Imaginative Description

From the MorgueFile

Writing Wednesday/Thoughtful Thursday

"Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the readers. "  Stephen King

It's our job to paint a picture, get the reader to suspend their disbelief, and take to them on the journey, right? I say, if we are good, then it is. 

We create the world, the characters, and the story. It is ours until we give it to the reader. Then if we did our jobs right, it becomes their story. It permeates them, fills them up, drains them out, and then reassembles reality, all in their heads. 

Jim Butcher, author of one of my favorite series, The Dresden Files, has an organized way to do this. He calls them "tags".  He uses tags for characters and even for some of his main locations. They are object, items, or things, that easily allow you to identify someone or something.  Some of the tags for Harry Dresden are his long, dark, spell-coated leather jacket; his silver pentacle necklace; his shield bracelet; basketball player tall and lanky; dark, mussed up hair. 

When these items come up we instantly identify them as Harry's.  Although he does give a bit more description at times about the shield bracelet, or other things, they are never so specific and detailed that there can be only one. Well, yes technically there is only one, because there is only one Harry Dresden, but my version of Harry's shield bracelet is probably quite different than yours, or even Jim's. This is a good thing. True, Jim created and wrote Harry and when he did he was alive in Jim's mind.  Now that I've read Harry for almost as many years, Harry is alive to me, and uniquely mine.  As Jim Butcher intended him to be.

This is why books and stories are so powerful and movies of them often fall short for us. When we see a movie we see someone else's vision and interpretation of our character and story, but it's their version, not ours. 

Our job is to get them 90+% of the way there, then they put the final focus adjustment on it. 

I've got a character, Ivy, and she's got the job of Fairy Godmother. She has a slim, boyish figure (she prefers "lithe"), she has exotic Sophia Loren-type eyes, crazy curly brown hair that she uses clips to try to maintain, she prefers to wear men's blue jeans and outdoor sandals (no matter what the weather), and her college students often mistake her for a student until they know her.  From this description she could be white, black, Hispanic, Italian, European, Greek, Indian, etc.... She could be anyone's Ivy. What a great start to a great character. Yes, I have in my mind what I think Ivy looks like, but it's better if she's open enough to be anyone's ideal and hero.  The reader makes Ivy her best self and that makes her awesome!

And now for the negative side. I like good description as much as the next person and as a writer if we can strike that balance between enough and too much, we might just have some serious shelf-life.  If your descriptions are too detailed you will bore the reader and cause them to skip all of that overly descriptive "fluff". You've also taken away the best part, keeping your reader anxiously engaged because it has now become their story and they are completely and delightfully (hopefully) invested in it.

Now, bravely go forth and help your readers to have vision! 

What do you think?

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