Monday, November 13, 2006

The Fine Art of Adjectives

From the Harris Collection of Yardsale Art.
The pinky purple palette is even more virulent in the flesh.
It has, however, a beautiful frame.
In her delightful and inimitable style, PBW posted yesterday an example of how not to use description.
Have been re-reading Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy. Hambly, like PBW, has something like 40 or so books published.
Here's an example from Hambly's The Time of the Dark:
And the next moment there was only light, white and chill, surrounding the strong, shabby form of the old man who stalked down that empty corridor. Streaming through the broken doors, the white light fell on waxy, pinched faces, was reflected from terrified eyes, and edged the steel in the hands of the thin line of troops stretched between the packed mob of surviving refugees and the doors. Then the light faded, shrinking naturally from the blinding glare to the yellow splotch of simple torch flame.

And another, from Walls of Air:

The image of Govannin returned to her, silhouetted against the yellow sunset sky. Like a dark, hard heelstone between the massive pylons of the pillars, she had stood in her billowing cloak; the pillars lay like a gun sight between the gates of the Keep and the dark notch of Sarda Pass, and Govannin's cruciform arms had formed bony cross hairs, sighting on the small, baleful eye of the setting sun.

Hambly, noted for her lavish descriptions, never uses one adjective when two will do.
So why does it work?
It works because the description is tied to, travels with, promotes and punctuates the action in the first instance; and illustrates, underlines and foreshadows the character and subsequent actions of Govannin in the second. She is the fanatical, inquisitional bishop of Gae.
And, btw, it is of no use to protest that description is tolerated more in fantasy because one is introducing the reader to new worlds.
Every novel should introduce the reader to a new world.
Description should never be decorative only.
PBW's clever example demonstrates irrelevance, divertissement, and how to put your reader to sleep. The descriptive style she pillories is nothing more than filler chunks, an orgy of pretty words.
Make description carry its weight.
If it doesn't enhance the themes, actions and characters, you are much better off leaving it out.

Universal Laws:
Law of the Alibi: If you tell your boss you were late for work because you had a flat tire, the very next morning you will have a flat tire.
Law of Probability: The probability of being watched is directly proportional to the stupidity of the act.
Law of Shopping: If the shoe fits, it's ugly.


kmfrontain said...

"Make descriptions carry its weight."

Love that line. Love that you brought this up. It seems that published authors are breaking the rules that non-published are taught to avoid, but my rule of thumb is "Did it work?"

I'll break any rule of writing if I can make it work, and since many of the rules of writing are in actual fact opinion, that makes my rule of thumb even more important to me when editing someone's story.

"Did it work?" is, as far as I'm concerned, the most valuable question a person can ask when reading anything.

Sela Carsen said...

I have a hard time with descriptions, I think, so they're something I layer in after the rough draft. Then I worry that they're too fluffy, so I fuss over the whole thing, working to see if they "carry their weight."

Bernita said...

Think the anethema is because so many beginners do it badly, Karen, like a creative writing exercise - "describe a room." They think of writing as piling one alphabet block upon another.

Probably most "plotters" work it that way, Sela, but it's always, always the chief question to ask, as Karen says.

archer said...

at this sight Mrs. Markleham dropped the newspaper, and stared more like a figure-head intended for a ship
to be called The Astonishment, than anything else I can think of.

A knockout descriptive punch. We are down for the count. And not one adjective. Not one.

Dickens is God.

Bernita said...

"It was a dry, cold night, and the wind blew keenly and the frost was white and hard."
Also from Great Expectations.
Dickens, like other compassionate divinities realizes well there is more than one path to salvation, Archer.

PBW said...

My threat worked! Lol.

Excellent examples of how descriptive prose can work to engage and move the story along without slamming the reader over the head with repetitive imagery. Hambly's writing is a banquet of words, but she serves up different flavors in a feast that becomes cohesive instead of monotonous.

The way she uses light in the first example is what I like to think of as active setting. It doesn't just sit there to be admired by the POV character, it plays a part, changes, and establishes a mood. If you can do that with your descriptive passages, you give more to the reader than a pretty but flat picture.

archer said...

at this sight Mrs. Markleham dropped the newspaper, and stared more like a figure-head intended for a ship
to be called The Astonishment, than anything else I can think of.

"It was a dry, cold night, and the wind blew keenly and the frost was white and hard."
Dickens, like other compassionate divinities realizes well there is more than one path to salvation, Archer.

Well, okay--but the first passage is better. As to the second, it's a doubtful translation from Aramaic, and scholars debate whether it's actually part of the scroll.

Bernita said...

Saw it more as permission , PBW....

"Active setting", I think, conveys the point succinctly. Thank you.
Yes, and since the Dark is the enemy, her use of light is particularly effective. The sun is going down on that civilization and nothing will be as it was.

You know very well, Archer, that this is not an isolate example and that I can haul out numerous examples from the canon.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think I'll tatoo that qualifier for adjectives on my forehead..."Description should never be decorative only!"

That frame on the picture is the first thing I noticed...I love a good frame!

Bernita said...

The prime reason I bought the thing, Bonnie - the nice carved wood frame.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Excellent post, Bernita! Extremely thought provoking. I've always struggled with description... sigh.

LMAO at PBW's post too. :-)

archer said...

[Worried] Canon?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Sonya.
PBW is a treasure. Did you see her wicked comment about Dean Koontz?

Relax, Archer. That was not Freud.

Gabriele C. said...

Sorry, but the Hambly examples don't work for me. I've read the second three times and it still doesn't evoke an image in my mind. She mixes the images too much and I have no idea if that's a woman in a billowing cloak standing there or a crucified man.

Bernita said...

Ah well, her tapestry weave is not for everyone.
My point is that her descriptive passages always relate to the story arc.

Steve said...

Not to change the subject, but I've been trying to post here all day. I switched over to Beta-Blogger and it won't allow me to post to other than Beta-Blogger sites. They are working on a fix. I did get a solution from Serena. Post the comment as other or anonymous.


Bernita said...

I tried to switch to Beta Blogger yesterday, Steve, and it wouldn't let me!

ali said...

I have to agree with Gabriele in that those descriptions don't really interest me. My favourite author for descriptions is easily Catherine Fisher. They're just so perfect - she always manages to hit exactly the right words make something real.

Love the idea of active setting. Didn't call it that, but I remember having to write an essay on how descriptions of surroundings were used to change the mood in 'Of Mice and Men'.

Bernita said...

Blame my clumsy choice of examples then, Ali, not the writer. Her description is never wasted or extraneous.

Gabriele C. said...

Not clumsy choice. Just different tastes. You won't find an example for description that will satisfy everyone.

Mark Pettus said...

I've never broken any rules of writing, and I will never beginning today.

I've missed you.

M.E Ellis said...

That picture made me think of hidden dragons and faeries.

Which is cool, as usually trees like that make me think of stalkers and killers hiding in the leaves.



Bernita said...

And I have missed you, Mark.
Thank you for the update on your blog.

Now me, Michelle, it makes me think of bog things...
But I have seen colours like that in evening skies, just the same.

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