Sunday, May 27, 2012

The spiral staircase

It is an age-old challenge to ask someone to describe a spiral staircase while sitting on their hands. This should be a piece of cake for an author of worth (give it a try in the comments). We face much more problematic descriptions in our daily writing.

It has been said that description is one of the three pillars of a good story, the other two being exposition and narrative. Good description draws the reader into the story so that they can picture themselves in the setting, experiencing not only the sights, but the smells and sounds of the environment in which the characters exist.

Good description need not be flowery. In fact, language that is too complex may have the undesired effect of interrupting the reader's descent into the world of your story. They should not have to think about the words but just feel their impact.

Good description need not be long. I vaguely recall making several attempts to read "Tom Bronwn's School Days" in my childhood days. It is a classic, if you can get through what feels like a chapter long description of every inch of the flora along the path that Tom took to school.

As I write these notes, I sit with two books in my lap. One is on descriptive writing and one on writing picture books. Contrary to everything that I said above, to do the latter, one must actually refrain from the former and allow the picture to talk while the text provides poetic lyrics that enhance the image. It almost feels like the author is secondary and I question whether a successful picture book can be created without the visual artist being a part of the vision that created the story.

Neither player (author or illustrator) is secondary in the process of creating a picture book, of course, both compelling images and creative words work together to draw a child in and keep them saying "Mommy, read it again!"

See you on the June 12th! (The year is really flying by.)


Charles Gramlich said...

I've always been a fan of setting, if well done, but I've read plenty of books that overdo it. If the description rises to the level of a character itself, then the author has truly done a great job

Jewel Amethyst said...

I have a close relative who refuses to read sci-fi/speculative fiction written by male authors because she feels they bog her down with descriptions of places. Of course it is a sweeping generalization, but that is her very strong opinion.

Well written description is a great enhancement to the reading experience. But as many would advise, show the reader, rather than tell the reader. That is the difference between a description that transports the reader into the world the author is trying to describe, and a plot bogged down with description.

Not being the best describer, I would probably compare the spiral staircase to a snail shell, or a dizzying game of "ring-around-a-roses" or "round and round chin-chin-bam" (if they are climbing the stairs).

Liane Spicer said...

I enjoy well-written description that's not overdone but is right for the particular story, and I'm happy that describing is not one of my challenges - unlike, say, creating lots of conflict, something I have to really work at.

I'd describe the circular staircase as a chambered nautilus.

Brielle Franklin said...

Thanks so much for this information. I have always been interested in spiral staircases for the architecture and sometimes even space saving designs. Your post was very interesting to read. Thanks for sharing.