Chapter 4: Description

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Viewing Assignment: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope


We're going to talk about description in this chapter. I promise.

But first, we have to talk about the ending of Star Wars...and by Star Wars I mean episode IV: A New Hope. Don't get me started on those prequels...

So, imagine you are in the theater, watching the big space battle at the end of the movie, but we're going to change how you watch it. First, you have a shot of Luke and what he's doing, then split the screen and put up an image of Biggs. Try to keep track of both of them. Then split it again and add in Red Leader and Gold Leader. Keep splitting that screen. In no time at all, you've got way too much going on and you can't really tell what's important.

And to really drive this home, let's make our Star Wars scene a little more urgent. Put yourself in the movie. Imagine you are an X-Wing pilot who is trying to get through a swarm of TIE fighters to destroy the Death Star. What are you going to concentrate on? Will it be the fire from the laser cannons on the space station? How about your friends who are flying close alongside you? Maybe you should focus on the incoming fighters and the dog fights that are starting to take shape all around you.

The thing is, your attention can't stay on one thing. If you focus only on getting into and down the trench to the exhaust port (Yeah, I'm showing my geek stripes here, aren't I?), then you won't see the fighters coming up behind you. And if you pay attention to everything going on, then you'll never get to take your shot.

What you focus on has to change as things play out. There are times when you have to pull away from the fight to see the big picture. And then there are times when you have that target in sight and that is the only thing in the galaxy that matters. You pick what's important at that moment.

That's what you have to do when you fly an X-Wing and that's what you have to do when you write descriptions in your stories. You pick what's important in the scene and describe that to your readers.

With the mandatory Star Wars reference done (for now at least), let's get our writing hands dirty. We don't have to talk about what description is. It's not a hard thing to define. But what we describe and how we do it as authors are the real questions.

So, what things are we describing? The first and most obvious description is the setting of our story. We let our readers know if it's familiar or something that they have never seen or imagined before. We describe our characters. We describe what they do.

In general, we describe anything that the reader can see or hear in our story. But, when we get into the other senses and emotions and feelings, things get a little trickier.

When describing the interior life and experiences of our characters we run into the question of point of view. Are we writing in 1st or 3rd person (sorry to neglect the rare 2nd person)? If you use the I pronoun, then descriptions of the character's thoughts and emotions are generally a snap. The reader is experiencing things directly through the character, so adding in the details of what they taste, feel and think is very natural.

But when you make the jump to 3rd person and the she/he pronouns, it gets much more complicated. Are you omniscient or limited to just one POV? Maybe someplace in between? 3rd person limited, especially to one character, gives you about the same access to what your character experiences as 1st person does, but when the audience has access to multiple 3rd person POVs...well...you could soon drown your readers in too many descriptive details.

Remember the cake example from chapter 2? Imagine reading what the cake was like from every character at a party. Suddenly, you've binged and aren't hungry for cake anymore.

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