Monday, April 9, 2012

Descriptors: Do they enhance, overwhelm, or fall flat?

I've been thinking about descriptors lately, both when writing queries and polishing my manuscripts. Sometimes, descriptors can be just the thing to make your manuscript or query stand out. But they have to be used carefully. Too many can weigh down a sentence, and too little can be vague.

In one of my query drafts, I described one of my characters as a "local beggar." (One adjective paired with a noun.). But it wasn't enough to indicate who my beggar was or what made the character an integral part of the story. 

I then tried: "An all-seeing beggar with a sense of other worlds." Too many words without enough description.

"A ragged, swollen-fingered beggar." Two adjectives paired with a noun, which I don't usually like to do, but it gives a clearer picture of who the character is--and it's specific without being overwhelming. (Thanks to the beta-reader who assisted with this word choice.)

Being specific with descriptions is necessary. Another beta-reader and I talked about Terry Pratchett, and how his decriptions usually come across well because they are filled with specific, unique language. Here are some examples, courtesy of Goodreads:

“Always be wary of any helpful item that weighs less than its operating manual.”
― From Jingo

“There was this about vampires : they could never look scruffy. Instead, they were... what was the word... deshabille. It meant untidy, but with bags and bags of style.”
― From  Monstrous Regiment

A dog's wet nose is not strictly speaking the worst of the bunch, but it has it's own peculiar dreadfulness which connoisseurs of the ghastly and dog owners everywhere have come to know and dread. It's like having a small piece of defrosting liver pressed lovingly against you.”
From Moving Pictures

Now it's your turn: Take a page from your manuscript (or your drafted query) and write down the adjectives you chose. Ask yourself: Do the words enhance what you're trying to describe? Are they specific enough to warrant a picture in your head? Try using other descriptors and see how they change the look and feel of your prose.

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