3 Things That Good Story Description Demands

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We always want specifics in description. We try to choose the ones that help us know the why about the story’s characters.

Lisa Cron, the teacher of storycraft on Lynda.com and elsewhere, says “Scenery without a subtext is travelogue. (read: boring) Ensure your specifics are story-related, rather than floundering in the dreaded realm of “just because.” All the rules about “setting” and “place” are irrelevant without this: if a description doesn’t give us specificnecessary insight into the characters in the story you’re telling, that description will stop the story cold.”

So there you have it. The three things are

  1. Specifics
  2. Insights
  3. Relationship to a character

FlatsWithout them, the writing will be as flat as any backdrop on a theatrical stage. And so the beautiful prose is just travelogue. Pretty, yes. Story-stopping, too. Here’s an example of travelogue, from YouTube. It’s one of the old TravelTalks shorts from the 1930s that gave moviegoers a look at many places, but no characters. (You see lots of people in these little films, but no characters.) Plenty of visuals. So if you include something like this in a story, it will stop — no tension, no insight.

Also, here’s a nice definition page for milieu  It’s a nice word to trigger a description that includes culture. (Characters = culture.) Your settings should be doing work to help us experience your characters.

Being objective to observe the details

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Any writer who wants their prose to sparkle needs to bring details to the picture. A favorite article from my files points out that seeing without judging, objectivity, is just the sort of thing you can refine and practice from working in journalism.

I started in journalism. I’ve written nonfiction for more than 35 years, beginning with small town papers. I learned to stay detached from judging while I was telling a story’s details. Journalism just observes. The practice helped me see to picture things and places clearly. That favorite article comes from my deep files, a 29-year-old issue of the The Writer. Russell Working, the youngest winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, was once a reporter on a daily paper.

Storytelling demands detail. The image, not the idea, is supreme. Great writers have the ability to focus their powers of observation, and to describe the images that contribute symbolically or aesthetically to the whole of their work.

Working goes on to cite details in Hemingway’s classic story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Hemingway cut his teeth on journalism. Working’s article praises this practice of detachment.

Such writing requires a kind of objectivity, an ability to detach yourself from your subject and simply observe. Writers are sometimes content to slog about in abstractions on character, rather than offering telling detail.

Working has published plenty of nonfiction, but he’s crafting short stories. Check out the beginning of his story “The Irish Martyr”. It’s part of his collection that won the Richard Sullivan Prize for Short Fiction.