personally, when I write, I find it most useful to find one person who will be my eyes and ears inside the story for either the whole fic or a scene. When I write that character, I try to do it so that I feel as though I'm right there, shoulder to invisible shoulder, with him or her. That way, if the character turns, I know how s/he turns and toward what (assuming that's important to the story [author perspective], but even if not, I know what's there). If the character looks for a place to sit, I know what s/he sees and why s/he might prefer a hardwood bench to a more comfortable perch [character perspective], and so I know if it's important to give out that detail and I can decide what would be the most effective way to present it [reader perspective].
In terms of practicing this sort of description, take a line that is really quite skeletal, and certainly nothing you want to show up in your story if the whole story sounds like this:
"X sat away from Y because she hated him."
Then try to expand it by asking yourself how that might be suggested without having to come right out and say it (or asking yourself, "If I were a reader, how would I want this to be presented to me?"):
"Eldacar glanced around the room. It was well appointed, though hardly a space to put a plainsbred Northman at ease: nautical charts were hung on walls, and the astrolab and spyglass in their cases, to say nothing of the rounded windows, reminded him too much of ships and seasickness. No doubt, that was his purpose in inviting me up here,
he thought, as he settled at last upon a bench near one of the porthole windows. Much as he hated to admit to weakness before Castamir, unsettled as he was, he mistrusted his ability to share so close a space with him as the two more comfortable chairs set before the hearth."
Notice, too, that the sense of hatred has changed—it becomes more nuanced as you dig into the psychology of choosing a seat. These two are not friends, but we've only gotten a preliminary sense of dislike and rivalry between them. You'd need more time to show actual hatred, and for the reader to realize what the dynamic between Eldacar and Castamir is in this little scene. And that's good—it doesn't pile everything on at once.
Doing little exercises like the one above can help. I don't mean to imply your descriptions are so short as that, since I don't know that they are, but perhaps take some of your vignettes or short works and see whether there are some bare patches that you could expand in a similar manner.
Another exercise has to do with just paying attention to how people act in daily situations. How do you know when someone's having an argument? What sorts of things do people do with their hands, faces, postures, things on their desks, etc., and what do those non-verbal acts signal? Do any of these signals fit the character you're working with? Etc.
Hope that helps.