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.

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Filling Out that Early Draft of Your Book

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hungry_babyNovels arrive, like babies, at expected weights. A writer who’s poked around websites or attended conferences knows the numbers. It’s tough to consider anything under 60,000 words a novel. The spot that most agents like to see for a debut novel is about 80,000 words. Science fiction and fantasy writers can go as high as 120,000 and get a commercial deal.

But what if you’re 20,000 words short of even the 60K? How do you look for what that early draft of your book needs in order to grow to term, like babies do? It’s tough for a preemie to make it in the world, in the same way that a small book will scuffle to make an impact. Where do you look to fatten up that early draft?

Character is usually the broad-brush answer. Early versions of novels exist in the most complete fashion inside the writer’s head. You can see your hero, the story’s villain, all the trusty sidekicks and baffled authority figures, the mentor and the confidants. The question becomes, do your readers know them like you do? I like to tell writers that if it’s not on the page, then it’s probably not in the story.

Motives: I need to know what your main character wants desperately. I want to see the achievement or the object or the relationship that leaves a hole in their heart, because it’s missing. You can show me this in the part of the story where the story starts. Pixar calls this the “Every day…” part of the writing. I call it Life as Your Character Knows It. If at all possible, try to show that “Every day” instead of telling it to me.

Settings: It can be tempting to paint each loving detail of a house, a shop, a town, or a beloved car. In the same way, your early draft writing can linger on the physical details of significant characters. These details are only important to the story if they keep showing readers that missing element your hero wants. How does the hero feel about the peeling paint on the windowsills? Can you show me that feeling in a scene? There’s a great exercise called the Character of Setting, where details for descriptions are chosen based on what the feeling of the character is at that moment of the story.

Early drafts of novels often need to be unpacked, like the old sea monkey kits that would arrive from the cereal box companies. (That’s a Boomer reference if ever there was one. You used an eyedropper of water.) You drop emotions onto the little moments in your story. You slow down the narrative progress and linger over the sensory moments. Your early draft, if it’s short, doesn’t have to rush toward one event after the next. Plot is the events that happen in a book. Story is what makes the events matter. You can only create the meaning for a book if I understand the characters’ hearts.

If your characters start talking to each other in an early draft, that’s a fine spot to expand the sea monkeys. Conflict drives all lively dialogue. Let me see a bit of battle, confusion, or misunderstanding of one another while the characters sort things out in talk. In the best of scenes, there’s action to provide counterpoint to the talking.

History: Resist this if you can. Flashbacks are tolerable to a point, but what’s happening in the now of the story is the most important thing to a reader. Extended explanations to recount events about why something is significant are often shortcuts. Telling has a valuable place in story creation. Showing is more riveting, and it provides a hard-wired magnet for attention of the reader. Telling compresses time and scoots us through the story’s slow spots. Showing lets us walk through the garden with eyes on every flower.

Keeping your main character’s yearning in every part of the story will give your early draft the food it needs to grow to term. Some writers have to cut back when they get to later drafts. Some need to make more events take place, to cut back on the interior voice of the book and get out of the heads of characters. But for many an early draft, showing the character’s desires and fears, their hidden shame and forbidden joy, is the best nourishment to make it grow.

Mind-meld character and setting

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Donald Maass offers a lot of advice on getting your book written well enough to break out in Writing the Breakout Novel. In his first chapter he gives you all the motivation you will need: Scenarios of writers with ongoing careers, already published, but sliding downward. He calls himself the agent who gets the 911 call when the latest novel doesn’t get picked up.

That scary scenario is available for your consideration at the Amazon.com Web page for the book, in “Excerpt.” But the problems which Haass offers up also have solutions in the book. Amazon’s site lets you Look Inside the Haass book, and in a “Surprise Me” click I found this advice on making setting and character merge to lift a book into breakout:

You can deepen the psychology of place in your story by returning to a previously established setting and showing how your character’s perception of it has changed. A useful principle for making place an active character [in your story] is to give your characters an active relationship to place; which in turn means marking your characters’ growth or decline through their relationships to their various surroundings.

Haass has a good handle on how to do this, since he says it’s not as easy as it sounds. “Go inside your characters and allow them a moment to discover their feelings about the place into which you’ve delivered them.”

I’ve been working on this myself in writing Viral Times. The strongest POV character I’ve got, my protagonist, returns to his hometown after many years to find it darker, more desperate — or so he imagines.

But enough about that. Try it yourself. Haass has his good book to help in the experiment.