Descriptions: Writing “Through the Catcher’s Mitt”
I have no talent for sports. Yet here and there I pick up pieces of advice for beginners in sports: advice that applies to other areas of life. Even writing.
I’ve been told that in baseball, school-aged pitchers, (and sometimes even adult players) are reminded to throw the ball “through the catcher’s mitt.” This as opposed to throwing the ball to the catcher. It seems that attempting to pitch in this manner improves form and strength of the pitch. By setting a goal beyond what is necessary, the novice pitcher attains his actual goal more often. He can’t of course actually throw the ball through the catcher’s mitt. Nobody can. But in so attempting, the true goal of a complete pitch is often obtained. On the other side of the coin, only trying to throw the bare minimum, that is to get the ball to the catcher, will at times result in undeveloped pitches that fall short or fly out of control.
Or something along those lines. My apologies to coaches everywhere. The point in the end is to perfect execution by going beyond what is needed.
I apply this principle to writing descriptions in my fiction.
I don’t usually compose lavish descriptions in my fiction. The way I see it, the attention of a reader is a limited commodity, and I’d rather not use up that resource with meticulous physical descriptions. If it’s an odd setting, or if the nature of the setting effects the character in a particular way, (it scares, inspires, confuses, disgusts them, etc.) I will take more time with describing a setting. Or a character’s looks or clothing. Yet even in my more literary pieces, I tend to just mention that the character is in a “posh, upper class hotel lobby” and let the reader determine in their imagination what that might entail. That’s how I prefer to read myself, so that’s usually how I prefer to write as well.
Few things can make my mind wander while reading otherwise good fiction than a page or two, (or five) revealing every minute detail of where the character(s) finds himself. A lot of literary voice seems coupled with artful description of surroundings. I understand the temptation and usefulness of this approach to a degree; description of visuals and other sensory experiences offer prime chances for fancy sentence building. But generally if words are to be fed upon for the sake of their flavor, I’d rather they be directed toward a character, his mood, or the events unfolding. When too much is dedicated to setting or clothing description, a writer runs the risk of purple prose. (See, The Night Circus.)
Still, a balance is possible, and even I, with my more minimalist tendencies can stand to keep my descriptive writing muscles warm. One never knows when a more meticulous description may be appropriate to the work at hand. So once in a while I practice descriptions that go beyond, “run down gas station.” I do this by “throwing through the catcher’s mitt.” (See? I got back to it eventually.)
I’ll choose an image. Doesn’t have to be a detailed image per se, but it should have the potential to be described in detail. (Consider the difference.) Then I’ll write a wordy, meticulous description of it. Far more wordy in fact than anything I would actually put into my fiction. I don’t worry about who is there, why they are there, or even the nature of the scene/setting. I don’t make anything happen in this description, unless it pertains to some natural phenomena within the setting. Nor do I rely merely on cold, clinical description. I’ll be as literary as my creative side will allow. I’ll use metaphor. I’ll explore eight shades of green more than most of my writing has ever required. If there is any presence at all, it will consist of such sentences as, “one gets the impression upon standing on this bridge that…”. I’ll try not to stop until I feel I’ve exhausted every discernible detail from the image, or at least every discernible detail from a given point of view. If it sounds like “pretty writing”, albeit outside of a narrative, I consider the exercise a success.
Once again, rarely would such writing make its way into my fiction. But just as the pitcher improves his form by attempting to throw the ball “through” the catcher’s mitt, I hope to keep my practical descriptive writing in tact by going beyond what I would ever actually need to accomplish my writing goals.
This is a good time for me to become familiar with terms I don’t use often. I read a short story once that spent a page describing an “escarpment”. Afterward, characters, birds, the wind, the clouds and more always seemed to move relative to this geological feature; the word “escarpment” appeared in every other paragraph. It actually got a bit tedious. I would have probably written “rock face” or “isolated cliffs” or something to that effect. But in throwing through the catcher’s mitt, I may find myself using the term “escarpment”, depending of course on the image. I don’t believe in fiction that sounds like a dictionary has exploded, but keeping one handy during the exercise may lead to expanding vocabulary which can in turn be used sparingly in actual work.
(As a side note, I think I need to start doing this exercise more often with clothing. It is highly unusual for me to go into much detail about a character’s clothing. Half the time I look something up while reading, it seems, I’m trying to define an article of ladies clothing.)
I realize a lot of published fiction, lauded for its use of language contains prose that I would reserve for this exercise. Some have not only managed to throw through the mitt, but into the backstop. (I hesitate to contemplate what the intentionally over wrought descriptions of such author’s would look like.) And in some cases even I enjoy the meandering descriptions in a novel of a forest that is never mentioned again afterwards, if it is especially well written. But by and large I feel both the reader and the writer is best served with a more restrained approach to descriptions. Tighter writing, more evocative with less words, and mixing well with the imagination of the reader without omitting crucial information. If you can obtain that by way of this exercise, it’s worth throwing through the catcher’s mitt from time to time. Because when you throw that strike down the middle, readers will be “caught looking”. Only unlike in baseball, that’s exactly what they want to happen. So do you.