This week: Writing Solid Descriptions That DeliverEdited by: Joy
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“In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."
C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children
“Whenever you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you – a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little squeeze of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene in front of you.”
“Salander was an information junkie with a delinquent child's take on morals and ethics.”
Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
“No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed to almost vanish when seen edge on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing and a ghost light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew that it was sharper than any razor.”
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Hello, I am Joy , this week's drama editor. This issue is about writing descriptions that do not bore the readers.
Thank you for reading our newsletters and for supplying the editors with feedback and encouragement.
Note: In the editorial, I refer to third person singular as he, to also mean the female gender, because I don't like to use they or he/she.
Welcome to the Drama newsletter and Happy Holidays!
It is not difficult to interpret what description is, but even for a good writer, this is a complicated skill to master. Description is painting in words a person, place, event, or thing as if collecting treasures. This begins with observation and viewing in the mind’s eye those objects, places, people, or things vividly and if you are writing a fantasy story or something like it, seeing them through imagination. You can achieve this end using your powers of observation of everyday things, persons, and actions and by noting the details about them and also thinking of metaphors they may inspire.
The next step is to select the right words to define what is there to see and experience. If the words that come to mind don’t seem adequate, think harder, and even use a thesaurus or a dictionary. Never mind those instructors who tell you not to do that. You want the best for your story, in any way you can write it.
Even if some of their usages are unavoidable, try to limit the adjectives you use because adjectives encourage clichés, as in (funny, dry, evil) bone. Instead, come up with something original by possibly using elaboration techniques, as in:
"Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still."
Henry David Thoreau
As in the above example, if you read with an eye for description the works of a master author, you'll find many specific details. Also, note how Thoreau sets you as the character, and in motion.
In the same vein, when describing a character, do not write only his physical attributes; for example, Jennie had blue eyes.
Now check what another wonderful author did with blue eyes.
“I should've known the eyes. Wide, bright blue, and something about the delicate arc of the lids: a cat's slant, a pale jeweled girl in an old painting, a secret.”
Tana French, The Secret Place
Now, let’s look at a couple of examples of how experienced authors approach a subject in comparison to what a novice may do with the same subject.
Novice ~ Ada’s was the attic bedroom with a tallow candle by the bedside window.~
Author: “Ada’s was the attic bedroom, and she liked riding storms while she slept. Tonight was dead calm; from the bitch light by the bedside window rose an even flame. She still called it a bitch light, although it was a tallow candle.”
By Annie Dillard, The Living
Novice ~In the garden, he looked down at the ground and saw huge red ants. ~
Author: “In the garden, he looked down at the bare, baked earth. The huge red ants were rushing along the ground waving their front legs and mandibles belligerently in the air. “
By Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Now, I am going to mention one of my pet peeves, those several-paragraphs-long descriptions and any other long expository sections that do not help the progression of the plot. It feels to me as if some authors, seasoned and novice alike, to show off their prowess with words and florid descriptions, are wasting my time through their boasting. It isn’t just me though. Many readers skip reading those sections and look for the action in a fictional piece. To avoid that, the best way is to set those long descriptive sections aside but still use them by inserting them into the action of the story, piece by piece in the tiniest amounts.
In the first place, a good description doesn’t have to take a very large space. Hemingway, who is well known for his economy in word usage, comes up with striking descriptions, even though the reader may not even realize he is describing something because, more often than not, he inserts one of his characters into the description.
“They say informally around a stripped-pine kitchen table. Behind him was a matching dresser, opposite him a picture window through which he could see a cluster of damp sheep, then rising pastureland, which disappeared into low cloud.”
Ernest Hemingway, The Novelist in the Countryside
A few other additional pointers after observing and finding the right words can be:
• Learn and use the exact names of things such as ferrule for the metal part of the pencil.
• Focus on the matching of the sounds of the words when placing them in a row.
• Describe through negatives, which is telling what your subject is not.
Her perfume wasn’t heavy and greasy like cooking oil.
He didn’t notice any girl, her rucksack, her green eyes, or her short hair. No, he knew he wouldn’t. He shouldn't.
• Even opposites in abstractions can evoke a sensory response.
For example: The sound of silence
• Always use active construction, unless it is absolutely necessary.
May your writing always express the riches of your pen.
Until next time!
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This Issue's Tip: Most descriptions can be adequate, but they can do more, if they utilize your character's reactions to what is being described.
Feedback for "Can Several Characters Tell Your Story?"
Another great newsletter! I'm usually a one-POV writer because my narrators are usually first-person. However, my main novel has three first-person narrators. Like you suggest, when they're speaking they have their own chapters, but even so a couple of times I've tripped myself up where I've had one big scene but it's told by two people (across two chapters). However, I love writing this way because I know a lot more about my MC now, through the other two characters! Have you read You by Zoran Drvenkar? At least nine POVs, all told in second-person 'you'. Complicated but easy to read all in one. And an amazing twist that you don't see until the end when you realise that second-person narration is fabulous for unreliable narrators!
Thank you! No, I haven't read that book, but now that you put it in my mind, second-person POV would be interesting. I like to use the first person POV, too, especially in the first draft, and if it doesn't work, the POV can be changed easily enough. Thanks for the input.
SkyHawk - Into The Music
I agree with much of what you're saying here. To me, there are very few characters in a story that are throw away; if they're there, they're there for a reason. How big or small that reason is will vary with the character, the setting other characters, etc.
More than a few times, I've had to stop writing my story because I needed to jot down something I'd learned about a character in the process. IN one instance, I 'id had no idea that a medium level character was a widower and former Marine until he thought back on a part of his life. When that happens, you need to let it happen, lest you miss out on something key and human about that character.
Yes, we have to let the character tell his story, and it helps if the writer, during the process of writing, thinks of the story as the character's story and not the writer's. Thanks for the feedback.
Write 2 Publish 2020
I wrote my book with 2 POV Matthew and his chapters as his search for his grandmother continued and his Grandmother, Katherine, had her chapters. the trick is leaving a hook at the end of each chapter to keep the reader turning the page to find out what happened as they left the last Character.
Thanks for the input. Hooks at the end of the chapters are very important especially in the first five or ten chapters. How else can we get the readers read our stories!
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