29 April 2010

Description: Signposts in the Text

19th century novels were heavy on description - very heavy on description - as authors conveyed mental pictures of places and things most readers would never see during their entire lives.

In contrast 21st century readers are force-fed information from around the globe 24 hours a day, much of it visually. We know what a coral reef looks like; we in Europe certainly know what an erupting volcano looks like.

Straight description no longer holds the fascination for readers it once did simply because so much visual stimulation is already filed in our minds. But this is to be embraced by writers of fiction. It makes our work so much easier. We need only to set signposts in the text and readers will do our work for us, calling up images that fit.

What mental images are conjured by these single words?


Water, okay? But what sort of water: size, colour, speed of flow? Because they were single word signposts, as a reader you will have automatically "filled in the blanks". Perhaps stream brought an image of a narrow stretch of water - and grassy banks, or reeds, or leaves being carried on its surface. Perhaps river brought an image of a wider, deeper, stretch of water, perhaps with a faster flow - and a small boat, water fowl, a bridge. Perhaps estuary... you get the idea.

However, there are drawbacks to doing this. The images I've given came from a British landscape because that's the landscape I live in; I interact with it every day. If you are reading this in Malaysia, or Canada, or Argentina, your images will be different because without supporting signposts readers' minds automatically default to their own normality. So do bear this in mind.

Over the next few posts I'll be discussing Description in more detail, including using supporting signposts, and how to use description to create atmosphere and tone.

Description is a necessary part of building a world experience for readers, but it should not swamp them. Pick the right descriptive word and an entire retinue of images follows on behind.

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