Speculative Elephants: More About Description.

(A continuation of the feverish analysis in this post.)

Let’s now consider a reader who has no idea what an elephant is. We the writer want to present our reader with words aligned in just the right way that we paint a picture of an elephant that will let the reader perfectly imagine it exactly as we see it. Or do we?

In most cases, a reader’s imagination will be more potent than any number of words. (Of course we do have such readers as those who don’t visually picture the story in their minds as they read, but in these cases description is often altogether irrelevant.)

As writers, we would love our readers to picture what we ourselves imagine down to the last molecule, the tiniest details. But as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and we don’t always have a thousand words to describe every character in every scene in every setting.

The solution: Point your reader’s imagination in the right direction, and let them paint the ten thousand words instead.

Our goal is not to paint a scene that’s exact to our imagination, but one which functions the same way as the setting we imagine. 

The challenge then becomes: how do we use two-three sentences to portray just the right about of general information, detail, and atmosphere (feeling) that the reader automatically fills in all the blank spaces with something that’s consistent enough to our imagined setting that their immersion in the story won’t be broken.

The answer: Practice.

We write a lot of descriptions and throw them at a lot of readers. We write long descriptions and cut them down, word by word. We write short descriptions and build them up, syllable by syllable. We follow the way of the elephant (general picture + a few details, presented in an active way and evoking feeling), and slowly bend that theory to fit our own styles and needs.

We help our readers imagine elephants, and recognize that no two readers will imagine the exact same elephant, and that’s okay.

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