Poetry vs. Encyclopedia

I stumbled across a few strange parallels between this book I’m reading and my own works. There are the normal things you find, like character names that are the same, but the one that struck me was the entrance of a fashion designer. The author clearly found inspiration from the same source I used for Roxanne Grail’s grand entrance — Parisian catwalks.

It’s an interesting way to demonstrate two differing techniques in descriptive writing: what I call encyclopedic descriptions–those that are primarily functional. They set the scenario but don’t attempt to create much of an emotional resonance with the reader. Depending on the genre and tone of the book, it can be very effective. The second way is more lyrical, which I used in Hard as Roxx and Jeanne Dark. In fact, what I want my descriptions to be is poetry; it’s more important that you know how my character’s entrance makes people feel than how she looks.

Here is the excerpt from the book I’m reading. The main character is a detective whose technique is fairly close to police procedural. As such, he’ll be noticing details, facts, but with a cool detachment. The writing reflects it:

“Another minute passed, and then a small black man was suddenly crossing the floor towards Strike, catlike and silent on rubber soles. He walked with an exaggerated swing of his hips, his upper body quite still except for a little counterbalancing sway of the shoulders, his arms almost rigid.” — The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith

The following paragraph describes the designer’s physical appearance and avant garde dress. The author leaves it to the reader to formulate her or his opinions.

Now, here’s a similar entrance written mainly from the emotional perspective of her viewers. Note the similarity in the description of the body positioning. (YouTube rocks, doesn’t it?)

She was a work of art, Roxx was. As she conquered the patch of foot-worn dirt that insisted it was a street, her long arms swayed in gentle syncopation to her steps. Even without looking, Jazz could feel the people, all enraptured by the tall woman with the delicate frame. She was a golden swan in a sea of loons. The wind, as if heralding Roxx’s entrance, rose, lifting her hair, which trailed behind like a dark, gossamer sail.

And left she strode, and the men’s eyes swayed left. And right she stepped, and eyes swayed right. Her long torso was still, head erect, arms barely moving. One boot in front of the next, a simple thing and nothing more. Yet, with each step, the village men no longer noticed her small hips, her slender, muscular frame, the long, impossibly long legs, or how delicately her hair billowed behind. They only noticed right, then left, then right. Across from the men was a short woman with dazzling red hair that tumbled past her shoulders. She watched as intently as the men. Jazz had watched her mother walk many times, fanning behind to watch her flow. Her mother’s tide swept men and women alike from the safety of their mundane shores. She was the ocean here, and with her came an unrelenting current.– Hard as Roxx, by me.

The first thing you probably noticed was how many more words I dedicated to Roxx’s entrance. That’s because of its relative higher importance to the scene that follows. (Imagine Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name entering a town for the first time.) The second thing you may how noticed was how I lingered on her body. In this way, we are both doing precisely the same thing. Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike would have had a brief glance, just enough to take in what was written. The men in my African village had all the time to linger over Roxx they wished. Just from the word count, the writing informs as to what might come next.

In Roxx’s case, nothing good.

Anyway, whether you are a lyrical fish or an encyclopedic scribe, you can create more than the words simply by thinking about what message you want the description to send.

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