On Writing: Deconstructing Descriptive Passages

A. F. Stewart, author of Inside Realms, has accepted my invitation to be a guest host. Stewart is from Nova Scotia, and writes fantasy stories and poetry. Stewart tells us:

Wandering through cyberspace’s social networking, I have come across many an aspiring writer eagerly posting their work for comments and critiques.  As a result I have learned two things:  that the internet is alive with writers with notable, appealing ideas and many of these aspiring writers have problems creating a good descriptive scene.   These would-be writers either construct a simple methodical listing of the scene’s surroundings or they fill a scene with unnecessary detail punctuated with fluffy adjectives/adverbs.  Both of these ways of writing a narrative scene can render a piece of work tedious and mediocre.

The straight descriptive technique reads like an inventory list, is a quick way to lose a reader to boredom, and buries talent in uninspired prose.  Never write is an illustrative scene where you simply tick off the surroundings in an orderly fashion.

Here is an example of a list-like description:

Butch was standing on the back porch, staring at the garden.  To his right were the red rose bushes, beside the pink azalea bushes.  The two cedar trees were at the back, along the stone garden wall, and the cobblestone path ran through the middle of the garden.  To his left were the lilac bushes and the lilies.

Now that described the garden well enough, but did you care?  Did you feel like you were there with Butch, or would like to be?

Now this passage:

 Butch was standing on the back porch, in the fading light, staring at the early summer garden.  He could smell the heady scent of rose bushes wafting on the slight breeze.  He turned his head to the right, noticing how well their deep red colour mixed with the pink of the nearby azalea bushes.  Movement by the back stone wall caught his attention; he chuckled as a squirrel raced up one of the two cedar trees that grew against the wall. 

He could hear the drone of the hummingbirds and the sweet chirping of the sparrows, and spied them flitting among the lilies and white lilac bushes that bloomed in the left side of the garden.  There were chickadees feeding on the winding cobblestone path; Jessica had most likely thrown them some seeds earlier.

It is far more expressive, isn’t it?

A good descriptive scene invokes the visual, but also other sensory input such as sounds, smells, tactile feel, even a character’s memories.  The best writing tries to recreate how a real person would experience the event. 

Now cramming every tiny detail into scenes doesn’t work either, because you veer into the comical and absurd.  It screams amateur to readers, as does using unusual adjectives/adverbs to illustrate and emphasize.

I shall demonstrate:

Jessica was sitting harshly, rigidly, upright at her very murky, black, baby grand piano that her most beloved grandmother had happily given her for her sixteenth birthday four years ago; the very antique piano that had once belonged to her grandmother.  She had been staring exceptionally hard for more than fifteen minutes at the vaguely spider-webbed cracked, ebony-black, ivory keys that just lay there like a stiff, solid, bit of off-white fishbone that had the last of the flesh scraped off it.  She could not focus her scattered thoughts on the sheets of music that were laid out most carefully in front of her on the shiny, shadow black music rack that was attached to the piano.  She was certainly supposed to be practicing Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude , a piece of music she thoroughly treasured and often played, but her thoughts and feelings would not depart the memory of Butch leaving her this morning to sail far away across the deep ocean to Cornwall, England.  His face still bounced in her memory; his thick, shiny, exuberant, wood-brown hair, his sparkling, sassy, intelligent emerald green eyes, his sculptured, firm, Roman nose, his warm, full, soft, exquisite mouth.

Now that was a passage just brimming over with description, and confusion. 

Here’s something showing less is more:

Jessica was sitting stiffly at her baby grand piano, the antique her grandmother had given her for her sixteenth birthday.   She stared yet again at the slightly cracked keys, knowing that she could not focus her thoughts on her music.  She was supposed to be practicing Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, but her thoughts kept wandering to the memory of Butch’s leave-taking this morning.  His face still haunted her memory; his thick, brown hair, his sparkling, green eyes, and his warm, exquisite mouth.  Now he was sailing from her, to Cornwall, England. 

A writer must be careful about use of details, too many spoil the mix.   Also beware the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, and make certain you match the adjective/adverb with the mood of your narrative passage.

Remember to keep it simple, evocative and never tell your reader everything at once.  Feed your reader details like crumbs, making a trail through your story. 

When creating a scene or description, you are trying for atmosphere, to make a reader feel they are within your words.  A writer has to set the scene, and strike a balance between doling out the details and going overboard with the wordage.

For more information, see Stewart’s Squidoo lens: How to Write a Fantasy Novel.

Grammar Guide for Self-Editing

My guest host today is Paul Allen Leoncini. He is the author of the epic novel Conjuroravailable at Barnes&Noble, Bordersbooks, Ingram books and http://www.PublishAmerica.com as well as bricks and mortars book stores. Leoncini writes, Once upon a time a dear Agent offered me some advice, and this is what she said:

Grammar Guide For Self-Editing or Groups by Kelly Mortimer (2/10/08)

A – Awkward Sentence StructureRearrange, rephrase, or try deleting unnecessary words.

Aa – Additive Adjunct – No comma before “too” when it’s the last word of a sentence, and “too” means also. Ex: “She graduated from high school too.” Use a comma when “too” appears elsewhere and still means also. Ex: “She, too, graduated from high school.”

Aw- A while vs. AwhileNever follow a preposition with the word “awhile.” “Awhile” is an adverb that means “for a while.” Ex: “Stay awhile” means “Stay for a while.” A while” is a noun phrase that follows a preposition like “for” or “in.” Ex: “Stay for a while.”

B – Blond/BlondeBlond is an adjective used to describe. Ex: “She has blond hair.” Blonde is a noun. Ex: “She’s a tall blonde.” (The “e” is rarely used when referring to men.)

Bc – Because When possible delete “because” and form two sentences. Subordinate conjunctions can annoy readers if overused.

Bg – Began/Begin/StartedWhen does beginning become doing? Immediately! Ex: Correct: “He walked toward the door.” Incorrect: “He began to walk toward the door.” (There are exceptions.)

Bi – Backstory or Internal ThoughtDon’t write long paragraphs of internal thought or backstory to “info dump” every detail of a character’s past. Break it up. Change to dialogue or action whenever possible. No backstory allowed in the first chapter (at least).

Bs – Be SpecificForget it. Forget that. Forget this. Huh? Be more descriptive. Ex: Bad: “He handed it to her.” Better: “He handed her a drink.” Best: “He handed her a frosty mug of root beer.” You can use unspecific words in the second part of a sentence if the first part is specific. Ex: “She took off the necklace and put it away.”

C – Contractions Without contractions, writing is clunky. Read both sentences aloud. Ex: “I have hurt my knee and cannot exercise, but do not let that stop you.” Better: “I’ve hurt my knee and can’t exercise, but don’t let that stop you.” Exception: a character’s speech pattern.

Cd – Character DescriptionWhen a character is in their POV, they shouldn’t describe themselves. Bring out features through another character’s eyes. Ex: “Amanda grabbed her brush and tugged it through her golden brown hair.” Correct: “Amanda grabbed her brush and tugged it through her hair.”

Cl – Colors – Instead of using an ordinary color, choose a more vivid word. Ideas on last page.

Cq – Colloquialism – Using two possessives to modify one noun. Ex: Her friend’s dad’s car is old. Correct:  Her friend’s dad has an old car.

Cs – Comma in a Series – (1) Place a comma before the “and” in the last element in a series to prevent ambiguity. Ex: “I’m going to the park, the school, and the store.” (2) If the last element has a pair of words joined by “and,” the comma goes before the first “and,” but not the last. Ex: I’m going to the park, the school, and the store to buy eggs and milk.”

D – Dash – Shows interruption (in dialogue). Don’t overuse! No spaces before or after a dash.

D/t — Day / Time – Avoid starting paragraphs with the day/time. It’s telling! Exs: “The next morning…” (or) “Two hours later… ”

Dss – Delete Extra Space – One space after ending punctuation.

E – EllipsesShows hesitation, a pause, or omitted words. Don’t overuse! Spaces before and after mid-sentence ellipses. Regular punctuation for ellipses at the end of a sentence.

Ex – Exclamation PointsUse when a character shouts, or the mental equivalent! Use SPARINGLY! If not, the exclamation point loses its effect!!!!!

F – Farther vs. Further – “Farther” describes distance, literally. Ex: I can’t walk any farther. Use “Further” in a figurative sense. Ex: I don’t want to research the subject any further.

H – Hyphenate(1) Hyphenate when modifying a noun. Ex: She has a five-year-old child. (or) She has a five-year-old. (child is implied) Incorrect: Her child is five-years-old. (2) Don’t hyphenate after a “ly” word. Ex: She walked into a brightly lit room.

I – IntensifierEmphasizes the word it modifies. Use a stronger word instead of a weak one plus an intensifier. Ex: Monday turned frigid.   Incorrect: Monday turned really cold. Other Examples: very, totally, quite, extremely, severely, etc. (There are exceptions.)

Ia – It and As – Avoid starting sentences with the words “it” or “as.”

Iu – Intended UseUse words for their intended purpose. Ex: “She has pretty hair.” Incorrect: “She arrived pretty late.” (or) “She has a little dog.” Incorrect: “Her dog ate little.”

Iw – It was/wasn’t – Be specific on what “it” is, or if the sentence makes sense without, delete.

Lo – Locution – Delete phrases like “she wondered” by rephrasing into a question. Ex: She wondered why her sister always cut her hair. Correct: Why did her sister always cut her hair?

Lp- Long Paragraph – Break it up. Readers like to see some white space on a page.

Ls – Long SentenceBreak it up. If you have to pause to take a breath, the sentence is too long.

Ly – Use of “LY” AdverbsThese sneak emotions into attributes, or weaken a sentence. Ex: “You’re not nice,” she said angrily. Correct: “You’re despicable.” (There are exceptions.)

M – MediaItalicsMovies, TV shows, books, book-length poems, magazines, plays, radio shows, works of art, instrumentals, operas, and ships/boats (I know vessels aren’t media). Quotation MarksTV episode titles, songs, stories, articles, poems, and photographs.

Mm – Misplaced Modifier – Placement of a word, phrase, or clause that modifies an unintended word, causing ambiguity. Ex: “Slim and beautiful, the crowd applauded for the new Miss America.” This reads “the crowd is slim and beautiful.” Correct: “The new Miss America was slim and beautiful, and the crowd applauded for her.”

Mr – Motivation/Reaction Problem Putting the character’s reaction before what motivates him/her to react. Ex: She shivered with fright as footsteps sounded on the stairs. Correct: Footsteps sounded on the stairs and she shivered with fright. (or) Footsteps sounded on the stairs. She shivered with fright. Check sentences with “as” in the middle. Switch the sentence around, ditch the “as,” and add “and,” or make two sentences with the motivator first.

Np – New Paragraph – New speaker, new subject, or use a one-sentence paragraph to make the sentence more dramatic.

Nu – Negation Use – Phrasing your sentence in the negative. Ex: The park isn’t more crowded on a Sunday than a holiday. Change to positive by deleting “no, not, never, etc.” Correct: The park is as crowded on a Sunday as a holiday.

Op – Omniscient POVAlso called Author Intrusion. The author is talking to the reader. Ex: She prayed for her friends. If she could’ve predicted the future, she’d have prayed for herself.

P – Passive vs. Active Sentence StructureActive structure is “A” does to “B.” Passive structure is “B” is done by “A,” or, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Ex: Passive: “The soup was stirred by Jane.” Active: “Jane stirred the soup.” Watch for the word “was” before words ending in “ed.” Check: that, had, and forms of “to be” as well.

Pl – Pleonasm – Redundancy. A phrase or word that repeats itself. Ex: Twelve noon (noon), one a.m. in the morning (one a.m.), round in shape (round), I saw it with my own eyes, (I saw it)

Pov – Point of View Problem(1) If you switch to another character’s POV, show the break with an extra space or start a new scene/chapter. (2) Your character can’t see certain things in their POV. Ex: “She turned her back on him and he frowned.” She can’t see a frown if she turns her back. (3) Your characters can’t see themselves. Ex: Her face turned bright red. Correct: “Heat rose to her cheeks.” (4) Avoid: he saw, she heard, he knew, etc., when in that character’s POV. We know who’s seeing, hearing, knowing, etc. Ex: She saw him moving across the room. Correct: He moved across the room.

Pp – Purple/Poetic Prose – A stylistic device. Flowery, poetic speech. Lengthy descriptions and/or too many metaphors. Stay away from this!

Pq – Punctuation for QuotesFor single and double quotes used for emphasis, both the period and the comma go inside the quotation marks, all other punctuation goes outside.

Pr – Progressive PastWatch for “was” and “were” before words ending in “ing.” Ex: Progressive Past: “Jane was running.” Simple Past (usually preferred):  “Jane ran.” Sentences require progressive past if something interrupts an action. “Jane was stirring the soup when the doorbell rang.”

Q – QualifierAn unnecessary word that blurs your meaning and weakens your sentence. Something is, or it isn’t. Ex: “It was a bit cold outside.” Correct: “It was cold outside.” Other examples: rather, a little, a lot, seemed, only, slightly, just, almost, nearly, sort of, kind of, etc. Exceptions: a character’s speech pattern or speculation on what another character is thinking.

R -RepetitionRepeating the same words or phrases too often.

Rd – RedundancyTelling us something again, even in a different way or with different words.

Rp – Reflexive PronounOnly use pronouns ending in “self,” when the pronoun refers back to the subject. Ex: “I hit myself.” Don’t use “own” in conjunction with a pronoun when referring back to the subject. Ex: “My own sister died.” Correct: “My sister died.”

Sa – Simultaneous ActionCommon when a sentence starts with a word ending in “ing.” Having a character do something that’s physically impossible/doing two things at the same time. Ex: Pulling out of the driveway, he drove down the street. Correct: He pulled out of the driveway then drove down the street. (or) He pulled out of the driveway, then drove down the street. 

Sd – Said(1) One can’t: bark, growl, snap, chuckle, howl, grimace, roar, smile, or snarl, etc., a word. These are sounds or facial expressions. Use “said,” and eliminate “said” adverbs. Dialogue should carry the emotion, not an adverb shoring up “said.” (2) Don’t reverse to read, “said she.” Save that for the kiddy books. Ex: “See spot run,” said Jane.

Si – Split InfinitiveAn infinitive is the form of the verb that comes after “to.” A split infinitive is when another word comes between “to” and the verb. Ex: Jane seems to always wear her hair that way. Better: Jane always seems to wear her hair that way. (Not a must rule.)

Sm – Simplify – (1) Use simple, normal, phrases/words. Ex: Buying new clothes improved Jane’s old wardrobe. Incorrect: Jane ameliorated her obsolescent attire, augmenting it with additional purchases. (2) Use as few words as possible to get your point across.

T – That“That” is often a throwaway word. If the sentence makes sense without it, delete.

Tl – Telling(1) Words like: after, as, when, during, until, before, with, and while at the beginning of a sentence is often telling and unnecessary. (2) Watch forms of “to be” and “felt,” as well. Ex: He felt angry. Correct: He clenched his fists so hard, his knuckles turned white.

Tmi – Too Much Information(1) Don’t write long paragraphs with lengthy descriptions of scenes or rooms, etc. Break them up. (2) Don’t go into detail about what your characters’ actual positions are. This makes it harder to picture the scene. Ex: He held the man’s right arm with his left hand, and then kicked with his right foot to the man’s left side. Correct: He held the man’s arm, then kicked him in the side.

Tw – That vs. WhichUse that” to introduce a restrictive (defining) relative clause. Identifies what/who is referred to. Ex: I want to buy a book that has large print. That has large print is the restrictive clause explaining what kind of book I want to buy. “Which” is used with non-restrictive (non-defining) clauses. Ex: The students complained about the textbook, which was hard to understand. The clause which was hard to understand is non-restrictive because it doesn’t point out which book the students complained about. (There are exceptions.)

Uw – Unnecessary Words and PhrasesOmit extra words and phrases. Write each sentence with as few words as possible. Phrase Offenders: the fact that, all of a sudden, at the very least, in spite of, if nothing else, etc. Ex: By the way, I just wondered if you think that this dress looks good on me. Correct: Does this dress look good on me? Word Offenders: that, perhaps, however, although, over, under, up, down, even, quite, rather, suddenly, etc. Ex: Suddenly, I thought that perhaps she should go over there and sit down up on top of the fence. Correct: She should sit on the fence.

W – Walked/Ran – Boring! Options: advanced, ambled, boogied, darted, dashed, drifted, glided, hastened, hiked, jogged, loped, lurched, marched, meandered, minced, moseyed, moved, paced, paraded, patrolled, plodded, pranced, raced, rambled, roamed, roved, rushed, sashayed, sauntered, scampered, schlepped, scurried, scuttled, shuffled, sidled, slogged, slinked, sprinted, staggered, stepped, strode, strolled, strutted, swaggered, tip-toed, toddled, traipsed, tramped, traveled, tread, trooped, trudged, waddled, wandered.

 

Color Options: If a date follows the color, the word wasn’t in use before that date.

Black: onyx, anthracite, inky, black pearl, blue-black, coal, jet, ebony, obsidian, raven, soot/sooty, midnight, shadow, pitch, sable, tar, licorice

Blue: azure (1300), periwinkle, wedgewood, delft, neon, electric, cornflower, turquoise (1350), royal, powder, cobalt (1683), teal, navy, sky, robin’s egg, baby, peacock, lapis, indigo (1555), steel, sapphire (1200), federal, aquamarine, aqua, ultra marine, midnight, blue-green, blue-gray, denim, cadet, cerulean, ocean

Brown/Beige: earth, nutmeg (1400), cinnamon (1300), chocolate (1604), cocoa (1788), tan, chestnut (1300), bay, tawny, roan, mahogany (1660), pecan, rosewood, maple, taupe, coffee, toffee, cafe au lait, mocha, tortoise shell, ginger, walnut (1100), brunette, espresso, ecru, mushroom, fawn, buckskin, nut brown, umber, saddle, raisin, khaki, drab, bronze, copper, tanned, foxy, sandy almond (1300), oatmeal, tumbleweed, sienna, sepia

Gray/Grey: smoky, pearl, charcoal, ash, silvery, dove, gunmetal, steel, sooty, hoary (no wisecracks!), chrome

Green: jade (1585), emerald, malachite, kelly, leaf, moss (1880), celadon (grayish yellow-green-1768), seafoam, hunter, lime (1650), forest (1800), olive, pistachio, grass, pea, mist, chartreuse, verdant, celery, mint, apple, hazel, green-blue, shamrock, avocado, spring, asparagus, pine, seaweed

Orange: apricot, rust(y), peach, tangerine, persimmon, orange-red, shrimp, salmon, terra cotta, auburn, burnt orange, mandarin, copper, nectarine

Pink: petal, neon, blush, carnation, rubescent (blushing-1725), hot, electric

Purple: amethyst, violet, lavender, heliotrope (reddish-lavender), mauve, plum, wood violet (pale purple), lilac, orchid, fuchsia, tyrian (1586), grape, wisteria, royal

Red: ruby, poppy, scarlet, garnet, red-amber, rose, dusky rose, crimson, cinnabar (bright red), wine, claret, cerise (deep red), russet, burgundy, henna, ox-blood, carmine (strong or vivid red), apple, cherry, tomato, red-orange, brick, cardinal, rubicund (ruddy), vermillion, cochineal (vivid), maroon, strawberry, raspberry, blood, candy apple, beet, currant, titian (reddish-brown), lobster, fire engine, coral (reddish-yellow), flame, cranberry

White/OffWhite: milky, quartz, white jade, moonstone, ivory, creamy, snow, pearl, alabaster, opal, magnolia, vanilla, chalky, oyster, marble, bone, cadmium (1822- whitish-blue metallic), eggshell, parchment, lily, porcelain, bleached linen, buff

Yellow: fool’s gold, gold(en), goldenrod, blond, ash blond, platinum, burnished, brassy, amber, palomino, honey, primrose (pale), daffodil (1548), jonquil (1664), butter, buttercup (1777), lemon (1400), dun, tawny, flaxen, sandy, straw, hay, citron (pale), canary (1584), topaz, ochre, sulfur (greenish tint), mustard, butterscotch, yellow-green, dandelion

Kamikaze Editing

In giving my manuscripts their yearly tune-up, I discovered that I use and overuse many unnecessary words, such as little, somewhat, rather, quite, very. A little noisy, somewhat noisy, rather noisy, quite noisy, very noisy. In each case, the modifier blurs the word noisy, rendering it almost meaningless. (Almost is another word I use too much.) So I went on a search and destroy mission to sharpen my prose.

I know I overuse only and just, but I hadn’t realized just how often I use them. They should only be used a few times, just to give emphasis, and only when needed. I ended up deleting about a hundred justs and onlys, though I kept almost as many because I couldn’t figure out how to say what I wanted without them.

Another word I overuse is up: he washed up, stood up, raised up. Also down: sat down, crouched down, squatted down. At least those were easy to get rid of, a quick click of the delete key and poof. No ups and downs. Just cleaner prose.

And then there are all those adverbs I really use too often that add practically nothing, particularly when they are basically used to modify verbs that hardly need modifying. Yep: practically, particularly, basically, extremely, hardly, really all have to go. I’m also overfond of barely, but I could barely stand to part with all of them so they still litter my prose. But just barely.