Friday, April 29, 2016

writing tips -- descriptions with RuthAnne, part 5

5. Trust your reader to understand context clues

If I said the following, would you know what season it was?

Salt-stained streets
Leaves crunching underfoot 
Heads of crocuses popped up through cold mud
Everything smelled of coconut-scented sunscreen

OF COURSE you would. So trust your reader will as well.

This is where I think the infamous "show, don't tell" advice helps a great deal. Beginning writers (even experienced writers) are frequently told to show the reader something, don't tell the reader something. This will immerse your reader in your story, instead of keeping the reader at a psychological distance. And when it comes to writing description, I think the easiest way to remember how to "show, don't tell" is to play Taboo with your reader.

Remember Taboo? It's that game where a person gets a card with a person, place, or thing written at the top. For example, "Christmas." You need to get your team to guess that your card says "Christmas" without using the five most obvious clues listed underneath. If you say those clues (let's say "snow, carol, Santa Clause, gift, tree), you get buzzed out. If you cheat and start saying stuff like, "Rhymes with..." you get buzzed out.

Need an example? Check out Rainbow Rowell's FANGIRL for an excellent one. Background information: Cath is coming home to visit her Dad, an advertising copywriter, from college. This is the scene she witnesses when she comes home.
“The papers in the living room had been sorted into sections. ‘Buckets,’ he called them. They were taped to the walls and the windows. Some pieces had other papers taped around them, as if the ideas were exploding. Cath looked all over his ideas and found a green pen to star her favorites. (She was green; Wren was red.)

The sight of it—chaotic, but still sorted—made her feel better.…

By Sunday night, the whole house was covered in onionskin sketch paper and burrito foil. Cath started another load of drinking glasses and gathered up all the delicious-smelling trash.”

Rainbow Rowell doesn't need to explicitly say, "Cath's dad has bipolar disorder. Cath is very used to his manic episodes, which means they've been happening for a long time." All of this information is implied by the scene (ideas taped up on the walls, multiple loads of dirty drinking glasses that need to be washed by a visiting daughter tell us about the mania; Cath nonchalantly wandering around the room to star her favorite ideas, the fact that the sight makes her feel better tells us that this has been happening for awhile).

Friday, April 22, 2016

Writing tips -- descriptions with RuthAnne, part 4

(Are you getting tired of this yet? I'm sorry. I do think it's helpful!)

4. Integrate your descriptions with your story.

No one wants a big block of text describing the socio-political background of a city unless it has some relevance to the plot at hand. Descriptions are important, maybe even the most important, but they have to serve the story.

Remember -- quirks are good, but they're better if they fit within your story arc and serve to give the reader information about the characters.

Consider this example from GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn.
“Our bar is a corner bar with a haphazard, patchwork aesthetic. Its best feature is a massive Victorian backbar, dragon heads and angel faces emerging from the oak—an extravagant work of wood in these shitty plastic days. The remainder of the bar is, in fact, shitty, a showcase of the shabbiest design offerings of every decade: an Eisenhower-era linoleum floor, the edges turned up like burnt toast; dubious wood-paneled walls straight from a ‘70s home-porn video; halogen floor lamps, an accidental tribute to my 1990s dorm room. The ultimate effect is strangely homey—it looks less like a bar than someone’s benignly neglected fixer-upper. And jovial: We share a parking lot with the local bowling alley, and when our door swings wide, the clatter of strikes applauds the customer’s entrance.”

Why does the description work? First, it addresses characterization. It tells us that our narrator (Nick Dunne, in this case) is bitter and cynical ("shitty plastic days") but also able to look on the bright side (the bowling alley is next door).

It fits within the story arc. It tell us that the owners of the bar cannot afford to fix it up and it subtly implies that they may not know what they're doing when it comes to running a business. It also arrives at the right time in the story--Nick has just explained that he lost his job as a writer, so he came home and opened a business with his sister.

Remember: If a description doesn't arrive at the right place in the story, it doesn't matter how good it is. It's just a paragraph in a brochure.

Friday, April 15, 2016

writing tips--descriptions with RuthAnne, part 3

3. Use all the senses

We all know the five senses, right? Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Your characters experience these five senses, whether you describe them or not. The better you do at utilizing all the senses, the more alive your milieu will seem.

But there's one sense that, in my opinion, shouldn't be overlooked. That sense is memory.

Take a look at these examples from Harry Potter if you want to see what I mean.

Sorry for these crappy photos, by the way. I couldn't figure out how to integrate my Power Point.

Do you know what I think is the most important phrase in that entire paragraph? "...that Ron had mentioned;"

With four words, JK Rowling makes it clear that Honeydukes existed before Harry arrived there, and that it will therefore continue after he leaves. It's not just a set that Harry wandered through, it's a real place, full of fat toffees and peppermint creams shaped like toads.

If you can find a way to invoke all five of the sensory senses in your descriptions, great. If you can find a way to weave in a sense of memory, even better.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Writing tips -- descriptions with RuthAnne, part 2

Part Two of my writing tips on description is about using specific details.

It sounds obvious -- specific details are better than vague details -- but it can be easier said than done.

Look at the column on the left, then compare it to the column on the right. There's nothing wrong with what's on the left, it's just that what's on the right gives a much stronger idea of what is happening. 

If you want a great example of how to do this, go read Laini Taylor's DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE. I visited Prague last summer, and let me tell you, Taylor's fanciful language describing the city at night is picture-perfect. Believe me, if you just said "European city at night," it wouldn't come close to telling you about Karou's world.

Do you need a perfect verbal SAT to write a great description? Definitely not. The most "unique" or complicated word in the McCarthy passage above is either "disclet" or "lozenge." The question is not big words -- it's the right words. 

This is what I like to call the Project Runway rule. It's always best to start with way, way, way too much and then unleash your Inner Tim Gunn. If you don't start with enough, you may struggle to complete your look without starting over.

Part 3 forthcoming ...

Friday, April 1, 2016

Writing tips -- descriptions with RuthAnne, part 1

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to teach at a local writer conference. Today when I was attempting to organize my Dropbox, I found my slides and thought the best place for them would be on my blog.

So here we go -- "Part One of Vivid Descriptions and Pertinent Details: What Makes Settings Come Alive?"

(according to moi)

In my opinion, world building is the single most important thing a writer can do--even if (and especially if) the setting is contemporary. World building isn't just about magic systems and geography--it is the character's entire milieu.

So how do you make a milieu seem real? Five things.

1. Ask yourself what the character would notice about the setting.
2. Remember that being more specific is always better than being less specific
3. Integrate the details into the story
4. Use all the character's senses
5. Trust your reader to understand context clues

First up: Ask yourself what the character would notice about the setting.

What I find so exceptional about this description is that not only does it paint a vivid picture of Lola's room, but it also tells you about Lola as a character without coming right out and saying, "Lola was really creative and quirky."

A word of caution? Think about what your character WOULDN'T notice--in this case, would it make sense if Lola noted her 5.5 inch crown moldings? No. Her thing is fashion, not architecture.

Next time: Detail specificity ...