SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > On Writing: Description
by Robert J. Sawyer
There was a cartoon in The New Yorker many years ago in which the female host of a posh party accosts one of her guests: "I've just learned that you wrote a novel based on somebody else's screenplay. Please leave my house at once."
It's true that novelizations are the antithesis of literature, but when I was a teenager, desperate to learn how to write, I read dozens of them. Why? Because in a piece of fiction, every nuance can be described in words. It was fascinating to see the ways in which writers described scenes that I'd already watched on the big screen.
(In point of fact, of course, most novelizations are written before the movie is completed. The writers of the book versions have probably never seen a single frame of the film, so the way they describe the action is often quite different from the way it was actually shot.)
For writers beginning today, there's an even better tool available than novelizations: interpreted-for-the-blind movies; the process is called "described video." On DVD and Blu-ray, it uses use the secondary audio channel to provide a running commentary, often of a very high caliber, explaining in vivid words the scene that is simultaneously unfolding in pictures. Many movie theaters also offer described video as a free option for patrons. Watching a described-video version can be a terrific way to learn how to bring a scene to life verbally; the best one I've encountered is the described-video version of Casablanca.
Although I'm part of the minority that thinks Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the best SF films ever made, just about everyone likes the last bit of dialog in the film.
Unfortunately, the novelization of ST:TMP is by none other than Gene Roddenberry (and it's so clunky, unlike the Star Wars novelization, which is putatively by George Lucas but was actually written by Alan Dean Foster, that I'm inclined to believe Roddenberry really did perpetrate it). How does Roddenberry portray this climactic moment in the book version? Just by reprinting the dialog, without any real description:
Kirk turned to the helm. "Take us out of orbit, Mr. Sulu."
Now, let's see how that might have been handled better. Remember, a scene in any book has to carry all the emotional freight on its own; it's not supposed to be a mere transcript of something people have already seen:
The trick is to appeal both to the emotions and to the senses: tell us what people are feeling, what they're thinking, and, when appropriate, what they're seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling.
You have much more control over the reader's experience than a movie director does. A director can't be sure what part of the frame any given viewer might be looking at, but when you write "there was permanent dirt under his fingernails, the legacy of decades of archeological fieldwork," you know exactly what the reader is contemplating.
Of course, you shouldn't weigh down every bit of business with lots of detail; it may be sufficient to say "she rode the bus to work." But when something major is happening, increase the amount of description; think of your words as swelling background music, denoting the importance of the scene.
Description does more than just make vivid the reader's image of the story; it also lets you control the timing of experiences. Don't just blurt out, "The butler did it!" Rather, play out the moment, stretch things, build the suspense, make the reader wait:
Pauses don't have to be large to convey volumes. Here's an entire scene from Terence M. Green's 1992 novel Children of the Rainbow:
It was almost midnight when McTaggart made the decision.
Even though the other characters do nothing, their inaction communicates their nervousness, their failing resolve, their fear that their leader has gone over the edge. Try it without the description:
"I think that we should go closer. Maybe fifteen miles away. Force their hand."
Nothing. No tension. No suspense. Description isn't padding it's the heart and soul of good writing.
More Good Reading