Monday, May 09, 2005

In Search of... Description

Still musing on cutting down the dialogue in my short stories.

The trouble is that, if I have two or more characters in the same scene, they'll inevitably be either talking to each other, or fighting with each other. (Sometimes both - I like pseudo-introspective fight scenes.) I think I focus on the characters and the circumstances too much; I should be giving the scenery an equal amount of screen time.

I suppose that, in order to wean myself off heavy dialogue, the first exercise that comes to mind would involve writing a solitary character in an appropriate situation. Maybe a man who suddenly finds himself stuck on a deserted isle...

Michael stared at the waves. Then he turned, and stared at the beach.

He stared at the waves.

He stared at the beach.

"Oh my God," he said.

"Oh my God," he said again, as though the first statement didn't nearly sum up the entire situation perfectly.

He looked out across the sand, past the piled driftwood, to the edges of the scrubby forest that seemed to stretch into the distance. The island was large and foreboding, and it stared into him, feeling each of his fears and premonitions with huge pointed teeth.

"Oh my God," he said.

I'll stop right there, because it appears that I'm hitting the dialogue issue again. While it might make sense for Michael to keep saying "Oh my God," I don't want his words to be dominating even one whit of this narrative.

Funny, isn't it - I put a lone character on a deserted island, and the first thing he does is talk to himself.

On the other hand, the description of Michael's first impression of the island sounds okay (not good, but okay), so maybe I can try to capitalize on that. The island should almost certainly make up the bulk of the description here, seeing that the narrative really has to introduce the environment to both Michael and the readers.

Michael looked out across the sand, first at the piles of driftwood before settling on the edges of the scrubby forest before him. It was deathly quiet.

This can't be happening, he thought. This can't be happening.

But, deep inside, he knew otherwise. The sand felt real under his feet. The waves roared thunder in his ears.

Oh my God, he thought. Oh my God.

I'll stop there. Michael isn't talking to himself anymore, but he's thinking to himself, which might be just as bad as talking to begin with.

Maybe my problem is that I'm telling things from Michael's point of view, rather than from the narrator's or the reader's point of view. It's part of the method of characterization on my end - if I source the description of a scene from a certain character's viewpoint, then the resulting narrative not only gives the reader an idea of what the scene is like, but also gives some insight into how the character's mind works. Here, for example, we not only get an impression of the sand, the waves and the forest, but we also realize that Michael initially lapses into denial once he is confronted with his situation.

So now I have to make sure that we don't get into Michael's mind, just for this exercise. Well, we can get into his mind a little, I suppose, as long as we don't probe far enough to get him 'talking' again.

Michael stared out into the beach. Something here was not quite right.

The sand gathered in a narrow expanse of grains and broken shells, feeding the waves as they lapped at its surface. A distance away, the piles of driftwood seethed under the naked sun.

Despite its scrubby appearance, the forest before him... loomed. That was the word for it, yes. There was nothing else that could describe its mass of island trees, thick canopy, and deathly silence. It loomed.

Michael took a deep breath, and as if in response to that single breath, a flock of birds broke cover noisily. They scattered above the treetops, cawing and screeching complaint at the intruder who had defiled their sanctuary. Michael stared at the sight, unnerved.

That was a lot better, I think. I'm wondering whether or not Michael's actions here would constitute 'dialogue' in some way, but then again, I suppose that he's part of the scenery as well. Anything that he does should be fair game for description.

The single sentence "Something here was not quite right" gives the narration a morbid quality from the get-go, and I think it forced me to pay attention to the surroundings. In a sense, it probably forced me to devote more time to the description because that would be what readers would be focusing on. They'd be expecting something to pop right out of the woodwork, after all.

I'm still unsatisfied with this narration, though, because I think it concentrates on what the reader sees, as opposed to describing the scene based on multiple senses. The previous narration referenced touch (the tangibility of the sand) and hearing (the roar of the waves) as well as sight, and I don't think I got that here. This is all purely sight.

Still, I didn't lapse into dialogue, and I suppose I should really be happy with that. But I really need to put together that one huge block of description sometime.

Maybe a different situation will be best. But then, that should probably be an exercise left for another time...

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