Description

I recently hosted a schmooze, where the topic was description, and I came to several realizations in preparing for it. As I looked for different examples of good and bad description it struck me that the least effective ones were where just a basic description of what the character(s) could see around them. One description, in particular, helped me to see this. The description covered an old stone church that had been converted into a school refectory. There was all kinds of history associated with the building, but the description was just a simple list of things the character could see when she walked inside. The part of the description that stuck with me was when the character thought of churches she’d seen back home that were in old trailers with plastic chairs. That image was so strong and full of all sorts of meanings and connotations, it sparked my imagination. But that wasn’t where the story was taking place. And while it was helpful background information about the character, the power of the scene should have been where she currently was. Instead, that one line took me out of where the character and the story were taking place. The old church should have been oozing with possibilities for description. It was a lost opportunity. It made me realize that description needs to be more than simple surface details. That kind of description is forgotten within a page turn. It makes no impact and therefor has no staying power. When I found examples of good description, I realized they had something in common. They were rarely a laundry list...

Setting As Character

Setting can be so much more than simply a backdrop for action. A good setting can enhance the mood and emotion of a scene. A great setting can come alive and act like a character in a story. It’s the difference between a backdrop you’d find in a photographer’s studio and the 3-D version of Avatar. The planet, Pandora, was a living entity in the movie and the 3-D qualities made that believable. The world surrounded you and made you part of it. Imagine Little Red Riding Hood without the woods. Where would the buildup of tension and foreboding come from? How about To Kill a Mockingbird without the small town southern location? Would it have become a classic if it had been set in New York, or Boston, or even in a small town in southern California? It needed the history of the south, the civil war, the race tensions that pervaded the very molecules of the atmosphere of that time to help make that story a classic. So how do you make a setting into a character? To start, ask yourself do you want to set your story in a real place or in a made up one? If you hesitate to use a real place because of travel limitations (no cash to fly to Venice to check out the Grand Canal) is there someplace local that you could use to recreate the atmosphere? It can help a lot to go to a location and soak it up. It’s amazing the ideas you get from someplace real. All of your senses are involved and because of that, it’s...

More Beautiful Writing

From Shades of Earth by Beth Revis: I stand on my tiptoes to reach Elder’s lips better, but I lose my balance, slipping on the wet stones. Elder’s grip on me is so tight, though, that he easily lifts me from the ground, spinning in a slow circle, his laughter weaving in between raindrops to splash against my...

Beautiful Writing

I recently finished reading Goblin Secrets by William Alexander, winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. While I had a few problems with the book, mainly questions I had about his world-building, there is no doubt that he is a master at creating beautiful images and bringing out gut-wrenching emotions. I’ve quoted some passages from the book that made me envious. Rownie woke up. He felt the cushioned chair underneath him, expecting to find the straw floor of Graba’s shack. He didn’t, and he didn’t know why—not until he gathered up all the pieces of yesterday and put them back together in his head. Then he remembered how alone he was. Sunlight peered down through the tarnished glass of the arched ceiling, outside the railcar. It was morning. Pigeons roosted on the tops of the hanging clocks. They seemed to be ignoring him. He didn’t think they were Graba’s birds. He didn’t think so. I love that extra beat of “He didn’t think so.” You can feel him trying to convince himself it’s safe to step outside. (Graba used the pigeons as her spies, which is why he was worried.) I think what really impressed me was how well he got into Rownie’s head. He brought out all the emotions—fears, insecurities, frustrations—that Rownie experienced while trying to find out what happened to his older brother. As the youngest he was used to piecing together his understanding from snatches of overheard conversations, and the rest he set carefully aside on the shelf in the back of his mind. Unlike the Guard, Rownie understood these winding streets. The...

Beautiful Writing

I recently finished reading Goblin Secrets by William Alexander, winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. While I had a few problems with the book, mainly questions I had about his world-building, there is no doubt that he is a master at creating beautiful images and bringing out gut-wrenching emotions. I’ve quoted some passages from the book that made me envious. Rownie woke up. He felt the cushioned chair underneath him, expecting to find the straw floor of Graba’s shack. He didn’t, and he didn’t know why—not until he gathered up all the pieces of yesterday and put them back together in his head. Then he remembered how alone he was. Sunlight peered down through the tarnished glass of the arched ceiling, outside the railcar. It was morning. Pigeons roosted on the tops of the hanging clocks. They seemed to be ignoring him. He didn’t think they were Graba’s birds. He didn’t think so. I love that extra beat of “He didn’t think so.” You can feel him trying to convince himself it’s safe to step outside. (Graba used the pigeons as her spies, which is why he was worried.) I think what really impressed me was how well he got into Rownie’s head. He brought out all the emotions—fears, insecurities, frustrations—that Rownie experienced while trying to find out what happened to his older brother. As the youngest he was used to piecing together his understanding from snatches of overheard conversations, and the rest he set carefully aside on the shelf in the back of his mind. Unlike the Guard, Rownie understood these winding streets. The...

Compelling Description—beyond the cliché

When I write my first draft I’m usually focused on getting the story down. Description, which is my least favorite part of story writing, is simple, fast, and dirty. A lot of clichés slip in because I don’t want to take the time to craft a perfect sentence. It would slow or stop the flow of words to edit a sentence or paragraph and that’s not my goal. I want to get the first draft down so that I can see the story as a whole. Then I go back and clean up the mess, remove the turds, polish the sentences, and strengthen the story. My favorite part of writing is dialogue. I love the interplay between characters. When I write a new scene I always put in all the dialogue first, then I go back and add some action. Last I’ll sketch in some quick description, usually just enough to set the scene. It’s only when I’m in the editing phase that I will take the time to flesh out the description. I don’t know why it’s so torturous for me to write description. It’s like eating lima beans. It’s tasteless and a chore and even though I know it’s good for me, I have to hold my nose while I do it. I know that sounds really odd. Description should be rich. It should bring a scene and characters alive. It should be full of sound and smell and color and texture. The only reason I’ve been able to figure out why it’s so hard for me is that as an artist I’m a visual person. I see...