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Detail Shaping

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There's more to description than setting the information out there and trusting the reader to assemble it into a coherent whole. It's also possible to arrange their presentation to create additional effects.

This falls more on the artsy side, as in most people won't consciously notice it, or even realize that it's something writers would try to do, so you can't rely on this to make your descriptions interesting. It's an extra, not a core feature, and if your descriptions don't hold together before, they won't hold together after.

That said, when pulled off, detail shaping can add a subtle element of motion, or a sense of unity, to help tie a piece together.

Camera Control

One way of doing this is, rather than describe the elements of a situation as they come to mind, imagine that you're shooting a movie and you want to reader the experience each element of the situation as it's revealed by the camera. You could try a panning shot:

Pieces of an abandoned swing set dotted the overgrown field next to the river. Beyond them, bottomless canoes lay tethered in the overgrown reeds, their coats of whitewash flaking off in the summer heat. A splash, and a spray of water against the children screaming with delight on the far bank, pointing and laughing at the friend they'd just pushed in.

A wide angle to close-up zoom:

A planet hung in the starless void like a goddess' tear, full of fearful hope and remembered pain. The network of orbiting satellites, tireless, sent their signals to the surface, questions eternally without answer, thwarted by the thick clouds of roiling brown, where the automated aerial stations, buffeted and kept aloft by the hurricane winds, had long since drained their power cells.

But below, down through hazy skies that muffled the sharp mountain spires, below the old fortifications slowly crumbling on commanding hills, and under the cover of trees that had grown mangled and gnarled in the fallout, there was still life. A furtive movement, a snapped twig, and the rapid, panting breath of a small rodent fleeing for its life.

Or frenzied action to slow-motion:

Jakob felt, rather than saw, the sword come in--almost too fast to dodge. No sooner had the man before him collapsed, gurgling, than another took his place, eyes wide with the rush and fear of battle. A quick exchange of blows and this man was lost as well, swallowed by the raging melee that pulsed with its own dark life.

A swing of the sword, a thrust of the spear, a spray of blood. Life was measured in instants, death the stitching holding time together as they came, endless, screaming rage and murder.

And then, like the sun breaking through a storm, calm descended upon him. A mace appeared in his vision like an evil star. Slowly it advanced, dripping the blood and entrails of doomed soldiers, inching forward between heartbeats. The iron head glinted with austere beauty, and Jakob knew there was no time to duck, no time to do anything but watch the inevitable approach.

So this was how it felt to die.

Thematic/Sensory Links

You can also alter details in order to highlight similarities and contrasts of color, sound, feel, or to draw subtle connections between elements of a scene. It's related to the time honored technique of giving important characters or setting unique and distinguishing features, but it extends beyond that. For example, take this scene:

Mason tugged at his collar. The cheap silk shirt, dyed a light blue, always rubbed him the wrong way and the checkered tie felt tight enough to choke. It's not enough that he was here, in the bad part of the red light district, standing under a neon green sign of a woman in a martini glass, waiting for his contact to show up, but he was dressed in his Sunday best besides.

He nervously scanned the street, noting the position of each dilapidated car. Any and all exposed windows were covered by metal bars. Alleys branched off into darkness, offering a million places for undesirables to hide.

This wasn't the only gentleman's club in town, and Mason knew it. Hell, there were five others within walking distance, their signs bright and gaudy. And the only thing this one had to recommend it, he thought as his breath fogged in the night, was rumors of a man who knew how to hide bodies.

At least it wasn't raining.

Now, let's give it a theme. How about green? I'm going to rewrite it so that many of the significant details revolve around green. To do that, I'm going to have to change his shirt away from blue.

I don't have a problem with changes like this in my writing because while some details are important, others are irrelevant to the core of a character. Turning Mason into a hermaphroditic drag queen prostitute or a straight-laced cop too principled to be happy (or effective) while undercover would have major repercussions. Changing the color of his shirt? Not so much.

You do have to respect the new physicality changes in details create, and often the narrative will turn in a different direction as the theme gains momentum--you can't just swap new details in and out without considering how they feel--but it can be worth it. Let's find out if it is, this time:

Mason tugged at his collar. The cheap silk shirt, dyed a light green, always rubbed him the wrong way, and his checkered tie, also green but darker, felt tight enough to choke. It's not enough that he was here, in the bad part of the red light district, standing under a neon sign of a woman in a martini glass waiting for his contact to show up, but he was dressed in the closest he had to his Sunday best besides.

The woman, blonde, waved a green leg up and down, inviting one and all in for drinks and "entertainment."

This wasn't the only gentlemen's club in town, and Mason knew it. Hell, there were five others within walking distance, their signs bright and gaudy. The only thing this one had to recommend it was rumors of a man who knew how to hide bodies.

He nervously scanned the street, noting the position of each dilapidated car. Any and all exposed windows were covered by metal bars. Alleys branched off into darkness, offering a million places for undesirables to hide.

At least it's not raining, he thought as his breath fogged in the cold night, picking up the light from the sign above. And at least I'm getting paid.

Hmm...I like the contrast of the green surroundings and the phrase "red light district," and the relationship between green and money/getting paid at the end, but I honestly feel like I'm forcing the color. Maybe something more subtle, or maybe green's the wrong color. Or maybe color's not it, and I should try something like texture instead:

Mason tugged at his collar. The cheap silk shirt, dyed a light blue, always rubbed him the wrong way and the checkered tie felt tight enough to choke. It's not enough that he was here, in the bad part of the red light district waiting for his contact to show up, but he was dressed in his Sunday best besides.

He leaned back against the wall of this "gentlemen's club," looking up at the neon sign of the woman in a martini glass. The rough brick dug through his overcoat just enough to keep him edgy. Even his shoes were too tight.

He nervously scanned the street, noting the position of each dilapidated car. Any and all exposed windows were covered by metal bars flaking with rust and probably lousy with tetanus. Alleys branched off into darkness, offering a million places for undesirables to hide.

This wasn't the only gentleman's club in town, and Mason knew it. Hell, there were five others within walking distance, their signs painfully bright and gaudy. And the only thing this one had to recommend it, he thought as his breath crystallized in the night, was rumors of a man who knew how to hide bodies.

I like this a bit better--going for words and descriptions that relate to rough, sharp, constricting. I feel like it adds a more gritty feel that's appropriate in a noir milieu. The checkered tie probably has to go, though. It's just too ridiculous. Or maybe that's what could make it work. I don't know.

I debated putting in something about five-day old stubble, him rubbing his chin before spitting into a storm drain, but thought that would almost be over the top, heading into forced territory again, but then again there might be a way to make it work.

You can also try shaping with connotation, such describing a scene with words that relate to death for an ominous feel, or to the ocean for a nautical story, or to reflection and dazzling brilliance when the heroine is trapped in above the tree line in inhospitable mountains.

But again, this isn't a substitute for engaging details, believable characters or solid physicality. Instead, it's an extra layer of composition that can enhance the work's aesthetic effect. If you're having trouble drawing readers into your world, you should probably go back and examine what you're doing with plot, setting and characterization. Putting glitter on a broken vase won't make it whole.