Looking in: An Exploration of Descriptive Choices

When I’ve taught classes on description, there’s often a moment when an exercise goes awry. Sometimes it’s a matter of reader 50% where the focus comes from the experiences of the reader, but often it can occur when the writer puts something into the scene whether by accident or out of desperation.

I can remember one example offhand where the writer, at a loss for how to describe blood spatter in a crime scene, used flower metaphors. This transformed her scene from a police procedural to a thriller in which the murderer had a point of view (POV)…and was viewing the scene in that moment.

What the character/POV sees is a visual medium for all that it’s written down. The author attempts to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, and how the reader reacts to the image is as much governed by what the author emphasizes as what the reader’s connections to the scene might be.

I recently created, by accident of course, a visual representation of this effect thanks to Daz3D. I created a Victorian scene outside a bakery (possibly Cooper’s Bakery, which featured in Safe Haven) and called it “Looking in” with a clear expectation of the scene. Then, on a whim, I chose two different camera angles from which to capture the scene. The effects were dramatic (at least to my mind). The two resulting images show how eye witnesses can see two very different things while looking at the same one.

In writing, the author wants to guide reader reactions. Think of the exercise example above. Where the author was attempting to describe the scene in a detached, police fashion, the use of metaphor, and specifically of a flower, changed how the reader experienced a scene that should have been gruesome into something poetic. This raises questions of who would see the blood spatter in such a lovingly way, and the answer changes the scene dramatically.

Now consider the image I attached above. There are a lot of descriptive clues from the girl’s chubby cheeks to her faint smile. The pattern on her clothes is simple, and as I had pointed out to me, the snow on the window compared to her lack of hat and gloves hints she is not from a wealthy family. But overall, she seems a happy child.

Now compare the first image to this one, taken from the same 3D scene with only a shift of angle to change the feel of what’s going on. This angle makes her arm seem very thin. The focus is more on her grasping fingers and her face is obscured. The shadows make her body seem emaciated even beyond the arm. Had you seen this view first, would you have believed her a happy, well-fed child? How do your perceptions of her circumstances change?

I’ll be honest. The second picture is actually from the first view and brought to mind The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. The first child is more likely to have raced ahead of her parent, eager to choose which of the treats in the window she will consume, while the second is more likely to play a game of potatoes and point. This game, as described to me by my father, involves eating bland potatoes while looking at a magazine picture of a steak to trick your mind into thinking the picture is what fills your mouth.

Here are the full pictures. Click on them to open a larger view. What are some other elements that create differences between the scenes for you? And do they support or contradict the smaller focus?

If you want to explore the concept farther as it pertains to writing, here’s a quick assignment:

  1. Write two descriptions of a girl outside a bakery looking in based on the pictures.
  2. When you’re done, compare the two and notice where the description stayed the same and where it didn’t. How do those differences change the reader’s perspective?
  3. *Bonus 1* You could even find a willing audience and read the two passages aloud to see how a reader might react coming on the scenes raw.
  4. *Bonus 2* Try it again with a new audience but read the passages in the opposite order as well. Was there any difference?

I’d love to hear about your results with the exercise, and your reactions to my pictures.

I hope you have enjoyed this look at description and that it offers some new techniques to explore. Go forth and paint your word pictures effectively, aware of how a single choice can transform a description as the reader experiences it. Use this knowledge to your benefit rather than accidentally leading your reader astray.

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