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Playing with Focus: When Description Attacks

WritersdontcryLights Camera EmoticowAs readers, we want our description to be riveting. We want it to be absorptive. We want to feel like we are there—like we can see everything exactly as the author imagines it. But, of course, as writers, we know that we by necessity end up focusing on some things a lot, others a little, and the rest not at all. Otherwise, we’d be writing for days, and never get anything done. And, moreover, we know that choosing the wrong thing, too many things, or just focusing waaay too tight on even the right thing, can have disastrous (if entertaining) effects for one’s story. This makes writing description an exercise in picking just the right foci, and learning to turn just enough attention on them to let them shine.

It’s easiest to start thinking about the effects of different levels of focus—and different focal points--by stripping a scene of its description entirely, leaving it just with the bare bones of its dialogue. A scene so stripped immediately becomes something like a blurry picture. The blurriness in the picture represents everything the reader is providing with their imagination—things you’ve mentioned before, things absorbed from the cover art, and things they just plain made up. Everything you then describe gets pulled from that blurry background into focus. And, of course, the more time we spend on that description, the tighter the focus becomes, until we’re right up in the hero’s nose digging for gold that we’re sure, at that point, will prove pivotal in the execution of the plot.

So, that's all well and good. But when it comes time to add that description back in, how do you know how to tell if you have too many foci, the wrong focus, or even just if you've zoomed in a little too close? We've all experienced how terribly easy it is to turn an earnest desire to write immersive description into a focus-fest that leaves no nostril unexplored. For this reason--and in honor of the sanctity of all nostrilkind--I’ve thrown together three of the most common mistakes made with foci, their effects, and, of course, how to best avoid them.

Too Many Foci
The old, grizzled war-orc grimaced unhappily as he took a tentative sip of the dead, unfashionable dwarf’s fly egg-and-mold-infested ale, which was in an elegant, silver mug covered in the most amazing etchings  [--insert 75 words about etching here--], and disgustedly wiped his gaping mouth with his thick, knobby, sausagelike fingers of surprising girth, which also had sparse but coarse and determined hair growing out of them. The ale? Was nasty.

So, if a descriptive paragraph is a blurry picture, and describing things pulls things into focus, then why not just describe everything? That way, the reader can see what’s going on exactly as you do, in your head, right? Right? Tragically? No.

Turns out, when you describe everything, that takes a lot of time. It’s not like in the movies, where you can just pan over it in a matter of seconds. And as such, describing everything, all the time, is not only an exhausting exercise destined to produce whole swathes of description with a bricklike density—it’s also impossible. (And boring—let’s not forget boring.)

Think of details like highlighters. If everything is highlighted, nothing is—and all you’re left with is a yellow book. (In which, ironically, the unhighlighted parts would draw the most attention.) Choosing the right details to draw attention to in order to best tell your story is part of what makes it a story, and not just an obsessive recitation of events. So when you turn your authorial eye to a bit of description, try choosing one or two things to draw the reader’s attention to—and leave the rest gracefully unsaid.

The Wrong Focus
The orc grimaced as he took a tentative sip of the dead dwarf’s ale, and wiped his mouth with his thick, knobby, sausagelike fingers of surprising girth. The ale? Was nasty.

Every sentence has a point—sometimes two, if it’s feeling particularly sassy (spectacularly artistic exceptions excepted, of course). And these points are both what the sentence is trying to get across, and the only things deserving of focus. But sometimes an author is so smitten with a particular detail that he can’t help but treat it as the primary focus of a sentence--even if it is not remotely relevant.

In that case, one of a few things happens. Either we focus unnecessarily on the thick fingers of the orc, to the detriment of the actually important details—slowing down and diluting the story. Or, we get confused, because there is a lot of weight in the sentence given to the thickness of said fingers—something that seems on the surface entirely unimportant. (It’s a trap!) Or, we feel like the author has an unnatural obsession with thick fingers, we feel uncomfortable, and we back—then run--away.

The thing to remember here is that if you give an adjective to an unimportant part of the sentence, it not only draws attention in and of itself—it also draws attention away from what is actually important. Particularly if the unnecessary bit nabs the end of the sentence—a place with an increased emphasis all its own.  So before you write a sentence—and certainly before you edit one—think about what you are trying to get across with that sentence, and focus on that. Cut any other detail that draws attention away from what’s important. If it’s important enough that you really must mention it, give it its own sentence to dominate.

Too Much Focus
The orc grimaced as he took a tentative sip of the dead dwarf’s ale, and wiped his mouth. The ale? Was nasty. Horrific. Beyond gagtastic. Yuck to the tenth dimension. Ickiness given shape and form. Nausea-inducing worm-spew . . .

So, say you have the right focus. Say you’ve even limited your focus to just what you think is really important to get across. That’s great! That means that in your blurry photograph, you’ve picked the one thing you really want to pull into focus, and it is the right thing for your story. However, the danger’s not over yet. It’s remarkably easy—in the zeal of trying to make sure the audience understands what you’re saying and, more importantly, what it all means—to, uhm . . . hit that zoom button a bit hard. And before you know it, there you are, right up in that hero’s gloriously well-groomed nostrils.

Thing is, a really tight focus on anything, even the right focus (like the hero’s fury), reduces the thing being focused on (the hero’s irate expression) into such a small part of what it used to be (a gracefully flaring nostril) that it becomes, fundamentally, a completely different—and “wrong”—focus. (No one needs to read 75 words about nostrils. Like, ever.)  And that wrong focus (nostril city) invariably draws attention to the author’s rather uncomfortable fixation (he clearly has a thing for nostrils), than the thing itself (the nostril). (Unless, of course, the piece is comedic; excessive focus is awesome for humor.)

Obviously, no one sets out to focus on nostrils. And no one probably really has that major an obsession with nostrils that they would care to share in a novel they’re trying to publish--in mainstream fantasy, anyway. And that’s why this one is so terribly tricky. Too little focus, and that clever detail will be lost and unappreciated. Too much focus, and that clever detail will turn into a “thing” that you be known for more than your work. And the exact line you walk there is one you will have to choose. When in doubt, I suggest starting subtle--better to trust in the cleverness of your audience than to hit them over the head—and gradually amp it up if you find all your beta readers are missing the point. Alternatively, write as tight a focus as you fancy, and later, when editing, if you find yourself treating one thing consistently differently—and with more focus—than everything else in your novel, give it a second gander, and see if it might not be time to back off a smidge.

Playing with Focus
Here are a few things that tend to increase focus. Try playing with them—adding them and cutting them to see the effect on a paragraph or scene.

  1. Adjectives almost always focus attention on whatever they modify.
  2. Exceptionally long words or expensive ($10, $20, you get the idea) words tend to take longer to process, and so draw their share of attention.
  3. Patterns, like repetition, alliteration, and rhythm (or things that suddenly break a pattern), tickle our brains, and can draw quite a bit of notice.
  4. Very short sentences have their own distinctive presence.
  5. The end of the sentence, after which there is customarily a pause, is automatically one of the focal points of a sentence.

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