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You don't believe me? Let's try it and see if we can do it - you and I. I'm going to send a thought directly from my mind to yours. I'll form an image and we'll see if you can see the same image I'm seeing. I won't speak. I won't even open my mouth. In fact, chances are I'm on a completely different continent to you, but let's try it anyway.
Are you ready?
I'm imagining a German Shepherd dog standing in a garden holding the shreds of a daisy bush in his mouth.
Did you catch my thought? Can you see the same image I'm seeing?
Of course you can! Excellent, isn't it?
I'm sure you saw the same thing; a large black-and-tan, long-coated German Shepherd dog, who stands precisely 64 cms tall at the shoulder, wearing an orange-red nylon collar. His ears are lowered against his head in shame and his long, shaggy tail is drooped low between his legs as he stands trying to hide behind the rose bush I despise so much, still chewing my favorite miniature purple daisies.
You saw the same image both times, didn't you? Probably not.
The difference between the two descriptions is simple (and should be obvious). In the first, I trusted you to supply your own details. You were given only enough information for your mind to provide your own image. I trusted your imagination to create the finer points of an image for yourself. You could have guessed easily that he'd been chewing a daisy bush and you would have surmised that he looked like most German Shepherd dogs.
If this description was a part of a larger story, your focus would not be taken away from the plot line or the events of the tale unfolding around the solitary image.
In the second description, you were told precisely what to imagine and how to imagine it. I didn't trust you to see the image I wanted you to see, so the second description is overly pedantic. If the second description was put into a larger story, your focus would have been jolted away from the plot long enough for you to stop and actually consider if you were picturing the right image or not. Besides, it reads a bit like a text book. Boring!
Let's try the same excercise with a character from one of my own stories. Are you ready to prime those 'psychic' muscles?
Here we go...
Jeni's gaze was drawn to him the moment she entered the room. Callum leaned against the bar, the dim light accentuating his features making him seem even more attractive. She steeled her nerves and strode towards him. He was well-dressed for the occasion, she noticed, right down to his shoes. He glanced over one shoulder as she approached and the look in his eyes made her step falter. His smile told her he'd been expecting her.
Did you get the same image? This time I'm not so certain we're together on this image. Take a moment to write down how you imagine Callum would look. What's he wearing in your image? Where do you think the pair were going for their 'occasion'? What type of shoes did you picture?
If we were to quiz our Managing Editor, Tina Morgan on her image, her response would be predictable: She would have pictured a dark-haired, exotic looking man, perhaps with a neatly clipped beard and moustache, wearing a white shirt unbuttoned most of the way down his chest. He would be waiting by the bar for a romantic date.
If we were to quiz my good friend, Tamara, she'd probably admit to images of an olive-skinned man with long dark dreadlocks and a white pirate shirt, very akin to Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean", waiting by the bar to whisk her away on his pirate ship, and I'm almost certain another good friend, Yvonne, would be picturing a tall sandy-haired man with a wide grin, very similar to Hugh Jackman.
So what's the right image? How does a writer let a reader know who or what to imagine?
I'm guessing that perhaps half of our readers would picture Callum as dark haired. Slightly less than half would have pictured him as a blonde and a few would have gone for brown just to be different. What image does the word 'handsome' conjure for you?
The description "Well-dressed for the occasion" is ambiguous at best. What occasion? Are they dressed for a night at the opera? Perhaps they planned a game of tennis? Will they be sky-diving? Perhaps scuba diving? Barn dancing? Storming the security-laden headquarters of the psychotic megalomaniac who runs the corporation for which they work?
The point is that the description above is under-described for the purpose of a sole example. However, in the context of an entire book, you should have already read enough about these people and their situation throughout the rest of the story to create your own image. As the writer, you could pepper the finer details throughout the dialogue or via the observations of other characters. Your readers will remember those details each time the character re-appears and they will become a part of the image that forms inside the mind each time the reader thinks of that person.
The image I wanted you to see was an image carefully planted into the reader's mind throughout the rest of the story. There was no need to repeat the same information in a long boring chunk of narrative just because I wanted you to think he was gorgeous. Even if this was the opening scene to the story, the reader wants to know what's going on - not sift through the boring details to find out why they're in the bar in the first place.
You see, if you'd read "ReCon", you'd know that Callum is blonde, because the protagonist tells us earlier that she doesn't usually like blondes. She finds them less appealing than darker men - yet she's drawn to Callum. Because this description is inserted into other comments elsewhere in the text, there is simply no need for me to create a text-book description that requires you to stop focusing on the story in order to picture the right man each time he appears. Indeed, if the author has done his or her job and used the tools at hand (i.e. other characters and situations), there should be no need to create huge blocks of descriptive prose at all. Trust your readers to use their own memories and their own imaginations.
You'd also know he's dressed for work - all in blue - again, because a different character observes the boring uniforms they're required to wear to work each day.
Finally, you would also realize that Jeni has finally consented to Callum's suggestion of an attempted escape from the institution. There's no romantic date planned, no sky-diving or barn dancing. Jeni's nerves are not there because of the handsome guy at the bar (not entirely, anyway...). Jeni's nerves are apparent because they'll be shot if they're caught.
As you've probably not read the book, the images you created during the example are therefore the right images. There are no wrong images. You're the reader - and it's up to the writer to trust the reader to be able to imagine any image he or she wants!
As a writer, your job is to make sure your readers have a good idea of what is happening to the people in your story, but it's also your job to allow them some room to excercise their own imaginations.
Let's try it this way: Jeni's gaze was drawn to his muscular frame the moment she entered the room. Callum leaned against the bar, the dim light making him seem even more good-looking to her tired eyes. His finely chiseled features were classically good looking: high cheekbones, well-defined jaw and strong chin. He ran his long, supple fingers through his luxuriant blonde curls and smoothed his blue uniform. She noticed his highly-polished black boots, his blue work pants tucked too neatly into them. He looked over his left shoulder as she approached and the searching look in his jade green eyes made her step falter. His sad smile let her know he'd been expecting her.
Bleah! Could you imagine reading 400 pages of a novel like this? The author has dragged an unsuspecting reader out of the story to stop and stare at the guy by the bar!
Not only is the description disgustingly overdone, but it still reads like a text book. It was even difficult to write for the purpose of this excercise! Seriously, I got up twice; once to get a drink and once to feed my dog (yep, the same daisy-munching German Shepherd).
But enough complaining. Let's compare the two properly. In the second version of the same scene, you're told precisely what to imagine. It's been over-described. A long chunk of description like this is enough to pull your reader out of the story and stop to focus on how they should be imagining the character or the scenery or whatever it is you're describing.
You've read examples now of the same scene being under-described and being over-described. Which one is right?
My guess would be somewhere in between. Give enough information to let the reader know what's going on and who's appearing in the story, but don't give so much information as to draw the reader away from the story itself simply to stop and stare and the gorgeous guy by the bar or the amazingly beautiful heroine who just pranced into the room.
Narrative should serve to further the story and to clarify points about setting, character and surroundings. Don't be tempted to psychically transmit a perfect image to your readers. Simply tell it like it is and get on with the story.
There are plenty of ways to get your image across to your readers clearly, but the important thing to remember is to trust your reader to be able to supply at least some of his or her own images of the people and places in your book. Especially when you are trying so hard to immerse them in your story - and keep them there!
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