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It feels like there is something wrong with using impersonal descriptions in fiction. But what is it?

As an example, I'm unhappy with the following passage I wrote, because the descriptions aren't attached to a person's actions. But is that really a bad thing? And if so, how do you get around it?

The projector beamed a short footage onto a large white sheet in the darkness of the room. The light were completely shut close and there we could only see this cone of light in the middle of the room projecting its rays onto the white sheet in the front of the room. However, peculiarly enough, there was enough light to see the white matter of the eyes of there people inside the room which was starring at the projected footage with undivided attention. It was as if their eyes were possessed by a ghost as their eyes would barely budge regardless of how many times the footage looped on itself. Even after the footage had played a dozen of times, their eyes were as wide open as ever.

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    I edited your question to make it sound less like a request for a personal critique, which would be off topic. Please feel free to revert if it doesn't respect your intentions. – Chris Sunami May 20 at 20:05
  • Honestly, I think the issue is with your writing. All the description is told in a rush, mechanically, as if you were in a rush to get it done and move on to something else. Take your time, picture the moment in your mind, and write down what you feel, rather than what happens. – NofP May 21 at 8:42
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You don't necessarily need for your descriptions to be attached to a person or to an action, but you generally do want them to be attached to a point of view, either the character's or the narrator's. "The people sat staring like zombies" is a more intrinsically interesting statement than "The people sat with their eyes wide open" because it carries a point of view.

Sometimes you do want your descriptions to be very flat and depersonalized, but only in pursuit of a particular effect. For instance, Hemingway's descriptions often read very flatly, but it tends to be because his characters are in an emotionally distanced state.

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OP: ... because the descriptions aren't attached to a person's actions.

But you write as if the descriptions ARE attached to somebody; somebody not as rapt as the narrator, and this person has an experience and an opinion: "we could only see", "Peculiarly enough", and in general an attitude that something is wrong with the people in the room.

On top of that, another source of dissatisfaction is the misspellings and repetitiveness of your passage. This gets into critique; but I think that is necessary to address the question of how to properly write.

The first two sentences say the same thing; a dark room has the lights turned off. You can introduce a sense of time passing instead of just a static description:

The room went completely dark for a moment, before the projector's beam formed a cone of light on the white sheet at the front.

The third sentence should be broken, it delivers two concepts, the physical description can be folded into the first half:

The room went completely dark for a moment, before the projector's beam formed a cone of light on the white sheet at the front. The reflection from the sheet lit up the whites of the eyes of the viewers, a peculiar effect.

Having set the physical scene, you can proceed to their behavior. This description is also repetitive; trying to emphasize something by simply repeating it in different words. Add emphasis through your word choices and choice of metaphors; not by repeating yourself in different words. On a practical note, trying to write the same thing in several ways can help you narrow down exactly what you are trying to say. You can try to figure out WHY the alternate phrases add something missing from the previous iterations. But in the end, write ONE description without repetition, with words and a comparison that conveys exactly what you felt was important to describe.

They stared at the screen with undivided attention. The footage was not long; it looped through the same thing over a dozen times. Yet their eyes barely budged, as if possessed by ghost.

I don't understand how "being possessed by a ghost" would cause rapt attention; I don't think that is an effective comparison. I would replace that with something else. A rewrite, 76 words instead of 128 (a 40% cut):

The room went completely dark for a moment, before the projector's beam formed a cone of light on the white sheet at the front. The reflection from the sheet lit up the whites of the eyes of the viewers, a peculiar effect. They stared at the screen with undivided attention. The footage was not long; it looped through the same thing over a dozen times. Yet their eyes barely budged, as if hypnotized by the images.

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I'll add something I see my favorite authors use. Basically, you can draw a reader into a scene by doing a three-stage description. Or four.

  1. The night was gloomy. (General.)
  2. So gloomy, in fact, that no light at all could pierce the ground-level window to the dusky basement. (tighter focus. Now we're in a basement.)
  3. Instead, the only source of light in the room was the ambient reflection from a projector, situated halfway between a screen on the front wall and the crumbling masonry on the back. (visuals of the setting.)
  4. But no movie played on that screen. Instead, motes of dust, illuminated by the cone of light, drifted down, eerily silent, onto eight wide-eyed corpses sitting, stiff, and staring forward.

^^ It's a tightening focus thing. Try that. Might work for you, might not.

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