Literature, Writing tips

Compressed descriptions

When you start a story, the reader needs an inkling of how the characters and the surroundings look in order to understand it and visualise it, but you don’t want to start off with several paragraphs of description which might bore the reader.

So, what to do? One method is to use the reader’s assumptions to compress the descriptions.

For example, let’s say a story starts with the characters walking into the kitchen. From that, the reader can infer that they are indoors, probably in a private home, but possibly in a workplace. Then one of the characters opens the fridge, and the reader can infer that we are in a modern setting (as opposed to a medieval one). Then, if the story mentions chandeliers, the reader will assume it’s a rich home, and if it mentions rat traps, the reader will assume it’s a poor one. In this way, we build up an image in the reader’s mind, merely by choosing our words and mentioning a few details in passing.

For every setting, the reader has a number of default assumptions about how it looks and works, and as long as your setting doesn’t go against those assumptions, you don’t need to mention them. For example, you only need to mention what furniture there is in the living room if it’s something unusual, like a pinball machine. You don’t need to mention sofas, bookcases or a TV. You only need to mention what kind of home the chandeliers are hanging in if it’s anything other than a rich home (like a thieves’ den).

Even for made-up settings, like fantasy, you can use the reader’s assumptions to compress descriptions. In most fantasy settings, people can be assumed to wear medieval clothes, live in medieval houses and use medieval tools, unless otherwise specified. There are default assumptions for how castles look, how horses are ridden (with a saddle and bridle), what kind of lighting is used, and so on.

A large part of the secret with descriptions lies in finding the details which will pull up just the right assumptions in the reader’s mind.

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