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WRAP-UP

A good story depends on forward motion, and forward motion de­pends on many aspects of description technique. Stories move on two levels, physical and emotional; when delivering details, you must attend to the emotional as well as the physical content of the story. A character's view of a snowstorm may be lean or sumptuous, depend­ing on his state of mind. Sometimes you have to create a wider descrip­tive framework—a context—in order to handle the emotional com­plexity of certain stories. A story about a recently widowed man may need the context of a crime-ravaged neighborhood to adequately deliver the sense of caprice and futility that often accompany loss.

The head-to-toe physical description of a character, although a wonderful test of your descriptive powers, can stop a story cold if rendered in large chunks. Try delivering physical details one or two at a time, allowing your readers to get to know a character within the natural forward flow of the story. The characters will be more memorable that way, and you won't have to test your readers' pa­tience by stopping the story every time you want to introduce some­body.

The flashback is another descriptive device that helps your read­ers get to know a character. Paradoxically, a flashback can move a story forward even though it literally moves backward. As long as the information in the flashback is relevant and interesting—containing the kind of description that engages a reader and illuminates a char­acter—the story will gain momentum. To give flashbacks the best chance of working without stopping forward motion, you must watch for familiar pitfalls. Transitions in and out of flashbacks should be direct and seamless; the flashback should be part of a present-action story, and not vice-versa (if the flashback begins to take over the story, then it probably is the story); the flashback should contain its own descriptive flow and not be used as a repository for background infor­mation; and the past-perfect tense should be replaced by the simple past tense as soon as possible in a flashback (the past perfect serves only to remind readers that the flashback is a diversion from the "real" story).

The flash-forward, on the other hand, is a literal movement for­ward—a description that announces a future event. Use it sparingly or not at all, for the direct telegraphing of events ruins a story's tension much more often than it adds weight or poignancy.

The set piece is another motion-stopper that can test even the most forgiving reader's good nature. The set piece is a descriptive detour that usually comes from the author's fascination with a subject: how an airplane works; what Monet's gardens at Giverny look like in winter; the history of the Micmac Indians in northern Maine. A successful set piece contains illuminative description and enchanting information. Even if it has only a marginal relationship to the other events of the story, the set piece should suggest something about the way a character thinks or how the events in the story are about to unfold. The story or novel in which the set piece resides must be long enough to contain it; a five-page set piece will burden a short story and brighten a novel.

If forward movement is a problem you struggle with in your fiction, analyze your description techniques. Check for blocky, inert descriptive passages. Check your transitions back and forth in time. Make sure the details enhance both the physical and emotional content. Description is so much more than reportage; it is invention, imagination, and recreation.



CHAPTER 4

DESCRIPTION AND DIALOGUE


Description and dialogue are usually discussed as entirely separate techniques. In practice, however, description and dialogue often be­come inextricable and always have similar functions: to enrich the readers' understanding of a story, to move the story forward, and to help the readers "see" a character. Good dialogue is good descrip­tion.

When a character proclaims, "I'm fed up with you, Arnold. I'm clearing out of here right now," her anger is just as evident as it would be if described through narrative. On the other hand, a long and pointless dialogue sequence in which two characters drink coffee and chat aimlessly about dog grooming stops the motion of a story as effectively as a long and pointless narrative description of dog-grooming.

How you describe a field or a person's anger or a parade or a dying wish depends on your personal preferences and the story's general "feel." Sometimes dialogue is the right choice; sometimes narrative description is the right choice. Often, a combination of dialogue and narrative works best. In any case, the language should be precise, the metaphors apt, the details relevant. All good descrip­tion, whether in dialogue or narrative form, should follow the rules of good writing.

TYPES OF DIALOGUE

Describing through dialogue is a challenge well worth the trouble. Different characters see things differently, and the kinds of descriptions they make tell a lot about them. Some dialogue lends itself to description better than others. Direct dialogue, which is the direct back-and-forth conversation between two or more characters, is not a natural vehicle for description, because many characters don't have the powers of observation necessary for conveying strong images to the readers. In the following example, Patti, an ordinary woman who works in a bakery, sounds too much like a writer to be convincing as a baker:


"You work all night?" Gus said, surprised.

"Bread doesn't bake itself," Patti said. "How do you think it gets to the shelves by six in the morning?"

Gus considered this. "I'd hate working at night. It must be kind of creepy being back there all by yourself."

"No, it's wonderful," Patti said. "The solitude, the pristine quiet, the aromas of yeast and flour. When I first come in I wait before turning on the lights. In that half-light I can just make out the marvelous shapes of the equipment, the subtle glint of chrome and steel, the vats of frosting arranged like sentries against the far window."


Patti sounds too self-consciously poetic here, especially after her first line of dialogue ("Bread doesn't bake itself. How do you think it gets to the shelves by six in the morning?"), which establishes her as no-nonsense and practical, not the reflective poet type who delivers the soliloquy on aromas and half-light. If you really want Patti's descrip­tion of the bakery to stay in the story, consider indirect dialogue. Indi­rect dialogue paraphrases a character's words:
"You work all night?" Gus said, surprised.

"You think bread bakes itself?" Patti said. "How do you think it gets to the shelves by six in the morning?"

Gus considered this. "I'd hate working at night. It must be kind of creepy being back there all by yourself."

"No, it's wonderful," Patti said. She sat down and took a breath, then proceeded to describe the beauty of a bakery at night: the solitude, the pristine quiet, the aromas of yeast and flour. Even the dimness of the light seemed to charm her, for she described the shapes of the equipment, the subtle glint of chrome and steel, the vats of frosting arranged like sentries against the far window.


In this version, the poetic description is easier to swallow because Patti doesn't say the words directly. Readers won't stop to wonder whether Patti is the type who would wax poetic about "the subtle glint of chrome and steel," because the description, though attributed to Patti, belongs more to the narrative than the character. For this particular passage, indirect dialogue offers your readers the informa­tion that the bakery is, at least to Patti, a magical place. And yet you don't have to give Patti dialogue that seems too magical for her character.

Direct dialogue works best with less poetic descriptions. For example, a character named Rowe, who is describing the injuries his brother received in an accident, can do the job very well all by himself:


"So, how's Gordon?" I asked.

"Great," Rowe said, "if you don't mind sewed-shut eyes."

"They sewed his eyes shut?"

"It's temporary." Rowe shrugged. "Just as well, really. This way he can't see his face."

I didn't want to hear it, but Rowe wasn't one to skimp on detail. "His teeth are a mess," he continued. "You ever see a whale's mouth? All the teeth look kind of chewed up and stashed back in, every which way? That's Rowe. Make you sick to look at him. The skin's all gone on the left side, nothing but raw meat."
This is a case where indirect dialogue would only dilute the impact of the raw description contained in the direct dialogue:
I was sorry I'd asked. Rowe gave me a description of Gor­don's new face—chewed-up teeth and the skin torn away, expos­ing raw meat. They'd sewn his eyes shut. Rowe said it was enough to make a person sick.
The indirect dialogue here robs your readers of Rowe's personality and the sense that he relishes delivering the gory details. The infor­mation seems sanitized and less immediate, because we can't hear Rowe's voice, only a third-party rendition of Rowe's voice. It's the difference between witnessing a three-alarm fire and reading about it in the paper.

Perhaps you want to tone down the gory details. You prefer a gentler rendition of the injuries. In that case, indirect dialogue is a good choice after all:


According to Rowe, Gordon's teeth had been broken out, his eyes stitched shut, and his skin rubbed raw, as if slapped over and over by a mighty, invisible hand.
You can also combine direct and indirect dialogue as a way of enhanc­ing certain kinds of description:
"Look at this place," Sally said. "You're forty years old and still living in what can only be referred to as a pad."

"What's wrong with it?"

"Beaded curtains, for starters. And this album collection. Nobody collects albums. It's so retro."

"Hey, this is a valuable collection," he said. "My Jimi Hen­drix stuff alone is worth plenty." But she wouldn't quit. She recited a list of his beloved possessions as if they were character flaws: aloe plant; lava lamp; Grateful Dead poster; Indian-print slipcover; waterbed. "Are you finished?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Honey, I'm just getting started."
In this passage, you give your readers just enough direct dialogue to show how the two characters argue. Then, in indirect dialogue (She recited a list of his beloved possessions. . . .) you suggest the flavor of the rest of the argument without boring everybody with a blow-by-blow. If you were to write the scene in direct dialogue from start to finish, you would dilute Sally's power, making her sound too strident or whiny:
"Look at this place," Sally said. "You're forty years old and still living in what can only be referred to as a pad."

"What's wrong with it?"

"Beaded curtains, for starters. And this album collection. Nobody collects albums. It's so retro."

"Hey, this is a valuable collection," he said. "My Jimi Hen­drix stuff alone is worth plenty."

"Maybe so, but look at the rest of this stuff. This lava lamp, for instance. Lava lamps went out with love beads."

"They're back," he protested. "You see them all the time now."

"And this silly Grateful Dead poster. The Grateful Dead weren't any good twenty years ago and they're even worse now."

"Says you."

"That's right. Arid I say this Indian-print slipcover should take a trip to Goodwill. Maybe some needy homeless person could cut it up and use it for handkerchiefs."

"Hey, leave that alone."

"And another thing," Sally said. "This aloe plant is the stupidest thing I've ever seen. Natural medicine, my foot."
Et cetera, et cetera. Not only does Sally lose her verve, but the scene begins to bog down with too many lines of dialogue that are similar. The original passage was tighter and snappier thanks to the succinct description of the indirect dialogue.



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