Thursday, May 5, 2022

Paint Me a Picture from James W. Ziskin

Adding description to a story is an art. Too much, and readers skip over it. Too little, and the sense of place and mood aren’t adequately drawn. What techniques do you use, and please provide examples from your work.

For this week’s question, I’ve chosen a few examples from my Ellie Stone mysteries, and one from my upcoming thriller, Bombay Monson, to illustrate my thoughts on description. Readers of my books will have no doubt noticed that I often go to great pains in describing places and people. Perhaps more than I should. Too much can slow down the pace and lose the reader, after all. And, though I try to keep the interest high, I may go too far from time to time.

But I write what I’d like to read. And you should too. I love a good paragraph of rich description.

In the examples below, I offer an economical version of what the description might have been if I’d been frugal with my words. Then I follow it up with what I actually wrote. Finally, in yellow, I top it off with some thoughts on why I made the choices I did.

Make it memorable or make it brief

(The scene: In A Stone’s Throw, Ellie meets a beautiful horse at the racetrack.)

What I might have written: I took a photo of a beautiful racehorse in the paddock before the race.

What I wrote: A magnificent, shimmering black beast rounded the turn and edged close to the fence rails where I was leaning with my camera. He threw back his head and snorted. The bit clattered against his teeth, then he nickered in my general direction. Fixing me with his right eye, the horse made it clear that he was aware of my attentions. More than a hint of self-consciousness. Animals sometimes exhibit shyness, after all. I clicked two frames of his glorious face, and he perked up, as if he knew what a camera was for. Or that he was a handsome boy.

Notes: I wanted to give this horse personality. My strategy was to describe his more “human” traits and create a connection with Ellie.

Use the five senses

(The scene: In Heart of Stone, Ellie describes her memories of the Adirondack woods.)

What I might have written: The woods were mysterious and creepy.

What I wrote:  I remember the cool breath of the night woods on my neck. I see the glow of moonlight on the highest boughs, filtering down in a pale cast, weak and washed-out, fading into darkness. I smell the moss and the decay of the forest floor, heady, damp, musky. And I can taste the earthy mushrooms and bitter berries on my tongue. But most of all, I hear the pines whisper and sigh, their needles, like millions of tiny blades, carving voices into the breeze.

Notes: As Proust showed us, the senses are powerful conjurors of memory. They can also produce in the reader instant recognition of emotion and place. In this passage, I tried to make the smells and tastes and sounds of the forest come alive.

Tell me something about each new character who walks into a scene

(The scene: In Heart of Stone, Ellie describes the local police chief.)

What I might have written: A slovenly man approached us on the dock.

What I wrote: A large man in dungarees and a sleeveless undershirt was lumbering toward us like a bear emerging from his cave after a long winter. About forty, unshaven, and unwashed, he’d been beached somewhere between portly and flabby on the physical continuum. And he could have used a little sun. His oily, graying hair flapped stiffly in the breeze, like a loose shingle on a roof, while his boots tramped over the planks, trailing wet laces behind him. As he drew nearer, I noticed the stock of a handgun squashed between his considerable belly and the waistband of his trousers, as if it had been trapped and suffocated trying to squeeze its way out.

Notes: Use words that connote something other than the meaning of the expected, usual word. “Dungarees” is a somewhat dated word that fits the time period of the book, the 1960s. “Jeans” would not necessarily evoke the same feeling of time.

Similes can be helpful in description, though I may have overdone it here. Still, a handgun squashed and suffocated between his waistband and belly strikes me as more effective than saying “he was fat.”

Let your dialogue do some of the heavy lifting in describing other characters

(The scene: In A Stone’s Throw, A Runyonesque criminal, Jimmy Burgh, answers Ellie’s questions about a murdered woman.)

What I might have written: She did some work for me. Wasn’t very nice.

What I wrote:  “Why the interest in Vivian McLaglen?”
“I knew her back when. About eight-nine years ago. She did some work for me from time to time.”
    “And did she ever land in county jail for the work she did for you?”
    “Might have.”
    “I see. And my second question is why do you care?”
    “I don’t,” he said with his losing smile. “At least not too much. She wasn’t the nicest girl I ever met. Plenty pretty back then, but surly-like and greedy. Wasn’t going to win any Miss Congenitalia contests. Too bad for her, but life goes on.”

Notes: Inject personality into your dialogue. Even subtleties like “eight-nine” instead of “eight or nine.” 

Play with commonplace expressions and give them new life. Instead of “winning smile,” I used “losing smile” to describe Jimmy Burgh.

Same with “Miss Congenitalia.” Jimmy uses this malapropism unintentionally, which is funnier and more effective than if he’d been trying to be clever.

Take me somewhere I’ve never been

(The scene: In Bombay Monsoon, Danny offers his impressions of Bombay.)

What I might have written: Bombay was a crowded, confusing place. But it had hidden charms.

What I wrote:  On first approach, Bombay assaults you, blinds and confuses you. The smoky air and muddy roads, rumbling taxis; the baking heat and the stinking garbage; the squawking crows; the visual pollution of billboards and signs covering buildings and blocking the sky. There’s rubble wherever you look, swept into piles alongside the footpaths, which, by the way, pedestrians never used. The road was so much more inviting.
    Later, you begin to discover the city’s subtleties. Surprising urban scenes that charm and challenge your assumptions. A green parakeet, unfazed by the noise of the metropolis, perched in a tree; the flower seller, plucking marigold blooms from a basket and sewing them into a long garland; the horse-drawn carts competing gamely with automobiles; and even the white cow outside the local temple, chomping on bundles of grass, offerings from the supplicants.
    Of course, none of those tableaux was on display in the pouring rain. Outside, I climbed into a black-and-yellow taxi and headed to the office.

Use strong verbs in your description. Bombay “assaults” and “blinds” you. Yes, use adjectives, but choose them carefully and judiciously. If your style is more florid, you’ll use more. If you’re a writer of few words, use fewer.

Add micro-level details to paint the picture. The green parakeet, the flower-seller, and the cow outside the temple. 

See and smell the pollution. Then slip back into the story: “Of course none of those tableaux was on display in the pouring rain…”

Feel free to leave your thoughts below. And keep writing!

1 comment:

Wendall Thomas said...

Love this article, which only makes me admire your writing more, Jim!