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: Anecdotes

This is the fourth in a series of posts about exposition. My purpose is to demonstrate ways that writers can make passages of exposition more engaging, so that readers want to read them rather than skipping past or skimming.

The technique today is one that gets used so often in journalism, it’s become formulaic: turn things into anecdotes. In the hands of mediocre journalists, this annoys the heck out of me—for example, every profile about an interesting person seems to start with some anecdote that supposedly symbolizes that person’s character or work. Often, such anecdotes strike me as mere random incidents that the journalist happened to see during the course of an interview, then tried to inflate into something profoundly meaningful. Harumph. But in fiction, you’re allowed to make stuff up, so you can devise anecdotes that are truly useful.

In particular, you can invent little stories that add life to background information. Let’s look at an example.

“This house,” said Maria, “was built over a hundred years ago by a right old bastard that everyone called Black John. He was famous in his day for…well, just about any crime you can name. Robbery, murder, rape, smuggling—there were folk who’d swear on a bible that they watched with their own two eyes while Black John did it. Then with all his ill-gotten gains, Black John built this huge mansion miles away from anywhere. Built the walls good and thick, in case one of his enemies showed up with a cannon. Concealed at least three secret hiding-places upstairs and down, plus maybe more that we’ve never discovered. And if ever worse came to worst, he dug an escape tunnel in the basement: it leads down into caves that’ll take you into the woods or down to the ocean.”

Billy asked, “How did you get the house, grandma?”

Maria smiled. “Black John may have been famous for being the county’s greatest criminal, but he was shamefully bad at poker.”

This simple story sets up that the house has secret hiding-places and an escape tunnel, all of which will likely get used eventually. I could have embellished the anecdote with more details if I thought more was needed, but this was enough.

Notice that Maria could have just said, “This house has hiding-places and an escape tunnel,” but that’s pretty bland and forgettable. By explaining the house’s features with a little story, I make things a bit more interesting.

You can make anecdotes about anything. For example, if you want to explain your starship’s faster-than-light drive, you can tell a little story about how FTL was discovered. If you want to explain why Country A is at war with Country B, you can tell the story of a character’s mother who experienced the outbreak of war first hand. By weaving a little story around the facts you want to convey, you can make them more engaging and memorable.

Writing Exposition: Visual Aids

In previous posts about exposition, I noted that before providing background information, you should try to make readers want that information. You should also present the information in an emotional context—instead of a dry recitation of facts, you should have one or more characters who view those facts with emotion. For example, if you’re going to give a history lesson, don’t have it given by a detached history professor. Have the lesson delivered by someone who loves or hates what happened, so they can inject some feeling into the facts.

Emotion is a big part of providing exposition with “sizzle”. Another part is arranging for an active presentation rather than a passive one. My mantra on this is, A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

At the low end of activeness, you can use visual aids. Let’s take a simple example.

Robin took me downstairs to a quiet room lit by a single candle. The walls were lost in shadow, but as I entered, I could see stray glints of metal all around me. Robin went to one wall and came back with a sword that he held for me to examine in the candlelight.

With a hushed and reverent voice, Robin said, “This sword belonged to my great-grandmother. She fought in the Ice Brigade during the First Mage War. See how the hilt is scorched? She slammed it into a Russian fire mage at the Battle of Berlin. She couldn’t stab the mage because all the enchantments on the blade had been exhausted in previous fighting. But she had a tiny bit of blessing left on the hilt: enough that she could hammer the mage in the head without getting the sword completely incinerated.

This passage packs in a lot of information. Since it mentions Russia and Berlin, the story clearly takes place on a version of our world. But it’s a world where magic exists, and where people with swords fight mages. Women can be part of military brigades. It’s possible for weapons to be enchanted, but those enchantments wear off.

Instead of just reciting these facts, I’ve created a scene where the facts arise in connection with showing off the sword. There isn’t a ton of drama in this scene, but even so, there’s some action. Characters are moving around, looking at things, and so on.

I could go on to have the narrator describe the sword in more detail, and I could use those details to reveal other facts about the world. I could also have Robin show the narrator other mementos from the room, perhaps dealing with later wars and other important events. In this way, I can convey a lot of background without much trouble.

Using objects is a simple way of turning exposition into an active scene rather mere passive statements. In future posts, I’ll look at other approaches.

[Sword diagrams from Nathan Robinson via the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

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]

Writing Exposition: Introduction

In writing fiction, exposition means giving the reader background information.

The need for exposition is universal—at the start of Hamlet, for example, the audience needs to be told that Hamlet is a prince, that his father, the king, recently died, and that his mother married his uncle soon thereafter. Since these events happened before the start of the play, Shakespeare didn’t want to show them on stage. Instead, he had to convey the information in some other way.

As I just said, every piece of fiction needs exposition. There’s always a lot of things that the audience needs to know in order to understand what’s going on, and it’s just not practical (or even possible) to present those things as a direct part of the action.

The problem can be even worse in fantasy/science fiction. F&SF often deal with “facts” that don’t exist on our own world—fictional places, for example. If I’m writing about our own world, I can set a story in Toronto and take it for granted that readers will have a general picture of the city. (Of course, I’ll have to explain specific background details that non-Torontonians aren’t likely to know.)

If, on the other hand, I set a story in a fictional city on a fictional world, I can’t take anything for granted. I have to explain history, culture, environment, etc. starting at Square One.

Small details are easy to toss in during the action: My mother lived in Cabbagetown, one of the worst parts of the city. That’s enough to give readers a first impression of the mother’s neighborhood. Later on, you can go into the specifics of what makes it so bad.

But sometimes, you need to give more information than just a thrown-in phrase. For example, if you’re writing about a war, you (usually) have to tell what the war is about. Depending on the needs of your story, this may involve a deep dive into the relevant history, economics, cultural perceptions, and so on.

How do you provide this information without putting readers to sleep? I summarize the basic principle like this:

A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

Think of all those things we wish that school teachers would do: take us on field trips…use visual aids…make active presentations…tell anecdotes…turn parts of the lesson into games. As writers, we have to do the same sorts of things.

Lectures have their place, but they’re dry. Next time, I’ll talk about how to use more colorful ways to convey information in the course of a story.

Eye Candy

Everybody listens to music…

Well okay, I don’t do listen much, because I get way too distracted. I can’t listen to music and do anything else at the same time. But anyhoo…

Everybody listens to music. Everybody seeks out music. And everybody can find music because there are a zillion sources from iTunes to Spotify to Bandcamp.

But many of us don’t seek out visual stimulation. The number of people who go to art galleries is tiny compared to the number of people who go to music venues.

Of course, there are plenty of visual sources besides galleries: Instagram, Pinterest, Deviant Art, to name a few. There are also infinite quantities of cute animal pictures out in the world…for which we must be grateful on days when almost everything else in life sucks.

But if you’re a writer, you should be constantly filling your eyes with visual input. Geography, for example. What can a desert look like? We’ve all seen picturesque sand dunes, but what other possibilities are there? What do desert-dwelling people look like? What do desert settlements look like? Desert animals? Desert rocks? You never know when you might need to write a scene that takes place in a desert. Filling your eyes and brain with desert images ahead of time gives you resources to draw on if you need them.

The same goes for other environments. Also for things: castles and railways and factories and alleys and parks and crustaceans and whatever exists in the world. And people: people of all ages, types, cultures, past and present.

Make a point of seeking web sites and other sources of diverse visuals. Do it every day. Make bookmarks for images that interest you. Cover your writing desk with pictures that get your juices flowing.

These days, it’s a cliche to ask, “What music do you have on your phone?” But I remember a Robertson Davies novel where a character asks, “What pictures does he have on his walls?” That really got me thinking. And I started figuring out what visuals might put me in the mood to write.

Writers should have pictures. A lot of them. And writers should make a point of seeing new things every day.

[Candy cane picture from gallery.yopriceville.com]

Making It Matter: Characters

In the previous post of this series, I talked about using Morning Pages to get ideas for what you want to write about. This is a way to see what’s just beneath the surface of your mind: something that’s ready to emerge.

But once you’ve found such material, what do you do with it? The answer is to come up with characters for whom it’s important, and to put them in situations where they’ll be forced to cope with the issue.

Let’s say you find yourself thinking about taking a stand on something important—a topic that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days. (Gee, I wonder why.) To use this theme in a story, you might develop a character who finds him or herself in a position where taking a stand seems necessary, but where it’s also going to have serious negative consequences.

After all, there’s no drama if a character has things easy. If the issue is just, “We should be nice to puppies,” the character isn’t going to lose friends, alienate family, and risk jail time for spreading that message. (Yes, I’m sure some of you out there can quickly come up with a scenario where being nice to puppies is hugely threatening to the social order. But chill. You know what I’m getting at.)

So you make a character who’s torn between (at least) two strongly weighted alternatives. Remember that the character should be someone you care about, and that readers are likely to care about too. Also remember that the character should have something significant to lose…and not just in a material sense. The character should face an emotional price, whichever option (s)he chooses.

Then be honest about consequences. Even when an issue has an unambiguously right decision (if such a thing ever exists), there are bound to be negative consequences even when you do the right thing. People get hurt. Things go wrong. Side effects happen. It’s never perfect sweetness and light.

But if you’ve chosen to write about something that truly means something to you, thinking and writing about such matters is a worthwhile way to spend your time, even if the writing is difficult.

Writing is good. Writing about meaningful things is better.