Archive for March, 2010

Precise But Distracting

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

I’ve recently noticed an odd trend in mass-market fiction–a tendency toward distractingly precise description. Believing that lively words will necessarily enliven their prose, some authors are liberally sprinkling their writing with words that are, admittedly, precise but that are also misleading to the reader. These words sometimes have the wrong connotations, or they simply offer far too much distracting detail.

At Beaumont Hardy, I fully support authors’ efforts to create vivid descriptions for their readers. However, description cannot exist for its own sake. It must serve the larger purpose of enhancing both plot and character. When description becomes so specific that it pulls the reader from the story, it may be time for an edit.

The following sentences illustrate the kind of precision I believe distracts a reader, instead of enlivening the story.

1. Fear scraped at her insides.

I see variations of this sentence in many current thrillers. “Scraped” is a wonderfully descriptive word, but it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to fear or to its effects. Does fear really scrape? I argue that a reader will stop to wonder what internal scraping feels like and whether this scraping is more characteristic of something other than fear–like a corrosive acid. This kind of reader distraction can destroy any plot suspense the author hopes to create.

2. His gaze collided with hers.

The notion of a collision is effective, in certain narrative situations, but it seems unrelated to the actual process of making eye contact. Readers all recognize the power of eye contact and the shock of an unexpected gaze. However, readers might have trouble imagining one look colliding with another one. Once again, readers are pulled from the story into irrelevant thoughts about ricocheting lines of sight and violently clashing eye contact–not what the writer wants at a moment of interpersonal tension.

3. The little girl launched herself into her mother’s arms.

“Launch” is an excellent descriptive verb, and it can clearly describe various actions. However, in this particular sentence, it conveys an action the writer might not have intended. Instead of suggesting a warm maternal moment, the word “launch” suggests the sudden movement of a projectile or the violent motion of a lion encountering an injured gazelle. It also connotes a long-distance leap more characteristic of a cheetah or an Olympic athlete than a little girl. Because of its violently athletic connotations, the precision of the term leads, I think, to more distraction than it does description.

4. The maiden gnawed at her muffin nervously.

Like launching, gnawing has very precise connotations, many of them rodent-related. Using the word “gnaw” to describe the relatively pleasant actions of a nice young woman seems incongruous and confusing. The reader may struggle with images of vermin, momentarily forgetting the trajectory of the story or the personality of the character.

5. “Get in the car,” the gentleman snarled.

Snarling is a very precise activity and one usually attributed to beasts of prey. When an author uses a word like “snarled,” instead of a more ordinary word like “said,” he or she must acknowledge the connotations of the word and consider whether these connotations are appropriate. In the case of the snarling gentleman, the author risks the temporary distraction of a reader who envisions werewolves or lions, instead of the fully human hero.

Accurate description is an art that I wholeheartedly support at Beaumont Hardy Editing. However, I recommend whittling away the kind of description that makes the wrong connotations and only serves to distract the reader.

If you have any concerns about your own descriptive passages and would like an expert opinion about them, please send them to me. I look forward to hearing from you.