New? Begin with lesson one.
How an author handles description can make or break a story. An amazing plot can be hidden by too much of it or never reached if it's bad enough to discourage the reader early on. Balance and careful thought are crucial to writing excellent description in prose.
There is a plethora of factors to consider when considering the broader topic of description. Showing versus telling, active versus passive voice, action, setting, characterization, point-of-view, and pacing all tie into it. It's next to impossible to separate them into clean categories because they all overlap. Because of this, today's lesson will be an overview, and we will go more in depth with these other factors in the following weeks.
Moderation is key in fiction the same as it is in life.
We talked a bit about finding a balance in dialogue and description in the last lesson. Stories need some of both. Figuring out when to use which and how much takes time and practice, but it becomes easier with time and experience.
You want to give your reader enough information about the surroundings, characters, and action to get a clear image in their minds. However, you don't want to drag your story down with unnecessary details. Do your readers really need to know what every item of clothing your protagonist is wearing? Unless it's unusual enough within the setting to make those around them do a double take or affects how your character moves, it probably isn't. Give them what you need to in order to form the image, sensation, or emotion of the scene in their mind and leave the nitty gritty details to the reader's imagination.
Writing, like any other form of art, is open to interpretation. You as a writer have little to no control over how your words will be interpreted by the reader. "Purple prose," or overzealous and bombastic description, is often the result of a writer either being too attached to a particular scene or trying to make their meaning the only meaning to be found in the piece. People's minds work differently. No matter how clear you try to make a passage, others can and will find other ways of viewing it. Making peace with this fact and then writing clear and concise prose will save you a lot of stress and headaches.
Keep it simple. Keep it clear.
The endless "rules" and debates over writing center around description in one way or another. If you've seen writing boards or read the reviews of books or fan fiction stories, you've probably heard of a few. "Show don't tell," and, "Death to adverbs," are two frequent ones. While a bit annoying as circular arguments tend to become, there are good arguments for either side. There are exceptions to any rule, but the gist of it all comes down to making your work read well and be clear at the same time.
We'll talk more about each one in turn as the course continues, but they all come back to word choice and order. English is a marvelous language to write in because we have a wide range of words to chose from, each with their own particular meanings. If you don't already have a thesaurus or dictionary, I would recommend finding one. They're invaluable tools.
Keep it consistent.
Whatever voice you decide to write in, finding a consistent way to approach description in your story will not only make writing it easier, but it will help your reader follow along. If you're writing from the point-of-view of a particular character, keep your description to what they are experiencing through their senses and emotions. If you've chosen to write from a perspective outside your characters, pick a starting point and go from there: top to bottom or left to right for example.
Over the course of writing Right of Succession, I tried both methods. When I first started, I wrote in third person omniscient. My description was all over the place, and I tended to bounce between the characters' heads. As I learned, I starting focusing on one character at a time, but I kept with third person omniscient for the description moving from left to right for description. It wasn't until I was rewriting the manuscript for the final time I decided to write in the third person voice but stick with the perspective of one character at a time.
That is to say, I wrote each scene from within one character's head, but I didn't use their voice in the description. This narrowed the field of what I could describe in each scene and in many cases intensified the emotions behind them. It was something I found particularly helpful during battle sequences since it focused on a small part of the chaos in the full scene. Breaking down each chapter into three or four sections all seen through the eyes of four key characters allowed me to overlap the same major events through someone close to the scene and others farther away. This allowed the scope and timing of the events to be seen without having to go overboard on description in any one section.
There are many different ways you can go about voice, description, and point-of-view. None are inherently better than the other. It's down to what works for you. The key is being consistent within the story.
As I mentioned earlier, today's lesson is just an overview on description. We'll discuss other elements of description in the coming weeks.
Continue on to showing versus telling.
A. B. England is a small business owner, mom of two, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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