Friday, September 10, 2010

Beauty in the Breakdown: More About Editing Description

This is the second installment in the series Beauty in the Breakdown, on how to edit various aspects of a story. We started with description. Here's more on that subject.

Let's start with the function of description. Because we're continually bombarded with information, it's easy to believe the purpose of any description is to convey facts. Yet, for writers, this isn't description's primary function—just stating facts rarely reaches the core of a piece. When you describe something or someone, you reveal its essence. Interpretation is up to the reader. This approach is most satisfying—to reader and writer.

Here's an example. "Though it was spring, the maple was bare." This, on the surface, is direct description. It's a clear, descriptive sentence, maybe even a bit poetic, and it conveys a fact—that the maple tree has no leaves. The underlying question, though, is why tell readers this? To add layers to a story, there should be a good reason to make this statement.

If the purpose of the sentence is to say the tree has no leaves or that it was a rough winter, then the description is adequate, but static. It doesn't take the reader anyplace because it doesn't advance plot or reveal character. But if I use the same sentence in a paragraph where I show that my character has just had another miscarriage, then the barren maple becomes indirect description, and serves to show my character's acute sense of loss, especially when she's expected to be "in bloom," a perceived shortcoming of which she's continually reminded.

More on description next time. To pose a query on a writing topic in the meantime, e-mail Adele Annesi. You can also visit my online workshop, the Art of Editing in Writing.

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