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Author Topic: Description
Denevius
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I was going to tag this topic to another thread, but I wasn't sure if that'd be rude, so I decided to start a new topic.

I've always found describing fashion to be interestingly more complicated than I would have thought years ago. Like, I consider myself a somewhat fashionable dresser, but when I buy clothes, I just tend to buy what I visually like. Generally, I don't know the names of items beyond 'shirt', 'jeans', 'pants'. With female clothes, it's even more complicated since, A) I don't buy female clothes, and B) they seem to have so many more articles of clothes than men.

So I always think it's a little funny, as I'll have in mind what I want to describe, but will have to go to like, Macys website or something, to get greater distinction. But then, many times, I'd want to describe articles of clothing you just aren't going to find on major retailer websites, like grunge or punk, or styles that just aren't American but are still Western.

In one of my stories, I have a character wearing a fedora, but it's not exactly because this is the type of hat I wanted him to wear, but more that when I did a google search for casual style hats one would wear with evening clothes, fedora is closest to what I had in mind. Personally, I hate hats and would never wear one, so I definitely don't know the different types out there. It wasn't until my early 20s that I actually realized that people made a difference between hat and cap, which I used to use interchangeably.

Anyway, this popped to mind just now because I'm writing a piece where the character is wearing a certain type of popular skirt, and I was just trying to google it and of course besides the fact that more porn than actual data comes up, even when useful images come up they don't tend to have the type of skirt it is, it's just a picture and at the most, a random comment that has nothing to do with clothing.

It can be pretty frustrating.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Maybe we can help. Tell us about the skirt, and we may be able to tell you what it's called.

By the way, I'm with you when it comes to description, especially of clothes. When I read, for example, that a POV character notices that someone else is wearing an Armani suit, it stops me cold.

A) because I usually don't understand why the character would even be able to recognize an Armani suit--though I realize that such a recognition is probably intended as characterization;

and B) I have no idea what an Armani suit looks like (though I guess they're terribly expensive), so the description tells me absolutely zip as far as helping me see the scene.

But then, I'm not all that excited about description anyway. A little (especially the "telling detail") can go a long way for me.

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mayflower988
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KDW: That's a good point. I've never met anyone who could look at a suit and say, "That's Armani." I mean, really?

About the skirt: I'll help if I can! I love clothes, but I'm not especially a trend-watcher.

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extrinsic
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Like most if not all of a narrative's motifs, descriptions are strongest when they evoke emotional responses and influence dramatic features like causation, tension, and antagonism and conflict and complication. Naming exposition, as I would label a mention of an Armani suit, might evoke emotional responses from in-the-know readers but mean next to nothing for other readers without meaningful context. Asked in conversation; "Is that an Armani?" might be part of a causal train, for example, somewhere after a realization the suit is, indeed, an Armani and the meaning becomes relevant to an observer or subject or influence character.

Context is paramount. What's the intent and meaning that a character wears an Armani suit? Is the character fixing a transmission and getting grease on it? Is he deep frying ice cream? Is he exerting effort and sweating in the suit? Or is he calm, cool, and collected sitting at a conference table or such? And who's noticing the Armani? Naming an Armani is significant as an identity and status marker for character development when the context asks for development. How does that context apply?

For types of skirts, deeper investigation is indicated. Wikipedia lists an extensive index of skirt types under that title. Types of fabrics also might offer cues. Wikipedia: "List of Fabric Names." Tafetta, chiffon, wool, fleece, alpaca, batik, corduroy, denim, etc., for texture (tactile sensation) details.

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Denevius
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I wouldn't know an Armani suit from sight either, but when I see them in the mall, I generally think they're pretty gaudy and over-the-top. There are some brand names I'm decent at telling sight, like Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger. The latter I wore in high school, the former I've worn all the years since.

And really, I guess it's a short frilly skirt. Except I've used that description before, and though not in this piece, I'm just trying to avoid that phrasing. But it's a skirt popular in the summer when it's really hot, but it's not beach ware, and it's not a sundress. It's a bit more casual and trendy, and not a one piece. It's like a skirt that has to be worn with a shirt or blouse.

Granted, I guess I could use a description like that except it's really not nearly important enough to even get a sentence of its own, let alone several. Basically, it was just a desire not to use short skirt, or short frilly skirt. I guess I could give it a colour, like "beige short skirt", though I've gone that route too.

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Denevius
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Extrinsic, I agree, especially if one is using a brand name like Armani. To me, there's something pretentious about Armani; it's fashion people buy who don't really know what to do with all the money they have but want to make sure everyone knows they have a lot of money. This would go for other brand names that have an already built in context to them. If your character is wearing a pair of jeans from Walmart, or driving a Beetle, both of these things implies a lot about their personality.

Oh, and I guess I found what I was kind of thinking of. It's not frilly, it's a 'tiered mini skirt', as this website calls it: http://www.shopstyle.com/browse?fts=tiered+mini+skirt

I get a bit of flak from some when I describe clothing. Some people it tends to turn off more than others, but I genuinely enjoy a good clothing description. It's interesting, if you're writing a period piece, it's almost seen as a necessity. But when you write something more or less modern, people generally aren't as interested in specifics even though saying "She wore a skirt", or "She wore a beige skirt", really doesn't give you much of an image since the category for skirt is quite diverse.

Same goes for any other article of clothes.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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"Short tiered skirt" would work. Or "short layered skirt" (from looking at the photos in the link.

"Frilly" tends to indicate ruffles, and while tiers may be a bit ruffly, I don't think I'd call them ruffles.

Tiered is probably best.

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extrinsic
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What's the observer's attitude toward the skirt? Objective or neutral? A plain description might be a brown duck pencil skirt. Duck is a cotton canvas-like fabric. A pencil skirt fits tightly from hips to knees. A frock skirt might just be a plain wrap skirt with a summer- or spring-theme print.

A description with an attitude, subjective attitude as opposed to objective attitude, might approve or disapprove of the skirt. Panty-short short-short miniskirt. Crotch floss skirt, so short and tight-fitting and so little fabric it's dental floss. Chastity skirt, ironclad breaches skirt. A Miss Goody, you look very plain today skirt. How the observer describes the skirt should reveal at least as much about the observer's character as the skirt wearer's character.

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extrinsic
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One aspect I've noticed when rubbing elbows with High Fashion apparel wearers is they tend to be part of a discourse community where respected brand names are part of the in-group conversation. They fit in and identify others who fit in by what they wear. In some aspects, what they wear expresses their membership, in others, what they wear expresses their competitive drives, in others, what they wear expresses their help mate's influences.

I'm reluctant to say an Armani suit is pretentious, ostentatious display maybe. High social circles require such displays. I've rented and worn an Armani to a formal event. What an experience wearing status has. People noticed. Important people noticed. Eager opportunists noticed. I prefer the anonymity of urban camouflage, off-the-rack, off-brand, factory second, and hand-me-down thrift store fashion apparel.

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MartinV
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I usually don't include clothes in my character description. Right now, I have a gruff character and I think it goes without saying he's not wearing something flashy but something run down.

But right now I have a scene where he woke up in the middle of the night and realized the house is on fire. Since he didn't have propper time to get dressed after that, a few pages later I will emphazise he's still in his nightshirt. The scene that follows needs the reader to keep that detail in their mind.

I always considered George R R Martin's style of writing very simple. Yet he continuously adds what the characters are wearing, in particular for characters who need to look their best.

PS: I don't know what a fedora looks like. I would use 'straw hat' or 'leather hat' or 'hooded cloak'.

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History
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Well, it must be my age.
I do know what an Armani suit looks like. And a Brioni and Amosu, for that matter.

Using such description, I agree, is more for the description of a character's personality rather than about his visual appearance.

I'm guilty of this both in my life and my writing, having mixed with some very wealthy or would-be-known-as-wealthy circles, and made to feel, purposefully or inadvertantly, as the country bumpkin.

Art imitates life. And I am guilty of the use of such description in one story. In sizing up his antagonist, I have had my protagonist note that his nemesis is wearing such a stylish expensive suit in contrast to the hero's humble Brooks Brother's one. It is not about what they wear but who they are.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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History
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P.S. I once wrote a story (now making the rounds) that takes place in 14th century eastern Anatolia (Turkey). I spent a few hours researching the clothing the men and women wore of that time and place. I believe such little details are important in creating a sense of "truth", of "depth", and of "reality" to a story, however one then adds fantastical elements.
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MartinV
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How did you research? Just googling it or some more elaborate way?
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History
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Mostly through the internet, Martin, and a few texts within my library. In addition to clothing, I needed to know the political, socioeconomic, and cultural circumstances of the times, even though this is only minimally referenced in the story.

I'm doing the same now with 15th century Poland for my current WIP, solely utilizing the internet as I'm on vacation and a few states away from my home library.

I do love learning new things.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by MartinV:
PS: I don't know what a fedora looks like. I would use 'straw hat' or 'leather hat' or 'hooded cloak'.

I believe the hat that Harrison Ford wears as "Indiana Jones" in the adventure movies is a fedora. Felt, medium brim all around, grosgrain ribbon around the crown, medium high crown with a front-to-back indentation at the top, as I recall.
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MartinV
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Even if I do get the entire description, I don't go into such details when I imagine characters. I can't visualize well so I work on other stuff.
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Jess
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I think even with clothes, every detail needs to do work for you. Those descriptions can make your setting feel more real, but also can tell so much about your character.
For example of the skirt issue, if your character were to describe in epic details down to the way the fabric lays to the precise shade of pink then we immediately know that such things are important to her and we know some things about her personality.
on the other hand, if the character scowls at the pink color and notices how the "ruffles" tickle her thighs when she walks and how she's constantly tugging it down, we know so much about her. perhaps she isn't used to dressing like that and isn't really a girly girl.
I think one of my biggest pet peeves is when authors don't let the details work for them. Granted, that's easier said than done, but if you are struggling with a description, it's something to think about.
Remember a. how would your character see the item? b. Why would they see it that way? c. what trait about the character can we learn about the character from how they view and think about the object?
Just my two cents

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babooher
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I've also seen advice from authors who suggest that the physical description of characters is generally best kept to the minimum. Writing fantasy, I sometimes want to go into great depth like I'm writing for a costume designer for the movie adaptation of my book. I also think such writing will more than likely exclude any publishing contracts let alone movie deals.
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Denevius
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I think the main reason why I look up the names of types of clothes is revealed in Kathleen's description of the fedora. It's quite accurate and well worded, but requires too many words for something that's not that significant in the prose. At the same time, just saying he wore a hat in the evening is too general and offers the reader no visuals. Even if, like Martin, the readers don't know what a fedora is, I think when put in context of the additional clothes he's wearing, as well as character developed throughout the narrative, most readers will assume that it's a gentlemanly, somewhat more sophisticated type of head accessory.

Jess, your point about the skirt is interesting though not the type of details I would usually be privy to being as I'm a guy. There have been times, though, that I've ripped from real life conversations something a female I know has said about clothes that I've put in the story, but this time wasn't one of them. Though I was trying to figure out the name of that particular type of skirt because it's more flirty/seductive since it reveals and hides so much at the same time. It *is* kind of a date skirt that's typical to see in the hot summers.

I think that's the rub some have with clothing descriptions in prose. Are they working in the prose to some greater narrative point? And that's understandable, though at the same time, if I write that the wind catches her skirt, as a writer I get a little bored with just that word, 'skirt', and even though 'tiered skirt' isn't specifically there to expound upon character, it's just a bit of a more refreshing thing to write and, for me, read.

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MartinV
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Ironically, if you would say "he wore the hat of Indiana Jones", I would know exactly what you mean.

And yes, details should reveal more than just one thing. If you simply describe the way a character looks, then that information speaks only for itself. Use that to reveal more and you got yourself a winner.

I recently met Tim Powers (the name didn't mean much to me then but times change). He told me that a good way to describe something is to be fixing it. So if you have a machine, have it repaired or maintained. This serves two purposes, that's why it's good.

Do not let details hinder you. Use them to your advantage.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by MartinV:
Ironically, if you would say "he wore the hat of Indiana Jones", I would know exactly what you mean.

But that kind of description would only work in a story set in our pop culture.

Someone suggested elsewhere that if a strange animal is deer-like, then the author should describe it as "deer-like," but that would only work if the point of view character knew what a deer is. On another planet, only a Terran (Earthling, Earther, whatever you want to call someone from our planet) will know what that means.

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MartinV
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That's why I wrote 'ironic'.
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Denevius
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i didn't want to start a new thread, but hey, anyone know what that top part of a building is called? you know, it's like where the stairs exit out at on the roof in apartment buildings or skyscrapers? the dome or hut thing? i've been googling it and can't seem to phrase the question right to get the correct answer.
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rcmann
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Are you referring to the HVAC unit? The sheet metal structure that houses the big blower motors for the heating and air conditioning ductwork?

The only "dome" I can think of might be a skylight.The stairs exit at the top of the stairwell.

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Robert Nowall
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Never heard of it being called anything but "the roof." Unless there's a separate apartment up there and then it's "the penthouse."
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Denevius
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hm. i guess i mean the enclosure that the stairs exist out of. stairs exit out on the roof, but they exit through a door. so i guess i meant the structure that houses the top of the stairs on usually tall buildings.

let's put it this way. if someone doesn't want to be seen on top of a roof, they can hide behind the thing on the top where the stairs exit. but what is that thing they're hiding behind called? i looked up HVAC and skylight, but i don't think that's it. it really is just that hut structure on top of a roof.

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Progonoskis
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Google has a new app that allows you to capture an image and then it'll look for hits on that image (face, skirt, whatever) online. Can't remember what the app is called, but it could be useful, even if you had to use a line drawing of the skirt (or whatever) you're seeing in your head.

BTW, I'm thinking peasant skirt by what you're describing.

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extrinsic
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Consider "stairwell penthouse." Not what laypersons generally consider a penthouse, though. Penthouse from architectural terminology for any enclosure on a roof that might conceal and protect elevator, HVAC, and watertank and utility equipment and house stairwell top landing platforms. Penthouse from pentis house, meaning an appended, house-like structure.

Alternatively, stairwell shed or house gives a reasonably accessible sense of what a stairwell penthouse is. A telling, creative, description detail of the object's unique and influential nature might be more artful and appealing than naming exposition.

Is it rusty corrugated iron? A flimsy plywood carton? Decaying wood? Stout oak? Substantial brick and mortar? Cast concrete? More birdhouse than shed? A place homeless people live in? Junkies use as a shooting gallery? Hookers turn tricks in? Maybe children hide from their folks there or where errant workers sneak off to to smoke? Is it a stately penthouse execs use to go out on a roof and relax and talk gossip or access a helipad?

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Denevius
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hey guys, thanks for the assist. stairwell shed sounds good. it's probably less confusing than stairwell penthouse.
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babooher
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Denevius, I asked the only person I could think of who has to regularly write about such buildings. He's a health inspector and he's been trained on a state and federal level to inspect hospitals. All exits are a concern for him as part of fire safety code. In his 40+ years of writing about such things, they've always just been rooftop stairwell exits. If you wanted to add enclosed stairwell exit, you could.
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Denevius
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hey, once again, thanks for the replies. they've been helpful.
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