The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
20 May 2009
Description: the good, the bad, and the boring
As I was writing my October 2008 post on evoking a sense of wonder in speculative fiction, I realized that one thread tied all my suggestions together: description that homed in on the alien, the strange, the exotic, and the extraordinary.
There’s no purpose, unless one is being paid by the word, to describe Platonic ideals, the ordinary, everyday things and activities the average reader can swiftly and accurately imagine without any description. For example, one should never describe a paperclip unless one is in the POV of someone who has never seen one before or the paperclip is remarkable for some reason, such as its gold plating, its decoration, or its conversion into sculpture.
This holds true in fiction and nonfiction alike. Reporters today still quote 19th century New York Sun editor John B. Bogart's definition of news: "When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news."
I’ve been reading books by this year’s Clarion Workshop instructors to familiarize myself with their work, and I just started Robert Crais’ The Monkey’s Raincoat. This book isn’t speculative fiction; it’s a hard-boiled detective novel set in Los Angeles. Even so, Crais uses description to, as I said above, home in on the alien, the strange, the exotic, and the extraordinary as he builds characterization and setting.
Note in these examples how Crais focuses on what you wouldn’t expect, and how the description is effective enough to overcome the weakness of the sentence construction.
Here’s how Crais describes a cat and his dinner (page 20):
“...the cat walked in. He’s black and he walks with his head sort of cocked to the side because someone once shot him with a .22. I poured a little of the Wheat beer in a saucer and put out some cat food. He drank the beer first then ate the cat food then looked at me for more beer. He was purring.”
Here Elvis Cole, the hero, finds the office of a man he’s looking for (page 15):
“The door was open. There was a little secretary’s cubicle, but no secretary. A spine-rolled copy of Black Belt magazine was on the secretary’s desk, open to an article about hand-to-hand combat in low-visibility situations. Some secretary.”
And one last example, in which Elvis sits outside on his deck eating dinner (page 20):
“The rich black of the canyon was dotted with jack-o’-lantern lit houses, orange and white and yellow and red in the night. Where the canyon flattened out into Hollywood and the basin beyond, the lights concentrated into thousands of blue-white diamonds spilled over the earth.”