Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Look of the Thing

88,000 words

Those pesky damn descriptions. You know what your character looks like, but how is the reader supposed to?

It's been almost a hundred years since Dashiell Hammett could get away with stopping the action for most of a page every time he wanted to describe Sam Spade or anyone else. And if you ask me, it didn't really work then. Less than ten years later, Raymond Chandler was using leaner, more poetic descriptions.

I'm too lazy to get up and get Chandler off the bookshelves, so here's one from the table beside me, Earnest Hemingway describing Brett from The Sun Also Rises:

Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover hersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy's. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.

That's all the physical description one of the three major characters gets. Robert Cohn has glasses and a broken nose and not a lot more. And our narrator, Jake? Your guess is as good as mine.

And to my way of thinking, that's a pretty good way to go. Thomas Harris uses it with Clarice Starling. Everyone admits she's good looking (including herself), but that's it. Hair color? Eyes? Height? WHo cares?

She doesn't stop in front of mirrors, pause to admire photos of herself, or take time out for ridiculous conversations about her appearance. You know the ones:

"Hi Bob."

"Hi Clarice. How is a girl like you, five-six with shoulder-length blond hair and eyes like a winter sky, trim and athletic without losing your curves, not have a boyfriend?"

"Probably all the serial killers I work with, Bob."

Ack. Ick.

We've all read that kind of crap, and worse. And notice those verbs I used: stop, pause, take time out.

Description kills action. Be careful with it.

I ran down the center aisle, my leather boots making rapid hollow sounds on the wet stone flags.
Two acoloytes, their robes marking them as servants of the Dark King of Alkalbharkarkkkanakk, were up at the nave of the ruined church, working the final stages of the Ritual of LLewyylnffnororr. In mere moments, the final spell would be spoken and their blades would plunge into the creamy bosom of the maiden on the altar. Her blond hair and fair skin were pale against the dark rock and the iron chains that dug so cruelly into her wrists and ankles, and the gauzy veils about her body did nothing to hide its lush curves.
Her death would summon the Legion of Shadow Demons of Hrrkkkrrrkk and doom us all.
I drew my trusted blade, Bright Star of Morning, from it jewelled scabbard at my back.
As opposed to...
I hit the center aisle at a run. Two mutts in robes were working the ritual, the girl on the altar between them.
I pulled my sword.

See what I mean? The time to've done that kind of descriptive brickwork is before ActionBoy gets near that altar.

For me, it's a hard and fast rule that no character describes themselves. I can probably count on one hand (and have five fingers left over) the number of times I've had my mind on a problem but took time out to think about my looks in a mirror, or to admire convenient photos of myself. Or discussed my looks with others.

Actually, that's not quite true. Way I look, it's a subject for discussion. But that's "How'd you get your dreads like that?" and "Those tattoos hurt?" or "Hey cool! I've got a tattoo too, want to see it? It's waaay down here..."

And that's a legitimate way to paint a picture in the reader's head. Another is, if you're not writing in first person, to let the viewpoint character in that chapter describe the others. Elmore Leonard uses it brilliantly.

Otherwise, leave it alone. One of the best suspence novels EVER, Rebecca, not only doesn't tell us what the heroine looks like, it doesn't even tell us her damn name!

In comics, this isn't an issue. Ink, paper, character set in stone. Every reader sees the same lines and shapes, the same character. Tin Tin is Tin Tin, Archie is Archie, and it takes zero time to look at them on the page and see em there.

Movies are the same. They freeze stuff, close it off to interpretation. Clarice is Jodie Foster, end of story. Too bad Julianne Moore, she's still Jodie Foster. Nice writing Thomas Harris, but we'll be seeing Jodie Foster when we read.

In prose, we have more flexibility. Shame not to use it.


Charles Gramlich said...

I was roaring with laughter as I read your "overly descriptive" passage. I think I've seen a few pieces like it in some published works. Your "rewrite" was beautifully executed. You make a good point and illustrate it so well that it is immediately clear to the reader. This would be worth a writing tip article somewhere.

Lana said...

I'm not a writer (as this post will surely reveal,) but as a reader I applaud your post. Similarly, I have to shake my head at characters that tell us about a person/place/event, obviously just to get that information to the reader in a most-unrealistic way (usually because the author was too lazy to explain it in a better, less-contrived way earlier on.)

cs harris said...

I couldn't agree more. The scary thing is that however silly it is to have your character gaze at his own reflection for the edification of readers, writers who do it can still sell gobs. Dan Brown does it TWICE in TDC. Laura Joh Rowland points out that she has never described her hero in all 12 of his books. Of course, he's Japanese, and we all know what they look like...

Steve Malley said...

Thanks for the kind words, all. It's just been a week of uneven reading (the very good and the moderately bad), and it got me thinking...

ANother good non-describer is James Lee Burke. We know Dave Robicheaux has a streak in his hair and a moustache (which I conveniently edit out in my head), and the more mature creation Billy Bob Holland -- zip!