How dare a woman use a relevant anatomically correct term in a debate about abortion!
Let’s talk about descriptive writing.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase thrown around “Show don’t tell” in reference to your writing, and some of you may feel frustrated when people say that to you because what does it mean? and how do I do it?
This is a pretty good article for reference on this topic so please read it since I’m going to talk about it.
They touch on ways to show in your writing instead of just telling the reader what’s going on, and they give writing techniques on how to do that using dialogue, using sensory language, being descriptive and specific. I think they do a good job explaining how to utilize these tools to help place your reader into the heart of your scenes.
I feel the main thing to remember when you are trying to show instead of tell someone something is put yourself in the shoes of writing a play, you cannot tell the viewer that Mrs. Patterson is feeling especially flustered you have to show them she is. When you have actors on a stage they do it through body language and speech. Utilize that way of thinking when you’re writing a scene, don’t tell me she’s feeling flustered show me how this is making her react to the situation around her. Is she pacing? Are her hands still or are the flitting around, is she wringing them? Are her eyes squinting or wide open? Is her hair up, has she started to pull it down? Does she throw things around the room?
In December I participated in a secret santa exchange and due to the prompt I found myself getting stuck trying to write the story, the characters kept falling flat for me and I was getting aggravated. I decided to see if I could write the whole story without using any dialogue. I cheated a bit in the end and wrote about how the characters do speak to one another, but I found the exercise really useful for me. It helped me figure out how to link the way I think with writing poetry to the way I think while writing prose, and it’s one of my favorite things I’d written in a while. Not even really because of the plot of the circumstances for the story, because it was really fun to think differently about the way I approached writing it. (You can read that here if you’re curious; definitely not required reading.)
I do want to touch on something mentioned in the article under their ‘Be descriptive’ heading. Don’t describe your characters like you’d hear on a police blotter. They give this example: “He was tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. He wore a red shirt and jeans, and a brown leather jacket.” this is incredibly dull to read. You might want to give your reader a sketch of your characters so they can picture them, and that’s fine, but describe what is necessary for them to know in a way that flows naturally. For example, when a new character walks into the room and they’re tall and looming and seem dangerous, it’s a good time to describe why they seem that way. Does it look to you POV character that this new person seems to be attracting the darkest of the shadows in the room to them? Maybe the way the new character holds himself reminds you POV character of another person they used to know that intimidated them as a child, maybe they came in and wafted in the smell of hot garbage, or maybe their steps were heavy and loud. I don’t need to know what the new character is wearing, the color of their hair or their eyes unless these details are imperative to the story, unless they will give away more about the attitude of the character and how your POV character reacts to them.
Now how does this lesson mesh with the whole “omit needless words” philosophy? I promise it does! Writing descriptively doesn’t mean writing an excess of words and overwhelming your reader with them to the point of distraction. It’s about utilizing description and word choice to the best effect so you pack the most use out of every word. The descriptions should enhance the atmosphere of the piece, give further depth to character, and/or be a vehicle for moving the action in the story along. You can use descriptive writing to do all three, or just one depending on the way you are writing the scene.
Omitting needless words isn’t just about taking out passive voice, because some people might want to continue to write in passive voice, it’s about taking out the words that aren’t facilitating what it is you’re trying to get across in your piece (as well as eliminating repetitive words). Giving an itinerary of the clothing every character wears is likely not going to enhance your story much, but if you make the clothing an important aspect of the story it will. Does that make sense?
When writing descriptively it’s about writing so you the reader can really feel like they are in the action of the story (even if it’s not a high-action piece you still want to be able to immerse you reader in your writing). Jenna sent me this great video of Stephen King talking about writing, it’s pretty long so I’ll link you and you can decide if you want to watch or not. Here! In it though he talks about how he wants to capture your attention so well that you cannot put the story down. That the first read through you’re so caught up in what’s happening that you aren’t even paying attention to word choice and other elements that come in when you analyze a piece. Then you can read it again because a good story you should be able to read twice and still feel engaged, but on the second read maybe you pay more attention to word choice and sentence structure, on character traits and tropes and literary elements and all of that.
But first you want to be able to engage your reader so well that they are right there, not only rooting for your characters but getting the highs and lows of the emotions they go through right along with them.
That is what I’m talking about with regards to using descriptive writing, because you want to show you reader the broken down car the character has to hijack to get away from the horde of bloodthirsty vampires as they descend upon her and high-tail it out of town. You want to get your reader’s heart pumping right along with your POV character and to do that you need to place the reader in the action, you need to describe the world your characters live in. The way they react to it and one another—all of that is descriptive writing. And then you need to be able to edit and cut out all the extra description you’ve put in there so you can get to the meat of the story, so your reader can get to the heart of the action and your characters.
And now, some articles I think are useful and relevant to the topic of descriptive writing that I think you should take a look at:
Plotty plotty plotty. It’s time to talk about plot. So essentially plot is the story, it’s what’s happening in the action. The plot of a typical Law & Order episode is that someone dies, the detectives follow leads until they find a killer and then courtroom stuff. Plot can be situation driven or character driven. For example take the short story Cell by Stephen King that’s a situational driven plot to start with, and continues to be so with the addition of character driven plot. It starts out with something happens, a pulse, with all the cell phones and people start acting terribly and the plot is driven by the situation the characters find themselves in. But the plot is also driven by the character Clay and his determination to find his son, which wouldn’t have happened without the situation. So what I’ve noticed is that with even when you have a plot driven by the situation it’s still partially driven by the choices the characters make in the situation.
Now a lot of places talk about how plot is defined by conflict, which is true for a lot of stories their plot is defined by the conflict in the story. However you can have plot without conflict, and I’d really like you to read this post about it since it’s explained much better there than I could hope to replicate. And since I know there are many of you who won’t read that it gives a structure known as kishōtenketsu which has the following four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. Please go to the link and check out the comic there, it does a great job showing you the difference between a plot without conflict and a plot with conflict.
I’m not saying one is definitely better than the other, I am saying you do have options you might not have realized before. You don’t have to write conflict if your story doesn’t call for it.
So with that talked about let’s talk a bit about conflict since that’s pretty relevant. You can have internal conflict a la an ethical or emotional question the character has to grapple with (see many self identity stories) or external wherein the conflict arises from forces outside themselves (see Harry Potter and such stories). Up to you what you want to go with, external conflict tends to lend itself to situationally driven plot and internal to character driven plot.
There’s a few basic structures for conflict and those are:
• Person vs. Person (two characters against each other, external conflict)
• Person vs. Society (character against man-made institution (dystopias are often this))
• Person vs. Nature (character against nature (storms, tornadoes, volcanoes, etc.))
• Person vs. Self (character against their own nature, making a choice internally (coward standing up for what they believe in or something of the sort))
There’s also types of plots which this article goes into fairly well (there are many if you want to structure your story based around a plot type).
Further reading on plot and conflict: here, here, here, here, and here.
Picture books make kids happy. Why can’t they do the same for adults? If you have ever read a picture-book story to a child before bedtime, you will have seen from the look in their eyes how vibrant and appealing an experience it is. Yet librarians and teachers report that many parents are these days overly eager to get their children reading chapter books instead.
How wrong they are. Picture books offer reluctant young readers the visual kerbang required to encourage them to read books. I am glad to see Michael Rosen, the new children’s laureate, refer to them as a fuse that ignites the world of reading, and am sure he will be a persuasive ambassador in the promotion of this essential genre.
But what of the books us adults read? Isn’t it all rather sad that our novels and stories are so bare of any pictures at all? We have coffee-table books filled with clichéd photos, but where are the illustrated novels, with pictures that may make us pause and ponder the story for a while?
Beethoven and Woody Allen bathed their way to genius. Dickens (and just about everyone else) walked. And you don’t want to know how Thomas Wolfe got the juices flowing. Mason Currey, author of “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” shares some of the surprising work modes of history’s most creative.
Following on from my post yesterday about naturalistic dialogue, I wanted to talk a little more in depth about it.
Remember that naturalistic speech for one character is very different to naturalistic speech for another character. Everyone has their own way of speaking, their individual quirks and nuances.
There are many things about your character which will affect the way in which they speak, and the words they use:
- Who they are talking to. Someone older or younger than them. Someone of higher or lower status. Someone they know well or a stranger.
- Their age
- Their level of education (whether through an establishment, home-schooled, or self-taught)
- Their accent, or blend of different accents
- Any speech impediment, social or mental disorder, facial injuries or disfigurement, or recovery from illness eg a stroke
- If they wear false teeth
- Their hearing ability
- Their general upbringing
- Their level of self-confidence
- The person they view themselves as
- The person they want people to think they are
- Whether or not they are speaking in their first language
- Morality and beliefs