Writing Great Fiction – Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Description

 

We’re going to talk about description in this chapter.  I promise.

But first, we have to talk about the ending of Star Wars…and by Star Wars I mean episode IV, A New Hope.  Don’t get me started on those prequels…

So, imagine you are in the theater, watching the big space battle at the end of the movie, but we’re going to change how you watch it.  First, you have a shot of Luke and what he’s doing, then split the screen and put up an image of Biggs.  Try to keep track of both of them.  Then split it again and add in Red Leader and Gold Leader.  Keep splitting that screen.  In no time at all, you’ve got way too much going on and you can’t really tell what’s important.

And to really drive this home, let’s make our Star Wars scene a little more urgent.  Put yourself in the movie.  Imagine you are an X-Wing pilot who is trying to get through a swarm of TIE fighters to destroy the Death Star.  What are you going to concentrate on?  Will it be the fire from the laser cannons on the space station?  How about your friends who are flying close alongside you?  Maybe you should focus on the incoming fighters and the dog fights that are starting to take shape all around you.

The thing is, your attention can’t stay on one thing.  If you focus only on getting into and down the trench to the exhaust port (Yeah, I’m showing my geek stripes here, aren’t I?), then you won’t see the fighters coming up behind you.  And if you pay attention to everything going on, then you’ll never get to take your shot.

What you focus on has to change as things play out.  There are times when you have to pull away from the fight to see the big picture.  And then there are times when you have that target in sight and that is the only thing in the galaxy that matters.  You pick what’s important at that moment.

That’s what you have to do when you fly an X-Wing and that’s what you have to do when you write descriptions in your stories.  You pick what’s important in the scene and describe that to your readers.

With the mandatory Star Wars reference done (for now at least), let’s get our writing hands dirty.  We don’t have to talk about what description is.  It’s not a hard thing to define.  But what we describe and how we do it as authors are the real questions.

So, what things are we describing?  The first and most obvious description is the setting of our story.  We let our readers know if it’s familiar or something that they have never seen or imagined before.  We describe our characters.  We describe what they do.

In general, we describe anything that the reader can see or hear in our story.  But, when we get into the other senses and emotions and feelings, things get a little trickier.

When describing the interior life and experiences of our characters we run into the question of point of view.  Are we writing in 1st or 3rd person (sorry to neglect the rare 2nd person)?  If you use the I pronoun, then descriptions of the character’s thoughts and emotions are generally a snap.  The reader is experiencing things directly through the character, so adding in the details of what they taste, feel and think is very natural.

But when you make the jump to 3rd person and the she/he pronouns, it gets much more complicated.  Are you omniscient or limited to just one POV?  Maybe someplace in between?  3rd person limited, especially to one character, gives you about the same access to what your character experiences as 1st person does, but when the audience has access to multiple 3rd person POVs…well…you could soon drown your readers in too many descriptive details.

Remember the cake example from chapter 2?  Imagine reading what the cake was like from every character at a party.  Suddenly, you’ve binged and aren’t hungry for cake anymore.

This is the big question. How much do we describe?  How much do our readers need to know about what our characters look like?  What is actually necessary (and this can lead us into discussion about the big C meaning of the word Character) and what elements are better left to the reader’s imagination?

This question applies to every element that we can describe and the quick answer is that it is up to you as the writer.  But don’t make the decision too quickly or without weighing your options.

We’ve all read stories at either end of the description spectrum.  There are some that are so sparse that we are left adrift; wondering what is really going on.  Others delve into scene setting so complete that we can forget what is going on in the story.  Ever read Tolkien and his page-long descriptions of the color of the grass?

Let’s get some perspective on how important the issue of good description is.  In the broadest terms, you have two elements when writing a story: dialogue and description.  And depending on your writing style, description will usually make up more than half of your writing.  With Tolkein it’s more like 90%.  There was apparently a lot of grass in Middle Earth.

If we go too far in either direction: too much or too little description, we really risk not giving our readers the best story we can.  And here is why…

Remember those two rules of writing from Chapter 2?  They are pretty simple and they apply completely here.  If you don’t describe the elements that are absolutely necessary to a scene…how the action is moving, a really important object, how a character physically reacts to something…then things aren’t clear to the reader.  And if you load them down with every detail, then boredom kicks in.  How important is that grass anyway?  Yes, some of the trees are main characters, but not the grass. (And please don’t set the orcs on me for ranking on Tolkien.  I love those books and have read them multiple times.  It’s just..come on, enough already!)

So, it’s your job as a writer to constantly make the decision about what details really need to be included in every scene.  If you are creating a world that no one has ever imagined before, then more description is probably necessary.  In other situations you might need to only mention one detail.

Think about the Harry Potter books.  How much time does J. K. Rowling spend describing Hogwarts?  Do we get the details on how everything is laid out and which rooms are next to each other or how exactly to get from the great hall to Charms class?  No.  We hear about moving staircases and then details in the individual classrooms when we first see them.  Yet, do you feel like you are missing out?  My guess would be no, because instead of telling us every tiny detail, Rowling shows us the important things and lets us paint our own picture of Hogwarts.

And on the character side, how much do we really read about what Harry looks like, or Ron, or Hermione?  When you check, it’s not much at all.  And yet, these characters are incredibly vivid.  And that’s because of what they do, not because of the physical traits that Rowling tells us.

Depending on which approach you choose, there are many different techniques that you can use to tackle descriptions.  If you need to give more information, you might want to start with a broad overview, like a movie opening a scene with a wide establishing shot.  On the other end, you might want to pick vital element and focus on it, maybe giving some unusual and little known bit of detail about it to get your readers to looking at things closely.

And, in this giant sea of description, there is one Bermuda Triangle that sinks more stories than anything else…description about dialogue.  Remember back in chapter 2 where we talked about adverbs and how they are shortcuts that can deprive the reader of an opportunity to see something important about the character?  Well, when you are describing dialogue there are other shortcuts that take even more away from the reader.  When we follow our dialogue with phrases like he shouted, she snarled, she growled or any of the countless other verbs that might apply, we move very firmly into Telling territory.  And if you add in the adverb after the verb: shouted angrily, snarled furiously or growled menacingly…well, you are giving your readers some details, but there might just be a better way.

We’ve already talked about one of my favorite authors (and I’m starting this section out by telling you how much I love her books so you don’t send the Deatheaters after me), but she is fairly notorious for this.  In just one part of one chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling writes that one character or another muttered furiously, shouted, roared, sputtered, said eagerly, said gratefully, said excitedly, said keenly, reminded bossily, whispered, said mournfully, said nervously, said knowledgably, said cautiously, gasped, said sadly, said proudly, said bitterly, said darkly, said hurriedly, shouted, said hopefully, said urgently, or began awkwardly.

That is a lot of different verbs for how people might say something and a whole ton of adverbs.  Now, Ms. Rowling gets some slack because, well, she’s awesome.  But what if she had skipped just a few of those shortcuts and given us just one short sentence about what the characters were doing when they said or asked?  What if she had shown us how Hermione had crossed her arms and tilted her head back to frown at Harry and Ron instead of just saying she was bossy?

The big problem with these dialogue descriptors and the adverbs that often follow them is that they are too easy to breeze past as we read.  In fact, they are really meant to be that way.  Their primary function is to show us who said what.  That’s all they are supposed to do.  And if a writer starts trying to use them to tell us how things are said, the useful information gets discarded by our brains as well.  But if the author keeps the who-said-what part simple and shows us how the characters do things, our brains take a moment to create the scene and it all gets more engrossing.

So, if the dialogue descriptors are things that readers generally gloss over, what do we do?  Basically, stick with words that are already disposable…and there are two of them.

Said and asked.

With just those two words, you can let the reader know who is saying what (unless you are Cormac McCarthy and are too cool for letting your readers know who is talking) and then you can add in the necessary description to show your readers exactly how the characters act when they speak.

Now, there is one more major element of description that we haven’t talked about: exposition.  We discussed it in relation to dialogue in the last chapter (and there is a definition of it in chapter 1) but it is just as important to consider in your descriptions too.  You may have to plant vital clues, there may be backstory or important information about the characters that you need to get across to the reader.  But, the way you give this information to the reader in key.

If you start your story with a concentrated info-dump that has backstory of every sort imaginable, your readers will zone out fast.  Even if the story behind your story (that’s kind of what exposition is really about, after all) is fascinating, if you tell it instead of showing it, you are going to lose the good will of your readers.

Instead, think of different approaches to showing your readers this necessary information.  Can you turn it into a scene?  Can it be incorporated as details that the characters experience?  If you can come up with ways to sneak in your exposition, your readers are going to love you.

Like everything else in writing, dealing with description well comes down to practice.  Don’t get trapped into thinking that your descriptions will be perfect when you are beginning.  Somehow, Luke Skywalker survives a giant space dogfight and blows up the Death Star…the very first time he jumps into an X-Wing.  But I guess he has the Force (And yes!  Like the Death Star 2, the Star Wars reference comes back!).  For the rest of us, we have to practice and practice to hone our craft.

What else can you do?  Read the best books and stories that you can find and see what you like about the descriptions there.  See how Cormac McCarthy writes a whole book without telling you who says what in The Road.  Test your descriptions out on readers and get input.  Then keep going on your rewrites.  These are your stories.  They are worth the effort.

Writing Great Fiction – Chapter 2

(FYI, this is basically a repost of the Two Rules of Writing post I did earlier, but I wanted to include it here for continuity of the how-to book)

Chapter 2: The Two Rules of Writing

As writers we often look for advice from authors that we admire, and luckily there is no shortage of input from many of the greats.  John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonegut, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and so many others have given a collection of rules and advice on how to write.

Oftentimes, their advice is not really related to the art of writing.  Of Hugh Howey’s three rules, two of them are about self publishing.  Margaret Atwood wisely advises you to do back exercises.  Hemmingway agrees with Atwood on using pencils, but also says (not surprisingly) to keep things brief.  King says to never write with the television on.

But when they do talk about writing, their advice varies.  Jack Keroac’s list of 30 techniques and beliefs is more like a numbered poem.  Leonard says to never start a book with the weather.  Gaiman says to laugh at your own jokes.  If you put it all together, you’d have a very intimidating list of rules by which to write.  Heck, Stephen King actually has two rules about avoiding adverbs.

But I’m going to tell you a secret.

Here’s the real truth…when it comes down to the actual art and craft of writing, there are only TWO rules.

Be Clear.

Don’t Be Boring.

That’s it folks.  Two rules.

Now, here’s the thing…are there other rules that we need to pay attention to?  Perhaps things like grammar and rules of style?  Yup, there sure are.  But, and this is the key, every one of those other rules is actually a sub-rule under one of the Big Two.

Remember all those pesky rules on commas?  How about the i before e in spelling?  And don’t forget run on sentences and fragments.  All of these rules of grammar are focused on one thing…making sure that your writing is clear, that the reader can actually understand what you mean.

Following rule #1, Be Clear, is the first hurdle you have to overcome as a writer.  You have to remember that all those vital backstory clues actually have to be on the page instead of just in your brain.  If you are writing any kind of action, you have to make sure the reader knows where the characters are and can understand what is happening in the scene.

This is a big part of why we do re-writes, so we can look back and find those spots that aren’t really clear.  And your readers will really thank you for this.  Every error or muddled sentence is a stumbling block that takes your reader out of the story.  Don’t let that happen.  Rewrite and fix things.

But, here’s the bad news.  Rule #1 is the easy one, by far.

The real effort is in #2, Don’t Be Boring.  The problem with this one is that it covers so much ground.  If you thought all those grammar rules were too numerous to count, just think of all the ways writers have come up with to, sadly, be boring.

Think about it…does nothing happen in the book?  Boring.  Do things happen but they are disconnected and don’t add up to anything?  Boring.  Do the characters talk too much?  Do they talk about random subjects just like in a Tarantino movie?  Do they say exactly what they mean every time they speak?  Boring, boring and boring.

That’s just the start of a very long list.

Now, we can’t tackle every one of the ways writers end up boring their readers, but we can hit some of the big ones.  Let’s tackle a few of the ones that get talked about a lot.

The first, and most primal of the Don’t Be Boring sub-rules is to show instead of tell.  This sub-rule is so big it has an army of sub-sub-rules below it.

Here are the basics of showing vs. telling (and let’s get a little meta):

When we write, we are aiming to create an image, a world in the mind of our readers.  We want them to see, hear, smell, feel and taste what is going on.  We want to engage our readers by immersing them in the scene.

Or…let me put that another way…

If a character in my story is eating a piece of cake, I could just tell the reader that the icing falls off the fork, and that she likes how it tastes.  Or, I could describe how she leans over the small plate.  How the hair on the back of her neck stands up at the screeching noise her fork makes when she scrapes it a little too hard against the crackled white glaze in order to get every last molecule of frosting into the next bite.  And as she closes her lips over the fork, the darkness of the chocolate in the dissolving crumbs almost seems to burn her tongue, only to be soothed by the sweetness of the sugar.

Okay, enough food examples.  But did you see the difference in those two descriptions?  In the first, I told you what was going on.  In the second, I showed you.  Which was easier to gloss over?  Which put you in the scene with the character and made you hungry for cake?

The thing is, any time we simply state what is going on, we give our readers a chance to tune out.  Whether we are talking about the characters emotions, what they are doing, or the setting, simply telling the reader what happened just doesn’t create anything compelling.

What if I have a character who is tired and wants to sit down to rest?  Do I simply write that he sits in a chair and feels better?  Who would want to read that?

But if I describe what the exhaustion really feels like, how the chair feels, how the muscles unwind one by one, how he drifts off to sleep…these details give the reader something to latch onto.  With descriptions that are vivid and well placed, you can pull your reader further into your story and your characters’ lives.  This is a great way to avoid being boring.

Let’s go into one more example of not being boring by showing instead of telling.  Adverbs.

A number of great writers specifically mention avoiding adverbs in their how to write lists, and with good reason.  Adverbs, while very handy and quick, are the biggest shortcut to telling and being boring…especially when used to describe dialogue.

Think of all the stories you’ve read where the writer says the characters said something loudly, quietly, angrily or any other way that people say things.  You think to yourself that this is a super, quick way to describe how something was happening, but really, every adverb is a missed opportunity to show something important about your characters.

You can say that your character said something sadly, but what are you really giving your readers?  Just one generic, over-used word that doesn’t say anything specific.  Instead, what if you took the opportunity to show your readers what was so sad about the speaker?  What if you said she was was slumped over, with her head in her hands?  With something as simple as that, you’ve gone from a quick, throw-away word to creating an image in your reader’s mind.

That’s how avoiding adverbs can keep you from being boring.

There are tons of other ways to avoid being boring.  You can make sure your plot is connected and makes sense.  You can make sure your protagonist has a recognizable goal.  You can create an antagonist who wants the same thing as the hero and is very hard to beat.  The list can go on and on.  It’s hard work.

But there is good news.  If you work on these two rules a little bit every time you write, your writing will get better.  It will be clearer and more engaging and your readers will become devoted fans.

Reasons For Hope

Preview – A Short Story About Hope

 

The voices of the people in the next room were louder than usual, and that is saying something in the area I live in.  People come to the local coffee shop mostly to socialize and it always seems like they are used to shouting across a field of corn in order to be heard instead of talking across a small table.

But this morning their voices were even louder, tinged with anger…and fear.

It’s understandable.  I sat in the backroom of the coffee shop, working on the sequel to Schism and my mind kept wandering to all the bad news we’ve heard over the last month.  No matter if we listen to the radio, read the newspaper or watch television, there has been a barrage of stories about violence in the middle east, disease in Africa and anger in the United States. Because of Wattpad, I now have friends in each of these areas and I worry for their safety and well-being.

There has been so much bad news lately that it’s been sinking in, pulling my mood down into worry and fear.  You probably have felt the same feeling…like you are being pulled deeper down into a hole that won’t let you climb out.

But I want to tell you a quick story.

Twenty-three years ago I had cancer.  First, there was a lump on the side of my neck that kept growing, then another lump below it, and finally two.  I wore turtlenecks and dress shirts with high collars to hide it.  I would lean sideways in class to cover it all with my hand and I did not want to go to the doctor.  But, my parents saw the lumps one day and made me go in.

First, there was a CT scan, which showed a solid mass in my neck, then a needle aspiration that turned up “suspicious” cells.  Within a week my neck had been opened up for a full biopsy and I waited for the results in the recovery room.  My family was around me, very worried about what we would hear.

The surgeon came in and gave us the news.  I had Hodgkins Lymphoma.  My parents and siblings were distraught, but I wasn’t.  I had done my research.

The most important thing that I had uncovered in that busy week was that if I had received that diagnosis in the 1950s, 60s, 70s or even 80s, it probably would have been a death sentence.  But a lot of progress had been made in treating Hodgkins and things looked good.  Very good.  I had every reason to be hopeful about what would happen.

Now, don’t get me wrong…the next six months were…not fun.  I was cut open again.  With my abdomen pulled apart, they pulled out my spleen and lymph nodes and replaced them with little metal clips.  It makes for some cool looking x-rays, trust me.  And then, there were the radiation treatments.  Imagine the worst sunburn you’ve ever had not only hitting your skin, but your muscles and the connective tissues in your back, neck and shoulders.  There were days and weeks when the pain and exhaustion made it almost impossible to get out of bed.

But, I made it.  And through it all, I was able to keep my chin up because I knew that medical research and progress had turned Hodgkins into something that was often treatable.  I’m here, writing in the coffee shop today because of that progress.

Now for the big part of the story…remember that research I did in the week before I was diagnosed?  I’ve continued it.  I had a hunch that medicine wasn’t the only area where we’ve made progress, and that hunch was absolutely correct.

The simple truth is that the world is a much better place than it was 70 years ago.  It is a phenomenally better place than it was 1000 or 2000 years ago.

I’m so glad that so many of you have loved my book Schsim, but I actually don’t write only fiction.  I also write nonfiction, particularly about how the world is changing and I’d like to share with you a preview of my upcoming book Reasons For Hope.  My wish is that it helps lift you out of that pit that the news media throws us all into.  We all need that help.

 

I’ll be posting these previews on Wattpad.  Click here for the link.

The blog hop…

Hello everyone!  I’ve got a different sort of post today, as I’ve been invited by a friend on Wattpad to be part of a blog hop.  And…as it gives me a chance to promote a few fellow authors, I jumped right in.

For those of you who don’t know what a blog hop is (I had to look it up), it’s basically a chain letter, but on blogs.  I hope the web doesn’t get mad at us for plugging up the wires, but it’s a fun idea because the person who invited me answered the following questions, I answer them, and the people I invite answer them too..and it keeps going until everyone in the world has answered these questions.  Maybe it’s more of a blogging pyramid scheme than a chain letter?  Hmmm…

So, I was invited into the pyramid by Katrin Hollister, who has a great book on Wattpad called Rise of the Vengeful Dragon.  If you are a fantasy fan, check it out now!

And after I’m done with this post, I’ll be passing the proverbial pyramid torch to Emily Godhand, Everyn Kildare and Kat Loveland.  Go check out their pages!  Emily writes a fantastic horror thriller called Fear of the Dark, Everyn’s book Crow is a great paranormal fantasy that reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman and Kat is working on book 2 of her Honor Bound series…a very cool action packed thriller that mixes fashion models, superheroes and child trafficking.

So, here we go!  Onto the questions…

1.  What am I working on?

Currently I’m working on the sequels to Schism.  I have been working on the outlines for several other novels, but the reactions of a few people who have read the entire book and demanded the sequel have convinced me to focus in on Schism II and III.

While I can’t give any story details away, I can tell you that these books are shaping up to have even more action, more twists and even worse bad guys for our heroes William, Bryan and Jess to deal with.  But, they have a few new allies to give them a fighting chance.

2.  How is my work different from others of its genre?

I guess I should try to answer this…okay, please correct me, but I’m not too aware of other paranormal thrillers that dive so much into transpersonal psychology???  Is that different?

But honestly, I think every book that tries to be original ends up being different from the rest.  I think every author wants their characters and story to stand out and work hard to make that happen.

It’s up to the readers to tell me how mine is different.

3.  Why do I write what I do?

I love to tell stories.  I love to stay awake too long thinking up plot connections, ways to express themes that interest me and come up with horrible situations for my protagonists to have to get out of.

Most of all, I try to write stories about things that interest me.  If I end up liking it at every stage…planning, outlining, writing, editing, posting, recording audio and audio editing, then I think there’s a chance others might like it too.

4.  How does my writing process work?

Oh wow where to start…you can take a look at the archives of my blog to get a hint of that…but basically, I plan!  Before I put even a paragraph down, I work out every bit of the plot, the character arcs, the theme, the point of view switches…it all gets nailed down.

That way, all of the pain is up front.  Once I start the writing, I get to focus in on that and don’t have to worry about going astray.  I still re-write and edit like crazy, but I’d say the planning cuts the re-writes in half, at least.  I don’t have to do structural changes, just cosmetic work and that saves a ton of time!

I recommend it highly.

There you go!  Now it’s up to Emily and Kat to take up the blog hop banner and continue to build that pyramid.  Please check out their blogs and their work!

Bruce