Living vs. Still Description in Prose

ethical-lgOne of the most important, and one of the easiest to overlook, aspects of writing is description. Whether this is description of a character, a prop (you can see my theater work starting to come through), a setting, or whatever else how we decide to describe something tells our readers a lot about what is actually important in the story, and helps them to build the imaginary world that any story creates.

There are as many approaches to description as there are authors, but Glenn Cook’s Black Company series and David Liss’ The Ethical Assassin provide two easy outer markers. Cook has always been a no-nonsense writer and in The Black Company (possibly even more in the Dread Empire series) Cook has a habit of leaving the reader wondering what his characters actually look like. Liss on the other hand provides a very detailed description of the waste lagoon of a pig farm in The Ethical Assassin. Both are excellent writers, but the two have very different approaches to writing in general, and to description in particular. Cook likes action, he likes movement, he likes to get on with the story, while Liss likes you to know what every character, item, and location looks, sounds, smells, and sometimes tastes like. Personally, I like to be reminded what color a character’s hair is every now and then (I tend to forget), but I’d rather avoid the two sentence description of what pig excrement tastes like (a little exaggeration here… not as much as you’d think, but a little).

Not quite blonde, but who had a bigger nose than Cyrano
Not quite blonde, but who had a bigger nose than Cyrano

In general, there are two forms of description that an author can use to bring his character’s and world to life. The first, and most common, is a still description that simply lists qualities. This can be done poorly: Liam was tall, with long blond hair, red cheeks, a wide mouth, and a pointy nose. Or it can be done well: Liam was a tall man. His long blond hair bounced around his red cheeks, framing his wide, thin-lipped mouth. His most notable, and to some his most cumbersome, quality was his nose however, which stuck out of his face like a spear.

The goal in still description is to give a quick once over of the item being described so that the reader can form a simple picture in his head. The key to a good still description is to provide necessary details in a quick, but interesting fashion. For instance, breaking a still description into multiple sentences and adding a little minor action (like the bouncing hair) can make a still description much more vivid. Adding in visual metaphors can also help, though you need to be careful with this. While some hyperbole is effective in this kind of metaphor, it is fairly easy to go to far, and the wrong metaphor can ruin your scene. Consider, if I’ve just described Liam’s nose as spear-like, and then the first thing he does in the scene is passionately kiss someone, all of my readers are suddenly imaging this poor girl being run-through by his nose.

Screen shot 2012-07-09 at 12.17.44Living description is a little harder to master. A living description involves working your description seamlessly into the action of a scene. For instance: The door to the ballroom slammed open and Liam strode in. His blonde hair seemed to float around his face as he took the stairs two at a time, raising one black-gloved hand to point menacingly at Duke Clairmonte. Liam’s thin lips twisted into a snarl as he yelled, “There! It is the Duke who’s done it!” Duke Clairmonte stumbled back a few steps, gesturing confusedly as Liam thrust his spear-like nose into the Duke’s face and growled, “You killed the king.”

The advantage of a living description is that it both gives your readers a visual image and keeps the action flowing at the same time. However, the disadvantage is that it can sometimes be too much to follow at one time. The living description above is fairly crowded with imagery, and some of it is perhaps a little bit of a stretch, and this is a problem that you will often run into when writing a living description. It can be very difficult to seamlessly fit in the imagery that you want your readers to see.

Surely there must be a grassy mountain lakeside field somewhere down there... right...?
Surely there must be a grassy mountain lakeside field somewhere down there… right…?

Also, remember that description isn’t always a good thing. Something that my writing group tells me fairly often is that I’ve got too much description, and I felt the same way about Liss in The Ethical Assassin. However, this is something that is inevitably up to the relationship between the author and the reader. Some authors thrive on detailed descriptions of everything, and do it very well *cough*Frank Herbert*cough*, while other authors leave most of the details up to the reader’s imagination. As long as your readers aren’t getting board, you don’t have too much description, and as long as they can follow the story, you don’t have too little.

On the other hand, if you spend three pages tediously describing a sand dune *cough*George Lucas*cough*, or your readers aren’t exactly sure if the characters are supposed to be on a grassy plain, in the mountains, or beside a lake… possibly all three… or none of the above… you’ve got some problems and need to work on either cutting your description down, or filling it in respectively.

A Review of The White Rose by Glen Cook

I have already reviewed the first two books in Glen Cook’s Black Company series, here and here.  This series is an excellent example of great down to earth fantasy.  You will not see dashing princes or beautiful princesses as main characters in this series.  Instead Cook focuses on the soldiers actually fighting the war.  The White Rose is the end of the first set of the Black Company series, known as the books of the north.  The reader can comfortably stop reading after this book, though there are several more in the series.  While The Black Company and Shadow’s Linger both focus on the movements of the company at large, White Rose features a company that has been mostly destroyed.  The book focuses on the few surviving members, though all of your favorites from the earlier books will be around.

Overall: 7/10

Honestly, while this is a good book, it is one of my least favorite of the Black Company novels.  I love the dynamic of the company, and the frequent reflections on the mercenary life.  This book, especially because of the very small size of the company,  destroys this dynamic.  While I understand that this is necessary for the story that Cook is telling, I also miss the company dynamic.  White Rose has very little to do with life as a mercenary, and a lot to do with ancient evils and rebel movements.  Again, while I love the overall story, I miss the mercenaries.

Writing: 10/10

Cook’s stark writing style hasn’t changed from the last two books.  He still focuses on character development, and utilizes a straight forward style to bring a depth and starkness to his storytelling that forces the reader to deal with the events of the story instead of getting distracted by beautiful but unnecessary words.

Characters: 10/10

Cook’s characters are as deep as ever.  However, this story focuses on the development of Croaker’s character and his long developing relationship with The Lady.  It also focuses on a new character Corbie – who will surprise you – and his efforts to prevent the Dominator from being resurrected.  However, other characters (Goblin, One-Eye, Silent, and especially Darling among others) all see significant development.

World: 7.0/10

While world development is usually one of Cook’s weaker traits, in White Rose he develops his world very well.  While the vast majority of the book takes place on the Plain of Fear and the Barrowland, both locations are thoroughly developed.

Plot: 9.5/10

As I said earlier White Rose is the last of the books of the north and so it ties up a lot of the loose ends and open plotlines form the last two books.  However, Cook masterfully weaves all of these plotlines together around the potential resurrection of the Dominator.  While this book might seem strange when compared with the previous two (especially considering that there is quite a time gap between them), however Cook’s attention to the details of his story is more than enough to make everything work well.

Pacing: 8.5/10

While Cook’s writing is not slow, this is not a fast-paced novel either.  There are a few points that are slower than others, however, overall his pacing is strong and consistent.

Commentary: 7/10

The commentary in White Rose is interesting.  You will remember from my previous reviews (or noticed if you’ve read them already) that the Black Company series focuses it’s commentary on the nature or morality.  This focus is continued in White Rose, but more clearly examines the nature of good and evil.  Interestingly enough, Cook also spends a significant portion of this book examining the concepts of the lesser evil, and of the other.  There is also a sub-theme of redemption that runs throughout the book, though it is not as clear, or as significant to the story as it was in Shadows Linger.

Conclusion:

The Black Company series is an excellent series in it’s own right, and White Rose is a strong end to the first part of this series.  While there are some clear threads of story left unresolved at the end of this novel, it clearly ties up the story of the companies time in the north.  All in all, The White Rose is an excellent book, and a strong addition to this series.

A Review of Shadow’s Linger by Glen Cook

The Romanian cover of Shadow's Linger.

Shadow’s Linger is the second novel in Glen Cook’s Black Company series.  The story takes place in the empire and, again, has the Black Company in the employ of the nefarious and insane Soulcatcher.  The thing that I love most about this book is the development of Marron Shed.  Shadow’s Linger has one of the best portrayed redemption stories that I have ever read in fiction, along with Karsa Orlong in House of Chains/Bone Hunters, and a few others.  Strong character development is something that I hold in extremely high value, and Shadow’s Linger has it in droves.  However, this is completely a sequel and, in many ways, relies on the reader’s knowledge of the characters/story of the first book.  So, if you haven’t read The Black Company then go pick up both of these and sit down for a couple of fantastic reads.

Overall: 9/10

Shadow’s Linger is strong in all of the most important places.  The character development is amazing, and feels completely natural.  There is no point in the book at which a character feels forced into an unnatural course of action.  That being said, it is not a stand alone novel and relies heavily on The Black Company and The White Rose to begin and end it’s story.  However, being a middle novel is not a bad thing.  There is a lot of room for character growth, world development, and general progression of the story-line, and this is something that Shadow’s Linger does very well.

Writing: 9.5/10

Again, Glen Cook’s writing is very spartan.  This is something that I love about it.  While some authors feel like reading molasses, Cook is a bit more like a nice bowl of dry cereal.  He has a lot to say, but he does so in a very direct manner that inevitably leaves the read both satisfied, and ready for more.  The perfect place for an author to be.

Characters: 10/10

My favorite thing about Shadow’s Linger, as I’ve already said, is the character development.  While all of the characters see at least some development in this story, the star (at least in my mind) is Marron Shed.  Shed begins the story as a pathetic, whiny, cowardly excuse for a man who has few morals and no ability to stand on them.  Over the course of the novel Shed descends from this point into a truly wicked man, but in doing so learns how to be strong.  I won’t spoil the turning point for you, but suffice to say that by the end of the novel Shed is no longer cowardly, no longer craven, and no longer wicked, but has become a man of worth who earns the respect of the Black Company (not an easy thing to do).  For younger or sensitive readers it should be noted that Shed’s descent into wickedness is portrayed in realistic fashion (what makes it so powerful), and thus includes some scenes that, while not graphic, are certainly thematically difficult.

The US cover of Shadow's Linger

World: 8/10

As in the first novel, characters are Cook’s strongest area, while world development is his weakest.  While he fleshes out the city of Juniper fairly well (better than any of the cities in The Black Company), there are a great many unanswered questions.  The reader will have little idea of what the world is actually like, while he/she will understand the characters very well.

Plot: 10/10

The plot of Shadow’s Linger is twisted, and at first it is difficult to discern.  However, I believe that this was intentional because as the plot takes shape, it becomes clear that previously extraneous events were actually important.  The novels feels, in some ways, almost like a mystery unfolding before the reader.  Generally I dislike mysteries, usually because they are two easy to figure out.  However, Cook’s mystery is not a ‘whodunit’, but instead a ‘what is actually going on’, which is more difficult to discern, and therefore more tolerable.

Pacing: 9/10

In general the pacing in Shadow’s Linger is good, although there are a few sections of exposition and character development that slow down the overall pace of the story.  However, the story is not fast paced to begin with, so this is less noticeable, and well worth it.

Commentary: 10/10

As I said, the star of the book is Marron Shed, a perfect example of a redemption story, and so the majority of the commentary in the book revolves around him.  Like much of Cook’s writing Shadow’s Linger pits morality against necessity and tells a story that opens the reader’s eyes to ‘the way the world really is’.  He handles these subjects with great deftness, and this excellence leads the reader to deep thinking on the subject.  Whether you agree with Cook or not, he is valuable to read.

Conclusion:

My conclusion.  This is my favorite of the nine Black Company novels.  I do suggest reading The Black Company before hand and The White Rose afterwards, but even if you don’t, Shadow’s Linger  is worth reading just for the story of Marron Shed.

A Review of The Black Company by Glen Cook

The Black Company on the move.

Glen Cook is currently one of my favorite authors.  I have to admit that I haven’t yet read any of his Urban Fantasy series (mostly because I have a reasonably low tolerance for Urban Fantasy in the first place – I like it, but only in small doses), but I’ve found that his fantasy is always worth my time to read.  I’ve read through the entire Black Company series, and am currently working my way through The Dread Empire series (along with 5 or 6 other books, so it’s taking some time), and I love both his stories and his style.  Many critics have commented on Cook’s no-nonsense writing style, and his focus on the front-line, usually minor characters.  Cook’s protagonists are not princes, or heroes, or powerful wizards, but the mercenaries, bodyguards, and soldiers that populate the background of most fantasy novels.  In many of his novels Cook doesn’t tell you the story of a man who changed the world, but the story of a man as the world changed around him.  This focus on the down-to-earth characters lends Cook’s writing a gravity, and a realism that many fantasy novels lack, and Cook’s work is the inspiration for some of the same qualities in another of my favorite authors, Steven Erikson.

Overall: 10/10

The Black Company is by no means a new novel.  Published in 1984, it has been around for a while, and I’m sure that many other readers have enjoyed it, and many other reviewers have said yay or nay to it.  However, this review will begin with the assumption that you have never heard of the novel, or read Cook before.  The book takes its name from the primary protagonists, a band of mercenaries known as The Black Company.  The reader is quickly introduced to the fact that the Black Company has a long history, over four hundred years, and is one of the most notorious and feared armies in the world.  The first chapter of the book also sets the tone for the rest of the series.  The Black Company are mercenaries by trade, and have their own code of ethics.  This is not a book about heroes, or even a book about good men trying to save the world.  This is a book about soldiers trying to survive a war.  That being said, it is an excellent story and in this book, and the rest of the series, Cook deals masterfully with themes of morality, necessity, redemption, personal character, integrity, etc.

You can pick up the first three books in the series in one bound edition here.

Writing: 10/10

Unlike many writers Cook’s writing is very stark.  He does not provide flowery exposition, or even much in the way of adjectives.  While his writing is excellent in its form, structure, and clarity, it is not beautiful.  To my mind, Cook seems to be a lover of stories, and of the power that they have, instead of a lover of words for their own sake.  I actually find this very refreshing,

Characters: 10/10

I will say this one more time.  This is not a story about heroes, about good men, or about trying to save the world.  In fact, many readers will probably say that in this first book the main characters are the bad guys.  The story is told from the point of view of Croaker, the analyst (historian) and medic of the company.  Other central characters are Raven, One-Eye, Goblin, Silent, The Captain, Soulcatcher, and The Limper.  My favorite thing about Cook’s characters is that they feel entirely real.  The main characters are mercenaries, fighting a war, and rarely have time to concern themselves with the morality of their actions because they are more worried about surviving.  Cook’s work has a  lot to say about morality, the nature of good and evil, and of personal integrity and growth, but he addresses the topics not through obtuse, and often unbelievable examples (why do super-heroes never kill super-villains?), but with a subtlety that allows the reader to come to his/her own conclusion.  While I don’t always agree with Cook’s points, I love the way that he makes them.  Cook’s social commentary is so intricately interwoven with the depth of personality and growth in his characters that it is often difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.  Again, this is one of the things that I love about Cook’s writing.

World: 6/10
As I said before, Cook’s writing is very stark, and stark writing does not lend itself to deeply developed worlds.  While his world is more deeply developed in some of the later books, the reader is given very little detail about the world in The Black Company.  While normally this would bother me, the depth and reality of the characters more than makes up for the lack of depth in the world itself.

Plot: 8.5/10

In the majority of this book the Black Company is under contract to a sorcerer named Soulcatcher (who’s gender is completely unidentifiable), who is one of the generals of a mighty empire under the implacable rule of The Lady.  The plot of the book centers around a war between the Lady’s empire and rebel forces seeking to overthrow it, as well as a lesser battle between Soulcatcher and one of her fellow generals, The Limper.  The plot of the book is driven forward primarily by the character’s themselves, and the place of the Black Company in this ongoing war.

In general, this is a book about the bad guys.

Pacing: 9/10

I love the Black Company, but there are a few places in which it could move more smoothly.  All in all the story moves along at a good pace, not too fast, but not so slow as to be boring.  However, the story often jumps over long time periods or important battles.  I don’t generally think that this is a problem, much of my own writing does the same, but it won’t appeal to some readers.

Commentary: 10/10

As I said above, I love the way that Cook’s commentative points come out through the depth of growth in his characters.  Cook’s commentary in this book focuses on the nature of war, and of morality in war.  What is right and wrong when the primary goal is to make it through the night alive.  He also deals extensively with the nature of mercenary work, the problems it poses to normative morality, and the solutions that can be sought.

Conclusion:

Needless to say, not everyone will enjoy The Black Company, and if you are looking for a story about paragons of right standing up for morality and saving the world, then this is not the book for you.  If you are looking for a story about very real people trying to deal with very difficult situations, then this book will probably appeal to you, and I hope that you give it a chance.