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.

Stories, Cliches, and Finding the Truth

We are steeped in story. From birth to death, story forms our lives. For some people — writers, quasi-hermits, employees of the publishing, movie, and television industries — story is their life. More stories are available to us in more media than ever before in history, including the stories we share with each other and ourselves. What is a daydream if not a story of the future we tell ourselves? And at night, while sleeping, our dreams tell us other stories. No wonder we have such a hard time finding a story that is not clichéd.

But they do exist. In fact, anyone can write a non-clichéd story if he or she does the work to find the truth of the story, but all too often writers with nothing to say look to books and movies for the truth and end up with rehashed forgeries.

Stories of pattern killers (serial killers by another name) became clichéd very quickly. How many times have we heard or read that same bit about the killer being a white male between the ages of . . . Never mind. You probably know it better than I do. Because so many writers borrowed their truths from previous stories about pattern killers, the only thing new they had to add was the grisly murder pattern, each one more gruesome than the last. The way to tell a non-clichéd serial killer story is to find the truth: in a bizarre sort of way, a pattern killer story is romance between the killer and the hunter. Their relationship forms the story, not the murders. And, on a deeper level, it is the story of the hunter finding the killer within himself. Thomas Harris portrayed this brilliantly in The Red Dragon, but when he wrote Hannibal, he chose grisliness over truth. You may not agree with me about the truth of the pattern killer story, but that is my truth. It is up to you to find your own truth.

So how do we do we find the truth for our stories, not just pattern killer stories? By going small, by knowing everything possible about our characters, the streets they walk, the way they think, the places and people that make up their world. David Morrell traveled to get the feel of his settings, and he took survival courses to find out what his characters would experience in wild, but not all of us have the time, money, or inclination to travel to distant places or to take physically taxing courses. Nor is it necessary. We can find the truth in our own neighborhoods. We can walk the streets and take note of everything we see. How do those streets differ from any other we have traveled? By being true to character and place, we find the small bits of action that tell the story’s truth. We are used to thinking of action scenes as car chases, fights, and other horrifying events, but an action scene can be as subtle as a look or a touch of a hand. That is where the truth lies, in the unexpected details.

A story, when set in a particular place with a particular character, will have a truth that no other story has. If we have the patience and skill to find the story’s truth, our truth, we can tell it without reducing it to cliché.

Humor Metamorphosing into Horror

My work in progress, a tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic novel, is metamorphosing into a horror story. I study my words trying to figure out where I went wrong, but they seem to be behaving properly. Does this mean that I am losing control of my story? No. The problem is in the details.

Plausibility in a story depends on the accumulation of consistent, accurate details. Those details are even more important for a fantasy than they are for other types of books, such as police procedurals. An author of a police procedural can summarize or even skip some of the boring details. After all, any person who reads crime novels, follows detective shows on television, or watches documentaries about modern forensic techniques knows many details of a criminal investigation, and can fill in the blanks. For example, early police procedurals gave details about taking fingerprints from a suspect, but today most readers know how fingerprints are taken, probably even had one taken for a driver’s license, so few authors waste words on that particular detail.

On the other hand, only the author of a fantasy knows all the details of his or her world. For those details to seem real, the characters must act consistently with their history, experiences, and psychological profiles.

Although I might find it incongruous and therefore amusing to have a saber-tooth lion spring out of a dark alley in modern Denver, the character experiencing this is not amused. To him, it is unimaginable horror; therefore, to the reader who is experiencing the world through the eyes of the character, it is also horror. A character who finds an attacking saber-tooth lion to be funny is not a believable character, unless somehow I can make the reader believe that the character will react in such a way, which still proves that plausibility is in the details.

Since I am writing to my specifications and not to a publisher’s, it does not matter whether I am writing humor or horror. That the details are consistent and accurate within my story world does matter, and of that, I am in control.