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Monday, June 25, 2012

Monday Moods--Description Yet Again

Description should add to your story, not stall it. While I often fall in love with my description of a setting, I have to remember that my modern reader isn't here to loll in the land of my beautifully executed prose about the countryside or seascape or quaint town or whatever. My reader is here to read a story and story is about forward moving characters and action. So how can I keep up my story's momentum and yet put my readers into the place.


One way I've found is to treat the setting as if it were a character. Characters in stories have a purpose. They're included to act as foils for each other or as companions that reveal each other's contradictions or ambiguities. Setting can do the same things. Can you imagine Quasimodo hiding in a small wood framed church in the countryside? Isn't the imposing cathedral bell tower and teeming Paris of the late 1400's exactly what helps to make him and Esmeralda so memorable?



On a more modern note, Think how Louis Sachar's Holes would fall flat if those holes were in a lush water-surrounded landscape. Doesn't the desolate setting that the author describes add to the punishment that the delinquents suffer? I was thirsty the entire time I was reading that book and my thirst added to how much I empathized with those kids.

So how about rules for description? I'm not so good at following rules, but I love knowing them and I love being able to follow them because then I can break them real good.

Here are a few that I pay attention to while I'm thinking how to do things differently.


  • Include specific and carefully observed detailed. Example: the tree v. the thick limbed oak 
  • Reveal the innermost workings of your character. Example: She was cold and walked quickly across the busy street. v. Head down, hands shoved inside her pockets, she dodged the cars that clogged the crosswalk. 
  • Try to include different senses in a scene and never too many: His face was red with anger. v. His face, red with anger and his breath coming in hard pants, he raised both fists.
  • Don't turn purple. Leave "It was a horrendously evil sight" where it belongs--with Bulware Lytton's "It was a dark and stormy night."
  • Whenever possible kill the adverbs. They lead to lazy, unimaginative writing. Example: He carefully unlocked the door. v. He turned the key in the lock, but stopped with his ear pressed against the door before he inched it open. 
Now I think I'd better go write some descriptive passages and see if I can do anything I've been sharing with you here. It's so much easier to talk about how to write, then it is to actually write.

I'm sure you have some other ideas about description. If you have some tips, please leave them in a comment. I love to know what you do and I'm sure there are others who stop by who will also appreciate your insights.












31 comments:

  1. Good tips!
    I've gotten better with description by focusing on all the senses.

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  2. Description well done is a delight! Funny though because I remember as a child picking through books and casting aside the ones that had too long of paragraphs, meaning description! I'm not sure when I grew to love it, but then again, only when it's well-crafted.

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  3. Thanks for the tips. I hate writing description so I appreciate all your suggestions.

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  4. I prefer descriptions that spark my imagination rather than explicit details that force me to strain my brain to try to see what the author is seeing.

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  5. Your comments echo my feelings exactly. I want description, but I want it in small dose and I want it "lite," so I can imagine it the way I want.

    You are amazing writers. Want to read what you come up with.

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  6. I do like a good description. It's best when it's gradually incorporated into the action and dialog along with well placed descriptive passages. But it depends on what's happening. A long descriptive passage works well for me if that's all that happening at the moment and doesn't slow down the pacing.

    Your suggestions are good ones.


    Lee
    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog

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  7. Great tips. I've read many manuscripts with repetitive physical descriptions. Each character has their eye and hair color described. It's important to include other senses.

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  8. Simple rules to follow. I do like to have a strong sense of place/setting when I'm reading otherwise I kind of drift and don't really connect to the story/characters.

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  9. Description can be done so many different ways. I think it is great to be reminded of these rules. I liked the examples! As always I leave here with lots to think about. :)
    ~Jess

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  10. These are great ways to use descriptions, Lee!

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  11. Here, here for connecting with the sensory. I personally love reading lyrical descriptions long or short, but the ones that sound like a checklist for a setting turn me off.

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  12. Like you, I treat the setting as I would a character. I also try not to bog down my sentences with lengthy description.

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  13. More great tips! I'll have to practice them, so it comes more naturally to me. Julie

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  14. I sit and stare at the screen, the setting alive in my head, but it won't get onto paper. I hate writing descriptions. In my current WIP all my setting and character descriptions are in parenthesis with notes of possibilities. I don't want to bog down my writing process in getting this next draft completed, so I type in a bunch of thoughts, and I'll have to come back and figure it all out later. I also don't like reading long descriptions of the setting very much, that's why I love MG and YA. I don't like getting bogged down in stuff that doesn't really matter and doesn't move the story forward. Great tips on involving all the senses in descriptions. I will keep that in mind while continuing on this draft.

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  15. I love all your descriptions! Great insight. World always gave me a lot of trouble when I started. I still have to be careful with it. Sometimes I am too sparse.

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  16. I use the five senses often. I use food and drink a lot to help bring the setting alive for the reader. And we loved the movie version of holes. Great example!

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  17. Great tips, Lee. I've been working at bringing my descriptions to life. In the past, I used to be sparse. You never have to worry about mine being long winded. :D

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  18. Hi Lee .. just the title 'Monday Moods' .. can set a tone .. when I saw the desert photo .. I thought of prickly character ... and using all the senses ..

    Great post .. with your descriptions/examples .. cheers Hilary

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  19. I love the thought of treating setting as a character!

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  20. Great tips! I also try to include the other senses as much as possible :)
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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  21. I've found the best way to keep setting interesting is to keep it emotionally anchored to the character. If it in some way matters to him at that moment, then it'll matter to the reader.

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  22. I loved this post! What you say makes a lot of sense to me. In my first draft I had tons of adverbs. (I had no idea until someone pointed it out and then I started taking them out, and out, and. .well you get the idea) Taking them out did, as you say, make me put more thought into what I was writing.

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  23. Those adverbs are so easy to slip in and in first drafts I think of them as place holders. It's kind of fun to compare what I wrote in the beginning with later versions. That first pass through that seemed so terrific, usually fails big time.

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  24. Hi, CLee! :D This is such an awesome reminder for me--especially while I'm in the midst of a crazy-fast revision.

    You're right about describing scenery, though. I've had to cut much of my flowery language because it's just slowing everything down. Gah! I don't even like to read that, so why am I writing it? :D

    Thanks for the reminders! <3

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  25. Thanks for these tips. I've been more careful with using setting since I feel like I'm not detailed enough with it and don't always incorporate it with the MC's feelings.

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  26. Great post! I love books where the setting becomes an entity or character of its own.
    Also, I totally agree about killing the adverbs. Excessive adverbs scream amateur writer to me.

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  27. Less is more! But then again classics like Notre Dame do go on - I remember ploughing through it and got to chapter 7 ( I think!) thinking when on this planet does Esmeralda turn up for Quasimodo to fall in love with!?!?!? LOL! Then again I was perhaps more influenced by abridged film versions!

    Take care
    x

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  28. Great tips on writing description. I love your point about thinking of the setting as a character!

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  29. Sense of place is so important right in the beginning, so the reader can begin forming a mental picture right away.

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  30. I love thinking about setting as a character. This helps me to keep the story's momentum in mind and cut back on the heavy-handed descriptions (which I always need to cut out of my first drafts).

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