Tedious Circles of Hell, Described

When you walk down the street, you notice many things. Stay with me, here:

You hear the muted slaps of footfalls striking slightly wet pavement, slippery with leaves you can’t see. You see the yellow, uneven quality of light–evoking the offscreen sun coming out from behind the clouds you assume are there, sunrise a recent memory. And even though you can’t feel it, you know it’s a little chilly, but not bitingly cold.

Careful planning has generated layers of detail that fool you by evoking “city street” clues. The leaves are sticking to the ground, and to lampposts and car bumpers. The shadows are consistent with early-morning, nearly horizontal fall light. The crystallization in the actors’ breath–actors who are wearing fall jackets.

And the sounds of wet footfalls and cars driving through puddles–these were layered on top of the location sound.

Location filming is unpredictable and expensive, and this quality of immersion is more reliably achieved by this sort of artificial layering. It can also be produced by analyzing the story to be told, breaking the story into spreadsheets of details to be attended to and budgeted for. This sort of craft is more attractive to studios and investors than the vagaries of getting it all in one take in the real world.

Modern recording studios do something similar: The close-miked sound of a drum kit, microphones picking out every detail of wooden drumsticks striking drumheads and cymbals–that’s a sound you can’t actually hear from anywhere in the room. Similarly, we’re used to hearing amazing amounts of detail on other instruments. The click of valves opening and closing, contrasted with the flautist’s frenetic inhalations. A vocalist inhaling slowly and deliberately before singing a single long, drawn-out note. But, even though we don’t really hear these things to a great extent in real life, they have to be there. I recently told a vocalist, if we do that too much, the resulting performance can sound cold and sterile. So we sometimes even emphasize these incidentals, artificially making the performance more convincing, more “real”.

But it’s easy to move from “good production values” to “overproduced”, and few stories (or songs) are substantial enough to survive this. The phase of writing where we put the idea into words–that’s all about selecting just which details we want to show to the reader. Just as the offscreen sound of an airplane convinces us we’re experiencing a moment “outside”, carefully chosen details will help the reader sink into an imagined world. However, too many details can easily bog the story down in lush description. Perhaps the writer is overeager, or maybe it’s an instinctive reaction to knowing the story is weak and needs to be covered up. This sort of hyper-realism can work when done well, but description for its own sake is most often a bad habit to be shed and not a stylistic decision to be cultivated.

Just as getting that vocal take just right can suck up hours and days of the singer’s life (not to mention the recording engineer and the band waiting in the studio lounge), getting that description just right can be a waste of a writer’s time. And too much lush detail, no matter how well-written, will almost always waste the reader’s time. Yes, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But if description doesn’t move the story along, highlight it and press delete.

(But save the really good stuff. Because storage is cheap, and you never know if you’re that exception.)

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2 thoughts on “Tedious Circles of Hell, Described

Add yours

  1. Well written Neil. Insightful analysis to valid conclusions in your last 2 paragraphs. I agree.
    Description needs to further story or it is irrelevant and slows action down. I have read in some great books, detailed description in the middle of an active scene, but it gave the slow-motion/timeless/eternity feel of what transpires in mere seconds.

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