Remember, you don’t have to describe the whole of something. That is the difference between a chunk of description and the detail of it. By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole – whether it’s an artifact, a person, a landscape or an interior – the description of it will be enhanced. The reader won’t want to see it all, because that’s like being too close to the screen in the cinema – too much information.
Symbolism can truly help to get to the core of what you want to say. Using it is fairly simply. Take something symbolic and examine that as a single descriptive detail of the whole.
To find the right symbol, think about the ‘core’ of the thing. For example, your scene is an inner city waste land. Don’t try to describe all of it, your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Instead, focus your imagery on one blighted buddleia, seemingly imbedded in nothing more than rocks and dust, where no butterfly has ever ventured.
Of course, your first draft may be rushed, with not much detail – you are trying as much to get down your thoughts on the story as to write it. It’s fine to end up with a rushed first copy that is possibly ¼ as long as the eventual manuscript. But whether you start this way and return to the beginning, or prefer to get in close in your first draft, when you do this, you’ll find it will actually help you understand your story. It will highlight the small, vital moments that add up to the whole.
This is quite the opposite as providing chunks of description. Today’s readers are not keen on chunks of either description or exposition – that died out with the bustle – so the way to add interesting detail is to slide it in surreptitiously as the action, interior monologue and dialogue continues to move the story on. On the other hand, try not to cram too much description into a short space of words. This tentancy is also the opposite close-up detail, which takes the time…and the amount of words…it has to take to be itself. If you delve into vivid, symbolic imagery while creating your action, dialogue and narrative moments, you will bring your writing alive.
So this is the strange truth…the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes…moving into close-up is absorbing and paints the imagery of the story.
Here’s a fast first draft version of a moment in my latest book for children:
The captain’s knife cut into Jake’s cheek.
‘You’re my slave, with my mark on you, boy,’ said Captain Elliot. ‘We’re bound for England on the next tide, and you’re coming with me.’
There’s nothing wrong with getting the bare-boned basics down in this way. What you’ll have is a sort of fusion between draft and plot outline.
Writing fast without putting in the detail is something you might want to do when your head is full of plot – or conflict between two characters. But having got it out of your head and on to paper, you can go back and look for those details that will not only brighten the writing style, but also help you ‘see’ the images you’re creating on the page – it’s essential that you can visualize exactly what is happening in any scene, as this brings the entire narrative alive.
Once I’d written this tiny section, I could begin to imagine what it was like to be there, on the quay side, for Jake:
The captain grasped Jake’s ear and held him firmly. The knife from his belt glinted silver in the hot noon sun, yet it felt like ice as it slid down Jake’s cheek.
‘You’re my slave, with my mark on you, boy.’
Blood dripped. Jake felt it tickle its way down like a raindrop. It ran behind the iron collar that had been round his neck since the Captain had paid good English Stirling for Jake in the marketplace.
‘We’re bound for England on the next tide.’ Captain Elliot liked to chew tobacco and the black spit flew everywhere, smelling of the tang of the sea. It landed on Jake’s cheek, mingled with the oozing blood. He felt the chain jerk at his neck, felt the screech of pain from the raw skin. He tried to swallow, but there was no spit left in his mouth.
‘And you’re coming with me.’
In this fuller version, I’ve ‘seeded in’ description by using symbolic imagery. I don’t tell you what the Captain is wearing (although I could later), I focus on his aggression via the knife and his general unpleasantness via the tobacco. Notice that I’ve added the sense of touch (the icy knife, the warm trickle of the blood, the pain of the collar) to the passage, and craftily added the smell of the sea via the tobacco. You don’t need to squash every sense into a single description, but sound, touch, taste and smell do work exceedingly well to draw a reader into an image.
I’ve tried to avoid describing Jake’s emotions, though, because that often ends up in telling, rather than showing… ‘Jake was scared.’ I’ve gone for showing, through his dry mouth, which links back to the opposite symbolism of the squidgy, wet tobacco wedge that the captain is chewing. I've tried to imbed the entire description between dialogue and action.
You might like to try the Exercises of the Week – like me, chose a bit of your own work and see what you can make of it.