Writing Description: Story

Recently, I’ve written a series of posts about exposition. Now I want to step back and talk about how to write descriptive passages. Description shares some features with exposition, but is much more common. Almost every page of a piece of fiction contains some description, unless you’re writing something very unusual.

For writing descriptions, I have a mantra: A descriptive passage is the *story* of a *particular character’s* *encounter* with a person, place or thing. Description is not a passive list of details that exists independent of any observer; it’s an active experience of someone perceiving and/or selecting what to tell about something.

Different characters perceive different things, they take note of different things, they have different ways of articulating what they perceive, and they have different reactions to what they perceive. All these factors enter into how you write any particular descriptive passage.

Someone looking at my desk might simply call it messy. A different someone might say it’s an old wooden desk with a modest-sized monitor screen and a well-used keyboard surrounded by a hodgepodge of paper. Someone who’s trying to hack my computer might ignore all the papers on top of the desk and even the screen; instead, they’d immediately open the desk drawers to see if I’ve written down passwords anywhere. Someone else might also ignore the papers, but go through all the tabs in my browser to see if there’s anything of note. Someone else might ignore my desk completely, and instead go through the bookshelves beside it.

The details you perceive about a person, place or thing depend on your thoughts and goals at the time of the encounter. Suppose you open a door and look into a room. If you’re searching for a friend, you may see that there’s no one in the room and immediately close the door without taking much note of anything the room contains. If, on the other hand, you’re just poking around to see what the building looks like, you may take your time and look around. You’ll probably make judgments about the decor. Maybe you’ll walk inside and pick things up to have a closer look.

If you were writing a description of the room, you’d probably state your perceptions (in the order that you perceived them), your emotional/intellectual reactions to what you see/hear/smell, and any actions you take in response. Typically, the experience unfolds very quickly—so quickly, you seldom pay attention to how one perception leads to another. Typically too, your emotional reactions are so small that they come and go without any conscious notice. Finally, your actions in response are typically small too: you close the door and leave, or you turn your head, or whatever. It may seem as if nothing has actually happened.

But it has. And next time, I’ll show some examples of how this plays out.

[Door picture from Wikimedia Commons by Sidheeq [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Writing Exposition: Timing and Emotion

In the previous post about exposition, I talked about what exposition is and why it’s inescapable. I also mentioned my basic principle on exposition: A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

I’ll say more about that principle eventually. First, however, let’s look at an important question: When/where do you have exposition appear in a story?

Ideally, you provide exposition at a point where the reader wants it. If the reader really really wants to know about a subject, then the reader will eagerly read what you have to say about it.

This means it’s a good idea to create the conditions in which a reader is keen to find out background information. As an example, consider the beginning of Hamlet.

In the first scene of the play, a ghost appears on the battlements of the royal castle. This isn’t the first night the ghost has been seen, so the guards have called in a young scholar named Horatio to see what he thinks the ghost is up to. Horatio tries to get the ghost to talk, but doesn’t succeed. He does, however, observe that the ghost looks like the late King Hamlet. So Horatio decides to go to the king’s son, Prince Hamlet, and tell the prince about the ghost.

This scene contains some of its own exposition. “Hey, that ghost looks like the king who died a few weeks ago!” is a lovely example of quick exposition. But more importantly, the scene sets up a situation in which the audience wants to know more about the late king and his death.

After all, seeing a ghost is dramatic stuff. Something juicy must have happened when the king died. The audience will be eager for details. Therefore, the next scene is a great time to do exposition.

So what happens in the next scene? The royal court is in session, with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude sitting on their thrones. Various things happen to set up events later in the play, but exposition is provided by Prince Hamlet—throughout the proceedings, he keeps firing off side comments and emotional outbursts.

Hamlet is basically pissed off at the world. He’s pissed off that his Uncle Claudius is now sitting on Dad’s old throne; he’s pissed off at Mom, Queen Gertrude, for marrying Claudius two seconds after Dad was buried. (“Gee, Mom, great idea! We saved money by serving the leftovers from the funeral feast at the wedding banquet.”) Hamlet is also pissed off at various other characters, making snide comments on their personalities and generally acting like a sullen teenager.

During the process, we learn a lot of background details about everyone. His complaints also give us personal info on everybody he bitches about. Hamlet’s complaints are also snarky enough to be entertaining and emotional enough to show that he’s a powder keg. They show how angry he is with Claudius and Gertrude. And in the process, we find out that Claudius and Gertrude got married suspiciously fast after the old king’s death.

In other words, we get lots of exposition, but it’s delivered with sizzling emotion. Hamlet isn’t lecturing us, he’s chewing out everyone around him. We’re entertained by the emotional fireworks…and in the process, we learn a lot of background facts.

This example highlights two important principles of exposition.

  1. Before you provide major bits of exposition, set up conditions that make readers want to know the facts.
  2. Then when you deliver the facts, do so with emotion. Don’t just lecture, give a speech. There’s a difference.

That’s it for today. More to come!

[Poster for Hamlet from Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: June 29, 2018

More links…

Eye Candy: National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year pictures
In the spirit of my recent post about Eye Candy, the National Geographic just released a whole bunch of gorgeous photographs. Well worth clicking through them all.
Book: Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri
A police procedural thriller set in Italy. The sleuths are both suffering from serious cases of PTSD, making them flawed but sympathetic. Lots of action, but with realistic consequences—whenever there’s a fight, one or both heroes usually end up in the hospital. I’m reading the sequel now, and it’s good too.
Awards: The Aurora Awards
If you’re Canadian citizen or landed immigrant, why not sign up to vote in the Aurora awards? It costs $10 (Canadian) but if you sign up now, you get a substantial voter’s package containing lots of great stories and book excerpts. And (cough cough), you can also vote for my stuff if you feel so inclined.

Sharing: Tor.com Novellas

A novella is shorter than a novel and longer than a novelette. Definitions vary, but the Tor.com line of Novellas uses a word count of 20,000-40,000 words. (For comparison, an average novel is about 100,000 words.)

Tor.com novellas offer a great cross-section of modern science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Because the line emphasizes diversity, you’re apt to find books full of fresh ideas seldom seen in other SF work. At the same time, you can also find great examples of “cozy” old mainstream SF (like the Murderbot stories by Martha Wells that I mentioned last week).

What’s so great about novellas? It’s been said that the novella is the “natural” length for SF: long enough to develop an idea in detail, but not so long as to wear out their welcome. Also, let’s be honest, novellas are cheaper and faster to read than full-length novels. In addition, novellas cost less to print, so the publisher can take risks on stories that may be more cutting-edge than conventional tales.

One way or another, I’ve enjoyed all the Tor.com novellas I’ve read. In addition to the Murderbot stories, here are some of my favorites:

 

To be honest, I didn’t realize how many Tor.com novellas I’d read until I started making the above list…and that’s not counting a number of books that I have on my Kindle waiting to be read.

So by all means, check out the line. All the novellas are available digitally as well as in trade paperback; many (or maybe all) are also available as audiobooks.

And if you don’t usually read science fiction/fantasy/horror, these novellas are a great place to start.

Sharing: June 17, 2018

More stuff I like:

Book: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
This made me laugh a lot: wry and honest cartoons about being an well-meaning misfit.
App: Feedly
Feedly is an RSS subscription reader…and if you don’t know what that is, you should. RSS is method of summarizing and syndicating blog posts. Almost every site you care about creates its own RSS information; software like Feedly can look up that information and tell you about any articles posted since the last time you checked. In other words, RSS readers let you follow blogs and quickly find out what’s new. I use Feedly as a fast way of checking many different web sites, so that I’m always up to date. (And by the way, you can use Feedly to follow this web site too, i.e. jamesalangardner.com. Never miss a posting!
Web Site: Reductress
Reductress is The Onion but with articles slanted toward women. Some of the articles are only titles…but the titles are so great, adding content would only spoil them. So yes, I just read Reductress for the headlines; it is a wonderful use of my time.

Sharing: June 11, 2018

Cool things for the day:

Book Bundle: British Mysteries Ultimate Collection
I picked up this bundle over the weekend, and I’m thrilled. On Amazon Canada (see the link above), it was only 73 cents. For that tiny price, you get a huge number of Kindle books, including all the Sherlock Holmes books plus more from Conan Doyle, all the Wilkie Collins books, all the A.J. Raffles books, all the Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, a ton from Edgar Wallace, and much more. I’m sure all the books are just taken from Project Gutenberg, but the convenience of downloading them with a single click is well worth 73 cents.
Comic Book Series: Lumberjanes
Lumberjanes is a lovely comic series for kids and those who’ve never grown up. Let’s say the series is for people age 7 to infinity. It’s about a diverse group of hardcore lady-types (i.e. girls, not all straight, not all cis) at a wilderness camp that’s enjoying an endless summer full of weirdness. I faithfully buy and read the collections when they come out, then pass them on to the daughters of some friends.
Role-Playing System: Mage the Awakening, Second Edition
I’m a big fan of games from The Onyx Path, who hold a license to create games that follow on from the old White Wolf games. I’d recommend pretty much any of their games, and will probably do so in the months to come. However, I’ve played Mage most recently, so I’ll lead with that. By default, the game is set in today’s world where you play (duh) a mage…which can mean any type of magic-using character you can imagine. The game system is very flexible; while it has long lists of predefined spells, you aren’t restricted to them. Since one of the groups I play with has several players who aren’t into reading rule books, I said, “Just tell me what you want to do. We’ll see if you’re powerful enough to do it.” For those who’ve only played games like Dungeons & Dragons, Mage can be an eye-opener.

 

Sharing: June 6, 2018

Things I’ve enjoyed recently.

Article: There Are No Laws of Physics. There’s Only the Landscape
A good introduction to the concept of “the landscape” in modern physics, and why it has physicists both excited and disappointed.
Book: Gothicka by Victoria Nelson
A survey of recent developments in Gothic fiction. To a first approximation, Gothic fiction used to be synonymous with supernatural horror, but in recent years, not so much. Classic monsters like vampires and werewolves are more likely to be heroes than villains these days, as in the entire genre of urban fantasy. Why did this happen and what does it mean? I don’t agree with Nelson on numerous points, and she gets a few specifics wrong (especially when it comes to comic books), but there’s lots of food for thought.
Computer Game: The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (I recommend the Game of the Year edition containing all the DLC)
It took me a while to get around to The Witcher 3, partly because I got super-annoyed with technical glitches in The Witcher 1 and partly because the creators said ill-informed things when taken to task for the game’s lack of diversity. But as Anita Sarkeesian often says in Feminist Frequency videos, it’s possible to both enjoy a game and be aware of its problematic aspects.
The Witcher 3 is too male-gaze-y and lacks people of color, yet it’s the most inventive computer role-playing game I’ve ever played. It has many great story arcs, long and short, great game-play, and plenty of surprises. Over and over, I found myself encountering things I’d never seen in any other game…and even though it’s now several years old, nothing since has ever come close to its level of variety and story-telling. After more than 200 hours of play, I’ve started it again from the beginning and am still enjoying it a lot.