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If I had a series about, well, series, I’d make a few key points. Namely, there’s my old yarn about writing your story as having “series potential” instead of REQUIRING a three- or five- or nine-book contract to execute your idea properly. We’re not in the Harry Potter boom years anymore, nor are we deep in a recession, but the market is still risk-averse. And signing up a debut writer for one unknown book, let alone three unknown books, represents a potential opportunity, sure, but also a big potential loss for the house. Basically, you’re in a much stronger position if you write one amazing manuscript with “series potential” (a few threads left open and the suggestion of future adventures that could be exploited) and then have the publisher asking you for a sequel, than you would be if you were the one needing multiple books to get your story told.

Now, how do you leave those threads open in a way that keeps your sequel options open while letting your manuscript seem whole enough to stand alone? Ah, now this is a good question. First, I would recommend that no more than three threads be left open. And they should be subplot threads with maybe one main plot thread, not all main plot threads. Your job is to resolve most of those by the end of Book 1. If you’re ending on a cliff-hanger or you’re leaving the main plot undecided, you’re not paying attention to everything the current market is telling you about sequels.

If, however, you haven’t entirely resolved one character’s problem, and your protagonist is still wondering about a certain element of the subplot, and the ending feels buttoned-up but you’ve hinted at the potential that everything could go to hell in a handbasket at some point in the future, then you’re doing it right. Future threat that may or may not come to pass is compelling enough to use as a launching-off point for a sequel. Present threat that’s not resolved slaps your reader in the face after they’ve spent four hours reading your story with a, “Yeah, you’ll have to buy the next installment and find out.”

Another thing I’ve noticed in a few manuscript is that seemingly random details are planted that stick out like a sore thumb. They have little bearing on the story that we’ve been reading so far. What gives? Invariably, the writer admits that they are “seeds being planted for the sequel.” This balances on the razor’s edge between “smart” and “silly.”

Let’s say that you are definitely planning a sequel if only someone would give you one, so you’re sneaking things into the manuscript that will only make sense once you get to execute the second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) parts of the story you’re envisioning. That’s fine. To a point. But if the last third of your book starts to read like the prologue to Book 2, you’re in trouble with the reader. “Why are we spending so much time talking about something that has no precedent in the entire story I’ve just read?” they’ll wonder.

Balance is key to most things, in life and in fiction. Plant some details, leave some threads. But stick to your principles and your duties to the reader. Finish up the story you’ve invited them to read. That is first and foremost. Once you have a really solid resolution, then you can plant a few seeds. If you never get to do that sequel, they will be nonsense at worst, and not many people will notice. But if you’ve gone overboard and every second page hints at something that has no bearing on the present denouement, you’ve overstepped your bounds.

 

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If you’ve read any of Donald Maass’ work, you may be familiar with the idea of “bridging conflict.” It’s a small bit of conflict before the inciting incident (the event that launches the plot) comes along. I want to talk about it in a little bit more detail.

But first, some empathizing. Writers are bombarded with advice (guilty as charged here, I know I’ve definitely contributed to this). Jump right into the action. Don’t just right in. Let’s have the inciting incident within the first 10 pages. You’re rushing into it! We need a physical description of your protagonist on the first page. You’re focusing on details that don’t matter! Don’t tell, show! Don’t show, tell! AAAH! It’s crazymaking.

And I’m seeing the effects of this confusion on writers who are trying to check all the boxes that they may have read about on well-meaning blogs and in helpful books. One symptom of this that I want to discuss today is starting too big. Yes. This is going to be one of those bits of advice that is controversial, because it seems contradictory.

Everywhere you look, you see blogs telling you to start with action, start big, and get readers hooked right away. And there’s a lot of good to this advice. It’s a great kick in the rear for writers who like to begin with twenty pages of chit-chat and backstory before anything actually happens. This is telling upon telling, and it’s likely your readers aren’t sticking around until your first plot point.

So is the natural antidote to this an explosion on page two? That might seem like a good idea. And I’m seeing it more and more. But let me tell you why it’s a well-meaning thought gone awry. I liken this situation to a first date. You meet a guy or gal at a restaurant after chatting online for a bit. In this situation, you’re very much like a fiction reader. You liked the cute cover, you liked the interesting blurb, you want to give this book a shot and devote a few hours of your time to it. You start some small talk, and, if you’re on a date with one of those slow-starting manuscripts, your date is likely to talk for the entire duration of dinner, filling you in on their entire life up until this point. That’s undesirable, right? Well, let’s talk about the flip side. What if your date suddenly has a massive episode and flops to the floor, seizing, before the first round of drinks arrives?

How do you feel (other than, you know, horrified because you’re a nice person)? It’s bizarre to imagine. Why? Because it’s too big. It’s an event but it’s too high stakes, too dangerous, too sudden. You don’t even know the guy. If he were to be hauled off in an ambulance, you wouldn’t know who to call because you just met him!

In opening a novel, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to blab for three hours, but you also don’t want to open with “Hey guess what, there’s a prophecy and you’re the chosen one to save the world. So, you know, get to it, kiddo.” One is too small on plot, one is too big. That’s why smart people like Donald Maass advocate for “bridging conflict” to start. You want to start with some action to get tension brewing. Maybe a conversation with one’s crush, or anxiety about an upcoming test, or a sibling getting in trouble and asking for help. Let that be the focus of the first chapter. And if this conflict is related to the main plot, even better. But it’s not the main plot, not yet. Because we have to care about the character before we’ll follow them through a really rigorous plot full of stakes, ups, and downs. Just like we should probably get to know our unlucky date a bit more before we’ll hop into the ambulance and follow him to the hospital.

Because before we have established a connection using some smaller, more manageable conflict, the protagonist is just a kid. The reader hasn’t bonded yet. The intricate relationship between the fictional entity and the audience is still too new, too tenuous. But once we get to know the hero a little bit, we start to invest. Just like if the date goes horribly wrong near the end of the night, it’s not just some guy who’s having an attack, it’s Pete! Who grew up three blocks away from you! And he’s allergic to peanuts! And why, oh why, did you order pad thai for the table?! And you’re that much more likely to care, to feel, to buy in. Keep it manageable at first, then ramp up the stakes and really get rolling on your main conflict.

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I’ve said often that the character is one of the main elements of a story that guides reader reaction/involvement. We look to characters to assess how we should be reacting, what we should believe, whether or not we should get invested. That’s what makes unreliable narrators so tricky–by the very nature of fiction, we, as readers, rely on the characters for a lot of our cues.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working with quite a number of fantasy/sci-fi clients in my editorial business. And one of the biggest things I’ve been thinking about is “Character buy-in.” Before we’re ready to believe that dinosaurs roam the earth again (or whatever), the character has to believe it. Only then will the reader go along with the story and feel safe suspending disbelief. (We show up to the page with a certain willingness, but before we fully believe it, it has to be successfully sold to the protagonist or POV character.)

Let’s run with the dinosaur example, and I’m going to tell you a few issues that I’ve noticed when character buy-in isn’t accomplished as thoughtfully as it can be. The first issue is vacillation or flip-flopping. The second issue I’ll call “characterization friction.”

Flip-flopping. Let’s say we have a character who sees some dinosaurs running around à la Jurassic Park. It’s natural to question one’s eyesight and/or sanity if this happens, and your character can certainly do both of those things. But once that’s out of the way, it’s harmful to reader engagement to keep questioning whether they’re dreaming or not. Let’s say we see the dinosaurs on page 10 and have an immediate “Nuh-uh, this isn’t really happening” reaction. By page 11, once the dinosaurs have destroyed the school, the protagonist starts to buy in. “Maybe this is happening.” By page 12, they’re back in denial again. “This is all a dream and I’m going to wake up every second.” For the reader, who is waiting for the green light to buy into the story, this will get old very quickly. As long as the character keeps flip-flopping as to whether they’re going to play along with the plot, the reader subconsciously holds off going 100% into the story. You can do this once or twice, but there needs to be a moment that I can point to on the page where the protagonist decides, “This is real and I’m going to function as if it’s real from now on.” After that, no “I must be dreaming” business. You’ve devised the plot, now sell it and run with it.

Another issue here is that you’ve created a character who may clash with the overall plot, especially when it comes to buying in. If your super hippie-dippy out-there character refuses to believe that auras are taking over people’s bodies (the first example to come to mind, and it’s super lame, my apologies!), that strikes me as less likely. If that same character jumps into it and says, “This is super weird but I’m going along for the ride,” then I’m more likely to join her, because your characterization matches how she’s clicking into the story.

If you have an overly analytical, scientifically minded kid who is thrust into the dinosaur plot, and they jump into the deep end right away, there’s friction there for me. This character might need more proof, they might need to establish their own version of the truth before they can suspend disbelief. Long story short, characterization should be consistent with buy-in style, and without vacillating for too long.

This seems pretty self-explanatory, but I’m seeing some dissonance here as of late. What’s the moment your protagonist buys in? Is it decisive? Is their willingness to believe your story fast or slow? Is there flip-flopping? This moment is very important, because it’s guiding your reader, too.

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Most people who start out wanting to write picture books have an idea with a bit of a point to it. It’s usually a lesson about living that they’re eager to pass on to impressionable young minds. Even if that lesson is zany and fun and uplifting, rather than moral or serious in nature, there’s still an element of “Let’s distill some life experience for these young’uns.” Even if it’s not as conscious or overt as all that, teaching is still part of the urge that draws people to writing for the youngest readers.

And there’s definitely a way to act upon these instincts and get across to these impressionable readers. Absolutely! But it’s not to preach or state your “message” aloud. Today’s market, and discerning young readers, don’t much appreciate the, “And then we all learned to share” kumbaya moment at the end of the book where everyone lives happily ever after in peaceful coexistence.

Not only is it a bit Picture Book 101 to tell this kind of moralizing story, but think of your audience. You want to avoid the situation of “wise older character comes and tells younger character all about how life works.” Kids get this all the time from parents, grandparents, teachers, older siblings, pastors, babysitters, etc. They receive a lot of the “should” type of education.

This way of conveying your idea also doesn’t show your child audience the utmost respect. Why? It implies (even if you didn’t mean it to, and many writers don’t!) that the kid doesn’t know all that much about much, and that it takes a wiser (usually older) character to set them straight. This takes all the power away from the kid and gives it to an adult. Again. Just like what happens all over your average 3-7 year-old’s daily life. That’s not as sympathetic to their experience.

They come to stories for maybe another way of getting information. Maybe the “message” is buried in subtext, below the surface. It arises naturally from something the character might experience or realize as they journey through the story you’ve created. I urge every aspiring picture book writer to try and stretch beyond this, maybe to the point where the character realizes some things, or better yet, comes up with the solution to the problem, all by themselves. Through seeing it experienced by a relatable character, kids will interpret your meaning on a deeper and more approachable level.

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A big part of my job when I work with clients is to help them see their manuscripts as I see them. And what I see, a lot of the time, is opportunity to tighten the overall prose. One subtle function of wanting to pare down (other than overwriting, which we discussed in last week’s post), is noticing when you’re including filler.

Whenever you’re working with first person or close third POV, it is understood that your protagonist (or POV character) is narrating the scene. They are your lens, in effect. Especially in first person, as a few cases can be made to the contrary in third.

So when a scene is described, as in:

She noticed a man sitting in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. She saw his downtrodden expression and heard what could’ve only been a sigh issuing from his lips.

It’s assumed that the main character is there, seeing and hearing everything, in order to relay it back to the reader. Technically, they can’t narrate what they haven’t become aware of in the first place, yanno?

There are three instances of filler here. “She noticed,” “she saw,” and “she heard.” We simply don’t need this. Don’t waste time narrating that, oh yeah, your character who’s been hearing and seeing everything that’s been described in the book so far has also seen and heard this. That’s beyond implied.

Instead, a cleaner, tighter revision might read:

A man sat in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. He wore a downtrodden expression and issued what could’ve only been a sigh.

I’ll be the absolute first to tell you that this is an extremely nitpicky note. “Why does it matter whether or not I cut SIX WORDS from this description? It’s six words!” Or 18% of the sample in question. I know not every sentence of yours is going to have filler, but if you cut even 9% or even 4.5% out of a manuscript that people say is running too lengthy at 100,000 words, that’s 18,000, 9,000 or 4,500 words, respectively!

Little nitpicky things make a big difference in the long run, and if all of your sentences get a little tighter, the perceived difference to the reader (how quickly the pacing moves, how smoothly the descriptions read, how efficiently we get from scene to scene) will be worth much more than the actual number of words you’ve trimmed.

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This is a note I give a lot in my work with clients. It goes: “Saying something simple in a complicated way.” I know exactly why people do it. But it often has detrimental effects on that one holy grail of writing that people strive for, voice.

For example:

The sky is blue.
The heavens swirl with shades of the purest cerulean.

Yikes. I mean, sure, we want to be remembered for prose that has at least a little bit of flair because our unique authorial voices are what distinguish us from the other guy. At the same time, there’s a delicate balance between substance and style. If style trumps substance, often to the point where the substance is almost unrecognizable, you have a problem. The reader will be lost in your Baroque description and lose the meaning. And that’s not good for their overall focus and, as a result, involvement in your story.

Do I feel like a bit of an idiot writing such inane description as “The sky is blue”? Sure. But sometimes the sky is blue and it needs to be described as blue and the simplest answer is the most difficult: just write “The sky is blue” and move on to developing character or plot.

Why does this bother us so much, as writers? Why do we have to twist ourselves into sentence pretzels and dive into the thesaurus to turn out a description that’s unlike any anyone has ever written?

I call this Writer With a Capital W syndrome. A writer’s trade is her vocabulary, natural voice, and ability to express herself. So writing “The sky is blue” feels like a total cop out. Instead we, especially those beginning writers out there, want to really strut our stuff and prove our worth. We lace the sentence with adjectives or adverbs, we choose really zippy verbs, we labor over every image to make sure that the reader is going to see exactly what we want them to see in their pretty little heads, so help us God. I imagine Writers With a Capital W have a lot of steam coming out of their ears after all that darn concentration.

The thing is, though, sometimes it’s okay to loosen the reigns a bit and let the scene we’re creating speak for itself. Our imagery and writing prowess doesn’t need to be on display every second. In fact, that demands a lot of the reader and tends to skew focus away from the story we’re telling. And that, at the end of the day, is the heart of it. Substance needs to trump style. Not all the time, but a lot.

If you’ve ever been accused of trying too hard, purple prose, overwriting, or not killing your darlings, listen up. There’s no shame in simplifying it a bit and letting the content of the sentence, not the flair with which it is written, stand out. In fact, it may be a welcome break from all that wordsmithing!

Sealed with a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!),
Mary

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Stalling Out

This post discusses a “technique” that I often catch in manuscripts. Here I’ll attempt to describe it and guess at what’s behind this phenomenon. Simply put, it’s stalling.

As savvy writers, you already know that you need to give your character an objective (something to shoot for over the course of the story) and a motivation (a personal and relatable reason for doing so). If you’ve done this, you are well on your way to having the two main tools of character and plot installed in your story already. Bravo!

But sometimes a strange thing happens. You have the proverbial “To Do” list, but all sorts of smaller errands end up worming their way in place of the main action, which should be pursuing that objective. First, they can’t get the Key until they go talk to Person X, and Person X isn’t home, so they have to rough up Person Y for details on Person X’s whereabouts, and when they finally get to Person X, they’re not talking…all for the Key, which turns out to be a very small part of the overall objective.

By giving your character objective and motivation in the first place, whether you know it or not, you’re promising to the reader, “Hey, you get to watch this protagonist do this stuff in the interest of pursuing his ultimate goal.” Every time we deviate from that, it better be for a good reason. In the above example about Keys and Person Xs, you should be able to see how a deviation can spin out of control into its own mini plotline. But if we zoom back out and look at the grand scheme of things, the Key ends up useless and we never see Person X again.

So is this a valuable component of your plot or is it stalling where you really should be working toward the main objective? The more tedious the digression, the more the reader feels further from the “To Do” list, and the more they may feel jerked around. In an, “I thought this was going to be a story about dragons but now I feel like I’m picking up the protagonist’s dry cleaning for 50 pages” sort of way.

Why does this happen? Writers sometimes have a hard time seeing the big picture of their story. Or they just love a scene or character (maybe even Person X) so much that they don’t want to do the cutting that honestly could be done.

Or the writer is terrified of the Muddy Middle phenomenon where the midsection of the story seems like it’s unraveling or rambling without direction. So they insert a lot of “stuff” into the middle in the hopes that this satisfies the reader. “What do you mean, I have a Muddy Middle?” they ask. “Look at all this STUFF that’s happening!”

But stuff isn’t the same as action which furthers the plot. That’s another way of saying action that brings the character either closer or further away from their objective, while impacting that “To Do” list along the way. This is the bull’s eye. And when we don’t see the bull’s eye any more, because we’ve taken a detour somewhere to pick up some dry cleaning, your stakes will likely dip and your pacing is going to be affected.

If you’re struggling with a plot that stalls out, set your protagonist out in the pursuit of the objective and don’t waver from this path for too long with things that don’t DIRECTLY impact the outcome.

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This post isn’t about describing something nicely versus being mean. It’s more about how to best be direct in your description. I think of a “positive” description as a description of something that IS. A “negative” description, then, attempts to describe what something isn’t.

Examples:

Her purse didn’t hold the normal wallet/sunglasses/keys combination.
His smile didn’t invite you to sit down for a chat.
The garage was remarkable because it didn’t contain a vehicle.

You get my drift. Sometimes, like with the middle example, a negative description is an interesting, perhaps voice-y or sarcastic way of getting your point across. The guy in the example isn’t happy to see whoever, and it’s obvious, no matter that he’s trying to smile. I’d buy that. The other descriptions, though, draw out the narrative because they are roundabout. Instead of revealing just what’s in the purse (a gun, say) or garage (alien laboratory, perhaps), we’re first told: “What you’re expecting to be in this purse or garage is, in fact, not in this garage.”

Well, yeah. If a gun is in the purse or an alien laboratory is in the garage, the reader will immediately know that this isn’t Grandma’s purse or Dad’s garage. So that part can remain implied, as all of our purse- and garage-related illusions are about to shatter.

Long story short, the negative description can sometimes be interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s more direct and less redundant to cut to the chase, cut out negative description, and describe what IS rather than what ISN’T.

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There are some elements of life which do not translate well to onto the page. Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene.

My theory on them, frustrating as it is, boils down to: some things are better in life or the screen. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text message or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”

The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply to intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. And I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” the emotions of another by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which also saps the life.

Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice, the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.

When you write, for example…

“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.

…you are taking a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? Because ideally you’d be putting the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could.

Instead, if you write…

“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”

…you can mix in a little action, you cut the dialogue in half with the tag so that you generate a little suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does. Using something like this and context clues (I would imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you can convey menace without once saying the word.

Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool.

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I’ve been working a lot with editorial clients on the idea of interiority. I’ve written a lot about it, both in the book and on the blog. One of my favorite posts, which serves as good preparation for this post, is here. A lot of writers do balk on the issue of, “Well, if I share the character’s thoughts/feelings/reactions, isn’t that just another version of telling?” As we all know from the old adage, telling bad, showing good. (Here’s a handy post as to why that’s such a popular dictum.)

It’s true that, when you use interiority, you are technically telling. But if you think about it, you tell all the time in writing. A storm is brewing. She puts her phone on the coffee table, waiting for it to ring. The car is blue. Telling is alive and well in fiction and there’s no need to make it the enemy, except for when you tell about characters and emotions. (She is a bully. He is sad.) That’s what really makes prose lie flat on the page, and that is where we want writers to stretch a little and show how she treats other people, or how he’s ready to give up on himself, and what that might look like to this particular character. Of course, I would prefer that you do this without using too many familiar physical clichés (butterflies in the stomach for nerves, heart fluttering for love, etc.)

I could go on and on about this issue. And there are a lot of shades to it, as you can tell. By now, you probably feel like I’m putting you in an impossible box. “I need to tell when it makes sense to tell, but not when it comes to emotions, which I should show, only I can’t use hearts, eyes, stomachs, or any other physical clichés to show the visceral effect of the emotions… WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING, MARY KOLE, AND WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME CRAZY?”

Whoa, buddy. Take a step back. All of these posts are to help you think about what interiority truly is, and when you should aim to tell, and aim to show. Take what makes sense to you, leave what doesn’t. I hope some sort of larger logic emerges once you study this part of my story theory. In the meantime, there’s also another subtle use of interiority that completely circumvents the show vs. tell argument. A cheat! Brilliant!

Well, maybe not a cheat, but definitely another tool you can use. It’s subtle interiority. And the best way of explaining it is “emotion in description.” This works whether you’re in third person (usually close third is the best candidate) or first. And it’s a key component, for me, anyway, of that other frustrating concept: voice.

The key is to inject emotion toward an outward object, place, or person via description or narration. If someone is annoying, maybe your character describes them as “grating her way through the story.” Compare that to “she told a story.” Changing one verb lends emotion to it, and, without showing or telling, we come to understand that the narrator doesn’t think much of the object of the description. We get emotion secondhand without having to conquer it directly. Look at how emotion creeps in:

“He parked his vehicle” vs. “His gaudy Beemer sleazed across two parking spots” (exaggerated, of course)
“She ate a sandwich” vs. “She pecked at her food”
“He kissed her” vs. “He slimed her” vs. “He devoured her”

I’m mostly doing this with verbs so far, but you can play with adjectives, too:

“The skyline” vs. “The noxious smog-obscured wasteland” vs. “The glittering metropolis”
“The countryside” vs. “The tranquil retreat” vs. “The cauldron of boredom”
“Her face” vs. “Her luminous visage” vs. “Her fug mug”

And here’s where this all comes back to voice and character. The guy who waxes poetic about his crush’s “luminous visage” is not the same as the catty girl who knocks her former acolyte’s “fug mug.” Description should contain hints at emotion, which is another way of incorporating interiority, defining character, and developing voice. Whew! It’s all coming together, folks!

 

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