This is a point that I tackled in slightly different terms in my Making Your Writing Exciting at the Sentence Level post from late 2009. It’s something I’ve been seeing a lot more recently, and so I wanted to delve into it again. Writing should strive to be mimetic of the action it’s describing. As with the example of a character being chased in the older post, the short burst sentences portray the feeling of being chased, even as the words describe a chase scene. In the language falling in love example, the long, flowing sentences portray the languor and lush feelings of infatuation, even as they describe it.
When you’re writing, not only should you strive to match your writing and syntax to what you’re describing, but you should also put yourself in the situation in a physical, emotional, and, above all, logical way. Doing all of this will not only work to make your readers feel like they’re part of the situation on a conscious level, but on a subconscious one as well. As always, you should strive to make writing work and blend, not stand out or pull the reader out of the story.
I’ve been reading a lot of scenes that just don’t make syntax sense or logic sense. For example, I find an action sequence unrealistic if your character stops to describe the scene, the characters, the mood, or any of the action in too much sensory detail. Why? Well, imagine fighting some baddies Matrix-style. As bullets zoom by you, are you really stopping to reflect on a character’s sleek black trench? Or describe the marble hall that’s currently getting blasted to hell? No. Action and danger spike adrenaline and tunnel your vision and senses. Or they make one persistent detail stand out. How many times have you heard grief-ridden or traumatized people/characters say, “And for some reason, I remember looking out the window and seeing this random kid crossing the street, and that’s all I remember from that time at the hospital when Dad passed.” You’re only paying attention to the things you need to survive, or sometimes your conscious mind isn’t working at all. So not only does superfluous description during an action sequence seem unnecessary and slow the pacing, I also just don’t buy it.
The inverse is true, too. If your character is paying really careful attention to someone or something, vague description just isn’t going to cut it. If she’s looking into his eyes (is there a bigger cliche?), she most likely wouldn’t find them just “beautiful” or simply “captivating,” but she’d go into detail. This is an easy consideration, and perfectly logical, but it’s just one more small thing for writers to keep in their heads when they’re writing and people do forget
Whenever we describe something, we draw the reader’s attention to it. This doesn’t just apply to how we describe something, it counts for what we describe, too. We are the story’s curator, using all the tools in our storytelling arsenal to guide the reader through the tale. Mimetic writing — imitating the action of what’s being described — is a subtle way to do just that. Description is another related skill. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of description missteps. Next week, I think I’ll talk about overdescribing and underdescribing, the twin traps that some writers can fall into as they’re building their stories.
I’ve just come off a very invigorating weekend at the NYC Teen Author Festival — hanging out with friends and colleagues, listening to panels, soaking in the collective brilliance of this industry — and will also come up with a post to somehow distill the experience, though I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what about last week’s events impressed and inspired me so much. A thank you to all the authors, writers, librarians, booksellers involved…and to the achingly marvelous David Levithan for his tireless work and incredible insights, especially on Saturday’s LGBT panel!