May 2, 2011

On Description and Senses and Distancing Point of View

I love writing that evokes all five senses. But one of two things usually happen in rough drafts:

1. Writing feels too heavy--too many descriptions and observations slow down the pace.
2. Writing uses language that distances the reader and results in the opposite desired effect.

I am particularly guilty of the first one. Fortunately, fixing it is easy.

Just cut words. Sentences. Entire paragraphs if you must. It's great when a characters sees and hears and smells new surroundings, but these details must hit hard and fast, and then retreat to let the action continue. If the description is either too long or only there to look pretty, delete it. It must serve a purpose.

My first few drafts of Soul had paragraphs of setting description because it was new to London, my MC. Several awesome critiques later, 90% of those descriptions were axed because they were only, I sheepishly admit, indulgent writing.

Fixing the second issue is also easy, although it requires a little bit of tweaking as well.

Distanced point of view happens any time you approach a description as sensed through the character: I saw, I heard, I smelled, I felt.

Remove and reword to make the reader feel more present:

I saw a temple at the top of the hill.
A temple sat on top of the hill.

I heard the church bells toll the hour.
The church bells tolled the hour.

I could smell the smoke.
Smoke burned my nostrils.

I felt the rough bark against my fingertips.
The rough bark scraped my fingertips.

You can see that, while the first sentence uses the 'sense' word (saw, heard, smell), the second feels more sensory.

Another way you distance your reader is when you include unnecessary thought tags.

Thought tags that distance point of view: wondered, thought, mused, realized, etc...

Dad probably wasn't home yet, I thought.
Mom must have left the car in the garage, she mused.
The cows were aliens, I realized.

Sometimes those phrases are necessary to understand what you want to get across so don't eliminate them all--just the ones you can reword to strengthen the manuscript. There is no right or wrong, really. When in doubt, use your best judgment!

Happy editing ♥

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