Alton Brown, culinary scientist of the Food Network, is renowned for deriding unitaskers in the kitchen — “unitaskers” being those tools that are so precious that they can only perform a single function (apple-corer, garlic press, my penis, etc.).
Further, a Twitter conversation the other day opened up questions about how to handle descriptive language in fiction.
And that got me a noodlin’.
See, lately, I’ve been suffering under the growing obsession of language doing double-duty. Or triple, or even quadruple, duty. Of stacking not multiple words together, but of stacking multiple functions (tasks!) to individual words, sentences, and paragraphs.
How does this relate to description? Just what the hell am I talking about, and why do I have my hands down my underpants? I’ll get to the first two questions shortly.
My hand, if you must know, is looking for badgers, or the signs of badgers such as scratch-marks or badger scat. I’m long plagued by Pants Badgers. Mock me all you want, but if I hear you snortling over there, I’ll send the crotch-snuffling hell-badgers in your direction. We’ll see how you fare with those fuckers rooting around your sweaty Chinos.
Huh? Huh? Yeah. Dang.
You ask me about description, and my initial response would be:
Description is like a shot of fine whisky: best in small, potent doses.
That remains true, I think. Further, I think Doyce’s advice of the Rule of Threes is a good guideline to follow. Less is more and all that.
Of course, we writers love to hear ourselves talk, and we talk by writing, and we write by belching forth whatever tides of word-vomit are tossing around in our skull-kept seas, and so we often go on at length because we think That Lamp deserves a paragraph, or the character’s Ugly Shoes need time and space devoted.
Do they? Do they, really?
You’re in the weeds. Your boots are mired in the verbmuck. It’s hard to know which way is north, or up, or left, or why you have badgers digging around in your pants. We just write, we just get out all the description that seems important at the time, and that’s fine, that’s perfectly fine — but, but, but. Now or later, it’ll come time to cut.
And so the question is, what to keep, what to stab in the neck and throw overboard?
We now come full circle, and together we chant: No unitaskers!
Does your description serve only the purpose of description? Does it lend nothing else beyond detail, or some gauzy notion of mood?
Then it might be a unitasker. Time, then, to kill your darlings. I prefer an oar. Just whack, and then splash. Let the orca have their meal.
See, the best language is that which is imperceptibly stacked like a nummy little napoleon: each layer its own delicate thing and perhaps without taste on their own, but together, delicious, the flavor something altogether more complex than saying “salty” or “sweet.”
This is easier said than done in a screenplay, of course, where a necessary economy of language already exists by dint of the form, but it’s still something that can and should be brought into play when writing fiction. Language and description that carries multiple function and performs multiple tasks (multitaskers!) is effectively multiplying the value of the words on the page and, more intangibly but also more importantly, the value of the entire story.
So, what then, are the multiple tasks that description — or, really, any language within your work — can perform?
Obvious, duh, smackhead, but still worth mentioning as it counts as a task. Your words can be used to describe something. “He had red pants,” or “She had wriggling brown dress badgers.”
Description is so often static: that unmoving lamp over there, this upended bag of popcorn here, the badger with a pair of Thor Underoos on his head in the corner. When description is paired with action, though — someone doing something, or something happening, then all the better. It lends dynamism to the moment; it brings a description alive to see it in context of the world around. Yes, the leaves on the tree are there all the time, but they’re only important to the story when the character begins to pluck them from the branches and do something to them or with them (drawing them, smelling them, using them as little Wonton wrappers to contain the meat of the old lady he just murdered with a Garden Weasel).
Assume an active, changing, moving world. Describe accordingly.
As noted, you might be tracking a lot of curious details about your characters. As such, the language might speak to some element of the character as well as an element of description: “His fingers were thick with calluses” isn’t just a meaningless description — nay, it lends us some tiny moment about that character, a show-don’t-tell moment about that character’s life. A hard life with hard work, probably. Or, his fingertips have been nibbled off by badgers. Either way, sweet, sweet character moment.
I don’t mean to devalue mood. You want mood. You don’t want to ladle it on so thick that everybody’s swimming in it, but mood functions like a potent spice — a dash here, a pinch there, and the reader will do the rest of the work. Mood is a function of the reader’s own mind, and in fact, remember that a reader will often do a lot of your work for you — and this is a good thing. Frankly, it gives you more time to masturbate. Wait, what? I mean, “intellectually masturbate.” Okay, I don’t mean that. Anyway. A descriptor or any passage can also be used to perform the task of conveying mood. Saying, “The wallpaper was peeling like sunburned skin, and smelled of mold and dust” gives us not only an idea of what we see, but contributes to a mood of decay and disuse.
That’s another layer for your tasty verbal baklava — the theme of your piece. (I’ll have more to say on the subject of theme next week, by the way.) Theme — whether as an overarching theme, a theme of the chapter, or a theme of the character — can be conveyed in a description, too. Identifying a theme that is about Man’s Struggles Against Human Nature, you might invoke a description like this: “His hands tightened into pale-knuckle fists, his breath caught in his chest. He seemed on the edge, never receding, but never leaping over it, either.” Or, if you wanted to portray a theme of Man Versus Badger, you might describe it as: “His fingers roamed the fetid real estate of his taint, looking for the telltale scratches of the mysterious Pants Badger.”
Rad-Ass Verbal Stunts:
The point is that you ideally don’t want a tract of language in your fiction devoted to only one of these tasks (no unitaskers!), but you really, really want to avoid focusing solely on this element. And yet, and yet, sometimes language is awesome because language is fucking awesome. A rhythm exists in your work. You might seek to play with metaphor or alliteration. Maybe you just like the flow of a certain word or phrase (paradiddle duddle puddle!), and so from time to time you might take a moment to show off a flourish, to do a stunt on par with a bad-ass drum fill-in or guitar lick. These should never exist on their own, though: precious, preening language like this must forever take other tasks and burdens unto itself if it dare prove itself worthy to live.
To conclude: look over your language. Uncertain of what belongs and what doesn’t? Don’t know when description has gone too far? Try to suss out whether or not the language is doing super-duty (heh, doody) for you. See if it, text and subtext, is a tasty, gooey hunk of complex baklava. Confirm that it shows and doesn’t tell, and that it isn’t merely a preening peacock that needs to be whacked in the head with a croquet mallet.
Everything should be multitasker.
Nothing should be unitasker.
So say we all.
(Tomorrow: a framework for offering description in your prose fiction.)