I went out and got a haircut. As I pulled into the driveway afterwards, I disturbed the birds at the feeders. There was a huge flock of little birds and they all swept skyward as I stopped my car in the driveway. Unfortunately, they didn’t go straight up, they don’t fly like little helicopters. They have to travel some distance horizontally while they get lift, like airplanes taking off on a runway. In this case, they flew at my car. I found myself staring down the beaks of dozens of little birds as they took off from the ground beneath the feeders. It seemed as though they were flying straight at me. It was disconcerting to say the least. It felt like that Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Birds. One minute, I’m parking my car and then, suddenly a flock of birds engulfed my car and me. It really felt weird. It was also a bit wonderful. Seeing all those little birds swirling around the car was amazing. It was over in a matter of seconds. The miracle of it is that not one bird hit the car or the car windows. They knew the windows were not passable. Not one bird collided with another bird either. That kind of air show is truly amazing to see.
My description of the flock of birds swirling around my car is not adequate. I know that I haven’t made you see it. That’s what this blog should discuss; how authors make readers see what they see in their mind’s eye without boring them with minutiae. I said there were dozens of birds but you could state that there were thirty birds flying straight at the car and darting past it.
A blog on description is more of a blog on word choice. I said they swirled around the car because that is the feeling that I had as it happened. Actually, they simply flew around it. They were flying straight, but my perspective was that of being in the center of a mass of swirling feathered leaves stirred up by an errant gust of wind.
When describing items, authors need to choose their words carefully. A few birds convey a different mental image than a mass of birds do. Staring down the beak of a flying bird gives a more direct image than stating that a bird flew by. Descriptions shouldn’t overpower a work whether fiction or nonfiction. Descriptions should enhance the feeling that the reader is there beside the author or the main character or whoever, standing in the scene depicted for them. It’s surround sound for all the senses.
Descriptions could be as subtle as saying a character tugged distractedly at his wildly spiky hair to as in your face as a character’s muscles straining as she tried to keep from tumbling down the side of a steep cliff. On the other hand, stating that each individual muscle, naming the ones she uses as she tries to climb the cliff gets boring very quickly. Good authors apply should be applied with a light to moderate touch. It is the difference between a dab of paint and slathering it on with a trowel.