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Description

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There’s something to consider when you describe something or someone in fiction: are you describing them directly, or indirectly? One thing I keep getting on freelance clients about (maybe to an extreme) is the idea that they’re “saying something simple in a complicated way.” Sure, I want writers to flex their artistic muscles and come up with amazing descriptions, novel words, and interesting turns of phrase. But the more I read, the more I can appreciate the sense of style that lies in simple…simplicity.

The same applies when I see something or someone described indirectly, usually with a comparison to another known quantity in the story or in the negative.

Comparison:

Henry is just like Craig, except a little rowdier.
Each hill was like the last, covered in flaxen wheat.

Negative:

Craig didn’t have Henry’s nerve or sense of outgoing frenzy.
This sky was not the bright orange of a sunset, not bright or dazzling in hue.

Rather than telling me what Henry’s like, or what Craig is like, or what the hill or sunset are in their own terms, I’m meant to understand them from the side with an indirect comparison. This is totally fine. I won’t sound the alarm if you should use it occasionally.

But sometimes I wish writers would take a more direct line. If we’re talking about Henry, let’s talk about Henry. (And, ideally, we wouldn’t be telling about character, either.) If we’re talking about the sunset, let’s get to what it is, rather than what it isn’t. It seems almost too simple, almost like a trick. But sometimes it’s good to relax and expand a bit into your writing without worry about flexing any muscles or tying too many strings together. Look directly at the story element and show us around it. Give it a place in your world that’s unique to it, that’s simple, that’s direct. There’s boldness in that, and clarity.

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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 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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You’re writing a novel and putting a lot of images, events, characters, settings, and objects into it. Grand! A lot of manuscripts don’t take the necessary step after this, however, and connect the dots. If you introduce a character early on, they should work their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of your plot. Images should reappear and gain significance each time. A bird in chapter one will ideally have new shades of meaning halfway through the book, and then even more in the final chapter. Settings should change as the plot unfolds, meaning that the quarry your protagonist runs away to on a carefree summer day might change drastically when she takes a boyfriend there at night. Not only might your character experience these images, events, places, and people, you should keep in mind how your protagonist reacts to them.

Imagine a photograph of two people you’ve never seen before, young girls playing table tennis. To a random stranger, this elicits little or no reaction. But imagine if you were the girls’ mother, looking at the photograph? Or one of the girls, but maybe thirty years down the line? That object has now become imbued with some very personal emotions. Give the important secondary elements of your manuscript significance by building a relationship between them and your main character. These relationships can change and evolve over time.

Mimic the human brain and don’t let your characters think linearly. This means that you shouldn’t just bring an important secondary element to the page when it’s convenient or right when it’s needed. In between encounters with that bird that keeps reappearing or a character who is crucial to the plot, let your main character remember them or wonder about them. That’s too convenient, and it plays on the surface. Free yourself from only referencing one of your carefully chosen story points when it’s needed and let them form a richer tapestry using your character’s inner life.

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One of the most important notes I can give to an aspiring writer is a gentle reminder that they should start in the present moment when they begin their story. Often, a story will start with generalizations or philosophy. Maybe a description of the weather or a person’s mood. Perhaps physical details or action that hasn’t really been given a time or place. For example, take this:

First days of school were always the worst. They made Caylee feel bad. Nothing was ever exactly how she wanted it to be, and she supposed that was the point of life. But first days were the worst, because they combined a hope she should’ve probably learned to ignore by now with the eventual disappointment of growing up.

Not only is there telling about emotion (“They made Caylee feel bad”) but the writer here (me) is hitting the reader over the head with the coming of age theme of growing up and tempering expectations. Yawn. Notice that we don’t have a concrete place yet, nor do we have a specific time (it’s the first day of school but is the character at home in the early morning, on her way to homeroom, reflecting on it at night, etc. etc. etc.).

The reader is in limbo and, without any additional action that could potentially make this clunker of an opening go down more smoothly, there’s really nothing here to hold on to in any serious way.

Your beginning is Prime Real Estate, remember. Not only do you want to start strong and grabby, but you also want to get away from the vague, get away from the general, get away from the philosophy, stop writing bumper sticker expressions of your theme, and go toward the specific and the well-defined. In that vein, a reboot of the above example could be something like:

Caylee tried to close her locker but the stupid thing stuck. Only five minutes before homeroom on yet another “first day of school” that she was supposed to be so excited about. She imagined what it would be like to walk in late and have everyone staring at her. Suddenly the brand new white toes of her brand new pink Converse felt fake–like she was obviously trying way too hard. She kicked the locker door closed and scuffed her right shoe. Great. A visual reminder of how perfect-seeming days usually ended in disappointment.

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but we know exactly when and where we are, and I’m still working with some of the same emotions and ideas. Notice how the much more specific thoughts about them really help do away with that limbo/hazy/floaty feeling inspired by vague statements like “the eventual disappointment of growing up” and “First days of school were always the worst.” These same issues have now become much more specific to the time and place, and also to the character.

Make sure that, within the first two paragraphs, the reader can always point to exactly where and when your story starts. If you need a lot of time to get to grounding your reader, you haven’t found your beginning just yet.

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I sat down at the computer to write a blog post when I started thinking… Gosh, it’s really weird how I’m writing this blog post on March 8th, but it won’t be posted until March 14th, because I’m loading my blog up ahead of my trip to Paaaaaaaaaaaaaris! Wow. I can’t believe I go to France tomorrow. An eleven-hour direct flight from San Francisco. I’m going to go stircrazy on that plane, and then I’ll have to navigate the Métro. Can’t complain, though! It’s Paris, after all. Hmm. I wonder if my readers know that I’m writing from the past. What will it be like on March 14th? That day, I’ll be in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy wine country. Mmm…wine country…

A noise from the hall sneaked into my thoughts, pulling me out of my reverie about pinot noir. “That’s right!” I muttered to myself. “I’m supposed to be writing a blog post!”

***

It’s difficult to describe disconnecting a character from his thoughts. This action is usually laden with cliché after cliché after cliché. Voices sneaking into thought. Dialogue snapping a character out of their thinking. Noises startling. Talk of reveries (as you can see above). Fog and/or haze lifting. Being lost in thought. And on and on.

I’m sick of all of them, basically. I would recommend that you avoid this altogether. If a noise is going to come from the hall mid-thought, describe it, then jump back into narrative. If dialogue intrudes, show us the dialogue, and then get into the swing of things, maybe with one descriptive phrase so the transition isn’t so jarring. Just like you should eliminate the frame, you don’t need to tell us that thoughts have been interrupted. Give us the thoughts. Give us the interruption. Then give us the results. It’s that simple. The narrative of the thought actually stopping is fluff that should be easy to trim.

An example:

Blah blah blah. Wine country. France. Thinking thinking thinking.

“Mary, write your blog post already!” Mary said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh!” Mary wondered how long she’d been spacing. “Duh. Thanks, Mary!”

There’s that one descriptive phrase in there, to get the reader back into the action, but you could even do without it because the “Oh!” conveys surprise or a startled feeling. This issue is a very small nitpick, but, as I said, every word and every phrase counts in your writing.

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There’s a little thing that writers do that bugs me: It’s called a frame. Basically, it’s everything around the necessary information that doesn’t really help your reader understand anything, it’s just superfluous. Here’s an exaggerated example to prove my point:

She saw with her eyes that there was an elephant standing impossibly in the castle’s ballroom.

Or you could simply say:

An elephant stood, proud, tall, and incongruous, in the middle of the castle’s ballroom.

Frames are everywhere. And they are all fat, so trim them. Every time you describe that your character saw, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted something, see if you can’t drill into the more essential information of the sentence and cut out the unnecessary words. Instead of, “He smelled the cakes fresh out of the oven and they filled the room with warm cinnamon,” focus on the latter half of the sentence to set the mood. (And kudos to you if you’re using all five senses in your writing, including taste, smell, and touch, which often take a backseat to sight and hearing!)

No matter if you’re telling your story in first person or third, you are basically saying, “This is what my character experienced” when you write a picture book or novel. There’s no reason to keep saying, “She experienced such and such,” which is basically what you’re reminding your reader of each time you use a frame. Simply get straight to the such and such. It’s a small trick (and therefore a short post) but it will make your writing that much leaner and cleaner.

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Here’s an interesting question from Anne:

I’m looking for clever ways to write physical descriptions of first person narrators. It’s just so awkward to have people describe their own looks. I’ve heard that editors are sick of the old “I stared in the mirror” approach. I’ve used the self-effacing “I wish I were better looking” approach, but that too seems overdone.

I have to admit, when I read some bad character self-description in a manuscript, it makes me wince. Never in my life have I, for example, “examined my dark brown locks in the mirror, giving my tall frame a once-over, and wishing, for once, that my blue-green eyes would just pick a color and stick with it.” Who thinks like that? The obvious problem is, of course, that we may think like this if we were seeing ourselves for the first time, but most of us are very familiar with what’s in the mirror. In this case, I feel like we’re all expecting the contrived, super unique self-description, and we’re already groaning about it. What you can do instead is stop trying to make the character’s self-description into a creativity moment and just tell us the details that we need to know.

“I swatted a clump of black hair out of my eyes and ran down the field,” or whatever.

Don’t be too precious about it, don’t put physical description in dialogue unless you can get it to sound organic (none of this “But gosh, that skirt looks really great with your hazel eyes” stuff, that doesn’t sound like authentic speech, we would just say “your eyes” because both characters know what color they’re referring to), and don’t think this is your big opportunity to revolutionize character self-description. Less is definitely more, so just tell us (yes, you can tell and not show in this case) and move on. That’s what I say. This is a frustrating question because I’ve seen it done very poorly, and most likely not noticed when it’s done really well, and would just rather have the necessary details out of the way. I’m guessing your character’s look isn’t the most important thing about the story, so all we need are a few details peppered in.

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