Some Thoughts on Descriptions

Descriptions generally get a bad rap.  When you say something has a lot of description, people assume you mean it’s boring.  And to some people, maybe it’s true that any description is a boring description.  But since it’s a necessary part of any story, we writers can only hope that there are ways to make description interesting to our readers.

There are a few things that really draw me in when it comes to descriptive passages:

  • A character’s voice if it’s first person – how they perceive the environment gives me clues, not only about their environment, but about the characters themselves, about their psychology, and about what they may do next based on that perception.  I want to know if my guesses about them are right or not, so I read on.
  • If it’s third person, a character’s thoughts and feelings and reactions, as they’re revealed throughout the passage, for the same reasons listed above, will also keep me hooked.
  • Truly evocative language – avoidance of clichés, avoidance of overly flowery prose, metaphors that really help me place myself in the scene, and not forgetting that there are senses other than sight.
  • Description that mingles with hints about conflict or change.  A fleeting  sense of the past or a glimpse of tension that might mean trouble in the future.
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An Oft-Neglected Element

It’s funny how easy it is to forget to mention certain sensory details, whereas others come out automatically.  Most of us go for visual description as our primary focus, with auditory details as a close second, touch being prominent mostly during scenes of sex or violence, with smell barely mentioned and taste almost forgotten.  Granted, it’s hard to separate taste and smell, since if one is mentioned the other is generally implied.

But even within the confines of visual and auditory elements, there is, in fiction in general, a woeful disregard for the atmospherics of weather.  It’s so much a part of our daily setting.  It can color our mood, affect our decisions for what to do with our day, change the dynamics of a conversation.  It changes the feel and flavor of the air, the smells that carry or get washed away, whether we listen to birdsong or rainfall all afternoon.  It can be soothing, frightening, frustrating, or blissful.

How the weather affects people can be anything from a home destroyed by a tornado or a flood to road rage from not having AC in the car, from draught affecting crops to seasonal depression.  A sudden thunderstorm could interrupt a lover’s spat, reuniting the couple as they run for cover together, forgetting their differences just long enough to realize the whole argument is unimportant compared to their mutual affection and respect for one another.  A hot summer day can sizzle away at a frustration until it festers into murderous rage.  A cool rain can bring relief and cleansing on a dusty, dry garden.  A snowstorm can trap a group of travelers, blocking their progress.  Torrential storms can force someone to pull off the highway, giving him time that maybe he’d rather not have to think about what he just said to his mother.  A clear, starry night can make a character feel small and insignificant and lost – or like she belongs to a larger whole, freeing her from the worries of the moment.

People talk about the weather, gripe about it, relish it, go out in it, stay in because of it, take shelter from it, survive it.  Writers, take note, and USE IT!

5 Details

One thing I’ve started doing when I know I have an important scene on my hands and I’m nervous about how it’s going to come across is, I write down five sensory details I want to include within the scene before I actually start it.  I try to pick at least three things that aren’t the “obvious thing” to point out – the obvious stuff will generally fall into place by itself, anyway.  Sometimes I don’t even end up putting one of my details in the text, but it’s implied by other details or dialogue or character reactions.

Why does this help me write difficult scenes?  I think there are a number of reasons it bolsters my confidence in what I’m about to set down in type.   (1) It helps me visualize/feel the setting and how it will affect the action and the characters involved.  (2) It helps me stay consistent on my details…like not saying it’s a sweltering day and then dressing a character in winter clothes.  (3) I know I won’t have to stop to think up details if the scene is coming out flat.  (4) It gives me a focus for thinking through the scene a little ahead of time, solidifying the action and interactions in my head before I start slinging words around.  (5) It puts me there.  I’m not at my desk or my laptop anymore; I’m in the story world.

This whole thing originally started with some of Donald Maass’ exercises in The Fire in Fiction, but I’m using it in a different context than he originally suggests in the book, and it’s helping me keep plugging away at my wordsmithing.

I cheated.  This is more a writing exercise post than a regular “writing and rewriting Monday” post.

Friday Exercise – First Lines

Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind.  Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one.  Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.

And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book.  I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement.  If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere!  I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.

How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start?  A big part of it is hints.  Foreshadowing.  Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand.  Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers.  And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write).  Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character.  Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t.  /Rant.

Anyway, on to the exercise:

Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening.  If possible, hint at more than one event!  If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint.  Some examples:

  • The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me.  (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
  • Being dead has its advantages.  (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
  • There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
  • “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID.  “I thought you were lying.”
  • She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.

Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.

Choosing Curiosity

For the second week in a row, I’ve missed my Monday post – this time, because I was busy all weekend (thus, didn’t have time to write one in advance), and then started jury duty Monday morning.  So, like last Wednesday, I’m posting about writing instead of marketing with my Wednesday post.

To start with, here’s a little run-down of how my time has been spent lately:  last week (when I had the flu), over the course of this weekend (when I was out doing stuff, meeting and getting to know new people, hearing lots of memories and stories shared between friends, seeing new places and hearing the history these friends had there together, etc.), and so far this week (while waiting to be called from the jury pool room to trials, being questioned for possible selection to a jury, chatting with fellow jury pool members to pass the time, etc.).  All of this stuff is pretty much outside my normal routine, some of it understandably crappy (being sick, parking downtown, having to get up early (I’m a night person and an evening shift worker), sitting in a room for hours just waiting for something to happen), some of it understandably exciting and fun (my weekend), and some of it able to go either way (jury duty is very much all or nothing…either you’re just sitting around passing the time as best you can, or something important is happening).

That said, what’s been on my mind in terms of writing has been (a) the fact that breaking out of your normal routine does, indeed, get your brain going, (b) even if you don’t choose what breaks your routine and even if the break is unwanted and/or unpleasant, as a writer, you can use anything as an opportunity – any experience adds to what you know about life, and therefore what you can convincingly write about in your fiction, and (c)  anytime you’re stuck in a room full of other people, you’re sitting on a gold mine of observable material…characters, dialogue, quirks, mannerisms, backgrounds, story ideas….

One of the best things about being a writer, I think, is that we have the gift of being able to pull something positive out of any situation.  Whether it’s traumatic, aggravating, uncomfortable, or fantastically awesome, a writer can get at least a short story or a poem out of almost anything that happens.  At times in my life, that has been the one gleam of reassurance and positivity in the back of my mind – when things have been at the very depths of fear and trauma, I’ve had this calm, logical piece of myself that has told me, “This is going to be so good for your writing someday,” and patted me on the shoulder…it’s a soothing thought when you’re in a panic, a ray of hope in times of despair, a candle in the darkness.  Writers are lucky to have that.

In less dire circumstances, such as the aggravations of being in a jury pool (getting up ridiculously early and still being barely on time because of parking, monetary troubles, long lunch lines, chairs that make your butt hurt after 45 minutes, waiting around for stuff, not getting picked for a trial that sounded interesting, etc.) there’s still that happy little part of me that’s like, “Ooh, but shiny!  Now I know all this stuff about how this works that I didn’t know before!” and “Hey, this lady I’m sitting next to all damn day waiting to get pulled for a case knows an awful lot of cool stuff about [whatever]…wonder where that could lead?” and “Hm…this guy sure knows a lot about [historical event].  Has some good yarns to spin about the experience.  Let’s keep him talking!”

A writer can always choose to get curious – let yourself wonder about a system or a process you’re encountering for the first time, pay attention to what’s going on, listen to what other people are saying about it to you or to each other, watch the folks who’re on familiar ground and how they interact with one another and with the newbies, chat with people in waiting rooms, look around for anomalies, watch facial expressions.  It beats being bored anyday…and it’s good practise.  My theory is, the more you make it a habit to be observant and take note of your surroundings, the more generally inspired you’ll be, and the richer your details will become.

Hearts on Sleeves

Fridays are now dedicated to writing exercises and other fun stuff related to the creative process, because, let’s face it, Fridays are supposed to be fun.  Also, fun stuff is easier to come up with than real content, so this gives me a break at the end of the week.  Ha!

In writing the Erica Flynn novel, I realized that I rely almost entirely on physically based reaction for conveying my characters’ feelings.  “My heart thundered…” or “I felt myself flush…” or “I stood up shakily…” etc.  Now, I think it’s good to lock emotion into a character’s body, because we DO have physical side effects to our feelings.  It can be a good way to show a character’s own particular manifestation of an emotion, too – does she have a really strong grip because she constantly clenches her fists?  Then anger is probably more than just a momentary feeling for her; it’s part of who she is.  Does the character glare at other people when he’s mad, or look down at his hands?  One of those tells me he’s aggressive (or at least confident!) and the other says he’s a guy who bottles stuff up and/or feels powerless for some reason or another.

There are a few problems with relying solely on physically based “tells” to convey your characters’ feelings, though.  One, in the case of my novel, was that my characters were dead.  Since part of the setup was the removal of the physical aspect of their emotions, I couldn’t use my own favorite tool.  That’s what made me realize how much I used it.

Another problem is that it’s very easy to fall into cliché stuff about hearts pounding and the hair on the back of someone’s neck standing up and so on.  Okay, so it’s something we all experience at one time or another and that’s WHY it’s a cliché, but a reader will skim over a phrase like that and get as much emotional impact from it as if you’d just left the line blank.  I know I’ve caught some lame clichés like this in my writing, and had to work out a more original take to fix it.

The other problem, in my case, is simply that I lean on this particular tool so much that I’m baffled when I’m confronted with being unable to use it.  Pushing past that for the Erica Flynn novel has been great for me as a writer, because the whole book was like a writing exercise to stretch my conveying-of-emotional-reaction muscle.

So my writing exercise for my beloved blog readers is this:  write a scene or a story in which emotions run high, but only one indication of each character’s internal, physical sensation of his/her emotion is given.  See how you can work around it!

Series Bible, Take 1

So I’m looking into this whole “series bible” thing – seemed like a good idea, since I’m about to delve into writing a trilogy.  It’s pretty self-explanatory.  A series bible is just an organized set of notes on who/what/where everything is in your books – a way to keep track of people and settings that you mention, even in passing.  So if you need that information later, you have an easy reference for it instead of having to scan back through your whole manuscript to find out what color some bit character’s eyes were. 

Honestly, I already have so many notes on this trilogy that putting together a series bible seems like a bit of a joke.  Still, I could benefit from some organization at this point, given how many versions I’ve started of this #$@% book over the years, then changed things around, then changed them back, then changed them to something entirely different, etc.

My plan for this series bible is along the lines of a binder with separate tabs for the major characters, one section for lesser and bit characters, and a section for the settings – maybe broken up into places around the main city where most of the story takes place, and all the other cities, towns, battlefields, etc. that the characters come and go through.  Personally, since I draw, I like to do sketches of my characters and the places they spend most of their time, as visual stimulation and to keep things clear and consistent.  I’ll probably put some of those into the bible, if not on my bedroom wall next to my outline.  Even if you’re not artistically inclined, you can collect photos from books or magazines, postcards, online sources, etc. and use those for your visuals.

This being a fantasy novel, I’ll also include my ridiculously extensive notes on how the different magic styles work (there are five of ’em in this book, but thankfully I know better than to info dump all of that into the story!) and maybe flesh out my notes about the two religions that are prominent in the storyline.

I’m sort of approaching the series bible concept as a scrapbooking type project, only without the fancy paper and little cutouts of birthday cakes and stuff.  Although fancy paper isn’t necessarily a bad idea, especially if it’s a pattern that would be common on clothes or wallpaper in the story setting….  Hm….!

Breaking Open the Moment

One of my poet friends, Ernie O’Dell, introduced me to the phrase, “breaking open the moment,” some years ago at a Green River Writer’s Retreat.  I don’t know if it came from elsewhere first, or if it’s an Ernie original, but it certainly has been an excellent exercise in my prose writing, although it was brought up in application to poetry at the workshop.

As I understand it, the point of the exercise is to really dig for the most evocative sensory details present within a scene or a poem – and not just the visual aspects of what occurs, but keeping in mind all the senses.  Mention tactile sensations, scents, sounds, tastes.  Don’t just put in the first or most obvious thing that comes to mind. 

Your characters are on a beach?  Of course there’s going to be the sound of waves and the taste of salt on the air.  But what else?  Is there another taste in the air, maybe a flavor of iron from the seaweed?  How does wet sand smell?  Are there gulls nearby – aren’t they making noise?  Is there a lot of wind?  Grit in the wind from all the sand?  Shells underfoot – how many?  Are they broken and sharp, or weathered smooth?  Are other people making noise – kids playing, a boombox, conversations held loud enough to be heard over the sound of the surf and the wind?  Waves crash coming in, yeah, we all know that.  The water makes a different sound going back out, especially on a beach with a lot of shells – you can hear them rattle as the water pulls away, weird little suction sounds, the hiss of the sand shifting. 

Just to give an example.  That’s the idea behind breaking open a moment.  Just keep going with it.  You don’t have to include everything you come up with in your finished scene, but you can cut through the boring clichés and find some distinctive, original details to work with. 

Nothing kills a reader’s attention like a plain vanilla description full of phrases they’ve read a million times.  Most readers want to feel like they’re really in the book, like they’re there with the characters, and you can’t do that if you don’t give them any sense of the atmosphere, the feel and taste and smell and sound and imagery of the scene.  Do you want to watch a movie where every scene takes place in front of a whitewashed backdrop?  Where there’s no ambient sound?  No extras, even in scenes that should have extras, or where all the extras are the same height, race, weight, hair color, and all dressed the same?  Unless that’s some kind of commentary or we’re dealing with a new kind of zombie in this movie, that just sounds like a total lack of atmosphere to me.

Put your reader there, inside the story world.  Give them things to latch onto that will spark their imaginations – readers will fill a lot in for themselves if you provide a few really stellar, evocative details to get them started.

A Word About World Building

For writers of speculative fiction, world building is a vital part of the process of writing.  When your story is set in a fictional time and place, you have to know your world thoroughly and in detail if you want readers to suspend their disbelief in the fantastical events you’re going to put before them.  Inconsistency, sloppy or scant texturing, and stale genre stereotypes are the bane of science fiction and fantasy writing (and reading).

How do you go about creating a whole other world?

Well, here’s how I do it.  I start with whatever originally sparked the idea for the story, of course.  What does that spark point require, contextually, from the time and place, in order to work?  Does technology need to be advanced for this to work, or does technology need to be severely limited?  If it’s limited, what has held it back?  Go from there.  Keep asking questions.  Keep answering them.  If you don’t know yet, make note of it and chip away at other things in the meantime.  If I get stuck, I’ll write a list of “10 Things I Know About [This Place]”.

Sometimes the setting is the spark, for me.  If that’s the case, I draw it out with questions and answers, find conflicts that such a society would face, pick what interests me and what types of characters would be interesting – who’s on the fringes of a culture like this, who’s intimately involved in these conflicts, who wants to help and why, who wants to take advantage of the underdogs’ weakness, etc. – and fill the story out from there.

How do you get ideas for the setting itself?

For the trilogy I’ll be working on this November for NaNoWriMo, I originally started by modeling the setting off of a real-world time and place that interests me – Renaissance Italy.  That isn’t to say I’ve stuck to accurate historical details by any means (the last I knew, Renaissance Italy was never invaded by a clan of pseudo-Russian elves) but it does mean that if I’m having trouble fleshing out details about the setting, I can refer to photos, art, architecture, cookbooks, history books, Italian folk music and folk tales – anything that can be internalized about the actual place and time and either used or modified to work with my fictional setting.  It’s research, but it’s fun research.  How could any research that led me to taste-test brandy-spiked coffee be a bad thing??

Aside from choosing a real-world basis as my starting point, other settings have come to me through toying with ideas about different societal constructs, projections of “what if” questions, working out the history and the future of my own invented world and seeing what types of cultures came together or broke apart before and after the events of the trilogy.  Even dreams, sometimes.  One of my favorite of my uncompleted short stories is set on another continent in the same world as the trilogy – a very isolated continent full of crazy-dangerous wild animals – and the whole setting and story came to me as a dream.  The architecture, the characters, the clothing, the socio-economics and political setup…I dreamed all of it.  Thank you, subconscious.  Thank you!

Should you include everything that you know about your setting in the story itself?

No.  Absolutely no.  I have a binder with maps, timelines, and notes about my setting that’s almost two inches thick.  Nobody needs to know all that crap except me.  And someday, if I ever have a die-hard uber-nerd cult following for my trilogy, maybe them.  But normal readers do not need the full extent of what you, as the writer, know about your world.  You need to know, in order to maintain consistency and keep the illusion that this place is real and that there is all of that stuff to know.  And you can never tell what will end up being pertinent to the book until you’re in the thick of it.  So know your world intimately, including what would be written in dry history textbooks in their schools, but don’t dump the history book in the reader’s lap.  Use your knowledge of the setting to enrich the story, but do it through implication, hints, details that enliven the story and the characters, dialogue and interaction, etc.  Make the story and the setting inseparable.

What Your Narrator Doesn’t Notice

Over the weekend, I attended a convention for science fiction and fantasy writers.  At one of the programs, a fellow audience member asked the panelists an excellent question:  How do you convey important details to the reader through a narrative character who wouldn’t notice.  If your narrator is a detective, s/he will probably be inherently observant, but not every character is attuned to every little thing that happens around them.  In real life, people range from highly observant to completely oblivious.  It’s no different with characters.

It was a question that particularly interested me, given the narrator of my novel The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.  Erica is the first person narrator, and while she’s far from oblivious to details, within the context of the events of the book, she’s incredibly single-minded.  Her own goal is the only thing that she’s focused on, and, to her, everything else is sort of just background noise and distraction.

But I still had to get information across to the reader.  More is going on with the other characters than Erica is putting together, and it was important to convey that to make them full, rounded characters to the reader, as well as helping advance the main plot.  It was a tricky at points – I didn’t want Erica to come across as dense, but I also wanted to convey her state of mind and intense focus.

I handled it (I hope, anyway – LOL) by having Erica see details that she didn’t necessarily think much of.  She didn’t put things together, but she did take note of things that laid the groundwork for the bigger picture.  Other characters (who were putting things together) reacted based on their understanding of the situations that Erica was ignoring because of her “blinders” and I tried to make a point of putting in the narration what it was that was on Erica’s mind instead of what was going on.

For example, she’d be in a conversation with two other characters, but in between the dialogue, she’s trying to work out a plan to reach her goal.  While the reader is getting information from the dialogue and putting it together, Erica is also stating outright in her narrative, “I wasn’t really listening at that point, though.  I was trying to gauge whether or not I could get away with…” etc.  That allowed me to do a lot of work within the scene (setup for the bigger plot as well as conveying subplot information about the other characters in the dialogue), and also showed Erica’s thought process and calculation (so she’s clearly not stupid, just distracted) and made it clear why she missed hints that were right in front of her.

An example of a character who just doesn’t get most of what goes on around him would be Rusty James from the novel Rumblefish by S.E. Hinton (there’s also an excellent movie based on the book).  Rusty James isn’t so much oblivious as…well…dumb, but he’s a great character, and Hinton conveys an incredible amount of subtle meaning, emotion, and character depth in the people and events around him, despite how little of it her narrator actually takes in and processes.