Friday, February 8, 2013

Descriptive Power on Page One

It's about time for another craft post for all you writers out there. I imagine many of you are gearing up for a session or two of writing over the weekend. I know I am.

Description often gets overlooked for the power it can have in a story. Some dismiss it as no big deal, just use the five senses and you're good to go. Some avoid using it altogether because they think readers skip that part to get to the action. Some worry over excessive exposition that could be perceived as an info dump. And some apply it strictly as a means for building their story world, period.

The above assumptions are mostly false.

Effective description is one of the most powerful tools in a writer's toolbox. There's a skill to making it work in an active way that enhances both plot and character, and can make the difference between an okay story and a compelling one.

I could spend an entire day teaching a workshop on description, but I'll condense the basics for the purpose of this blog. In fact, I'm going to start at the beginning. Of a book. Like, page 1.

An overall issue I see with a lot of first books is an eagerness to reveal the setting in a cinematic way. A literary camera pans across a vista in the land where the story takes place. Or the camera slowly zooms in on some metaphorical image that sets the tone of the story about to unfold. Or perhaps the lens is pointed out the window as thick clouds of fog roll across the screen to create atmosphere.

The above might work great for a movie, with a voice-over done by the main character. And though screenplays share a number of similarities with the novel form, they are different medias. Film engages the viewer visually and captures attention that way. Books use words, and call upon a reader's imagination to conjure the image that's intended to be seen. This takes time, and readers are less likely to have the patience to translate all those words into something visually engaging enough to compel them to turn the page. You, dear writer, need to hook them before they decide to go watch a movie instead.

But you want to set the tone, the atmosphere, and visually engage your readers, so how else can you do this? If you want to use description to open your book, your job is to create context to go with it. Associate the description with the action and the characters. Don't separate the two. Engage your reading audience by creating a balance that ties all these elements together.

Lets use the vista as an example. As your words paint a panoramic view of the story world, they need to include an active element in the story. You'll be in a character's point of view as you do this (please avoid omniscient) so his emotions are attached to this unfolding landscape. Maybe it's morning and the character is tense because of something about to happen. What he sees and feels relate to this scenery in some way. Maybe his job is to slaughter a farm animal to feed his family and he's loathe to take a life. Or he has to check the zombie traps that were set the night before and he's scared of what he'll find. Consider having some conflict at play here because readers will be most engaged by tension rather than entering the land of the happy people. Even if your characters are happy, there needs to be a hint of unpleasantness just around the corner. Tension on every page. I can't stress this enough.

Just remember that context is key, especially for genre fiction. And even though you think you're showing rather than telling, a description that lacks engagement with the plot and characters is like a barren island floating in a sea of nothing. Dry. Boring. Stagnant. It doesn't take the reader where he or she needs to go.

Does the first page of your manuscript open with description or action? I hope you say both. Feel free to paste the first paragraph (NOT a whole page) of your WIP in comments and I'll offer you an honest critique. If there's something you're unsure about, or a particular problem you're having with your opening, let me know and I'll be happy to address it.


Gregory Grayson said...

Samuel Barnes stood in his kitchen staring down at the butcher knife gripped tightly in his right hand. The long sharp edge of the steel pressed firmly against his inside left wrist, indenting the skin nearly beyond its elasticity but for the moment going no further. To his right, playful flames that curled around the empty pot in the stove gave a burst of life, sensuously stretching themselves up the sides of the black iron kettle. Even though he stood a mere foot away from the radiant heat, Samuel was cold as death inside. It was June the 7th, 1902, seven days since his life had effectively ended.

Karen Duvall said...

Wow, Gregory, this is a very powerful opening paragraph. I have no technical criticism, however I did feel distanced from the character. The descriptions are tactile, and I enjoyed that very much. Especially the playful flames that contrast so nicely with the tragic situation Samuel appears to be in. As for my sense of distance, I think it's because the delivery of your narrative doesn't feel like it's coming from the character. Telling us that Samuel was cold as death inside isn't as powerful as it might be if we could feel it for him.

None of this is to say that your paragraph isn't great. It's technically sound. Good job!

Mary Frances Roya said...

OMG, ghost in my story name is Samuel Barton. ***

“Where am I?” cursing Samuel Barton wakes in semi darkness and his head throbbing with pain. He tries to move and finds that he is restrained. Fear, confusion runs rapid through his mind, there is excruciating pain from his left hand his ring finger is burning. He feels his sticky blood dripping down his palm. He sees his finger is missing. Why am I here, what is happening to me, he thinks. Looking around, the room is concrete and dirt, he feels rebar at his back. He knows where he is being held. The foundation of the Epperson building, in the sub-basement and the concrete is scheduled to be poured tomorrow. A frenzy of panic slams through his core; he will be entombed in the wall if he doesn’t get free.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Mary, for posting your paragraph. Overlooking your punctuation and grammar errors, I can still see that this is an exciting beginning to what appears to be an intriguing story.

You can tighten this paragraph considerably. You don't have to say "he feels" or "he sees" because we're already in his POV and it's a given that these sensations are his. "Sticky blood from his missing finger drips down his palm" is much more concise and says the same thing.

Leave out the "why am I here, what is happening" bit because you already made it clear that he's confused, so this is repetitive.

Again, avoid saying "feel" and try to show it instead. Does he smell the concrete and dirt? Is the rebar cold against his bare back or does the metal poke through the thin fabric of his shirt? You can get in a lot of descriptive details that define his situation without telling us what he's wearing.

You've done a good job getting his panic across and letting us know he has reason to be frightened. Now you need to clean up your grammar and punctuation problems, tighten your prose, and let your voice come through. Good luck!

Terry Wright said...

In my ten years on the Denver police force, I never thought I’d set out to murder anyone. Yet here I sat in my unmarked squad car watching Martin Vallinski strut out of the donut shop at Sixth and Kalamath. My jaw muscles clenched. He wore a brown vest over a green flannel shirt, dirty denim jeans, and ragged tennis shoes. Scraggly brown hair hung over his forehead. Greasy skin, sharp cheekbones, and a piggy nose, his face was the last face Maria saw, the face she’d scratched as she fought for her life. He bore the scars on his cheeks like a neon sign flashing: GUILTY. GUILTY. GUILTY!

Karen Duvall said...

Hey, Terry! Oh, I like this opening. Very exciting, introduces the character right away, and there's no question he's pissed off and we know why.

The only thing that tripped me up was the description of his target's clothing. I think if you associated the clothing with something about the character, as you did with the scars on the man's cheeks, this would work better. Otherwise, you can probably leave it out. Those details don't seem relevant and they slow down an otherwise active start.

Nice job!

Jean Jacobsen said...

Jean Jacobsen said... Clarissa’s early morning ride on the bridle path which wound throughout the estate gave her a few moments of peace and quiet before starting her hectic day of training their Thoroughbred horses. If I’d only known my father would be lost to me one year ago, I’d have made better use of my time with him. If I’d only known my presentation to society would be delayed by a year, I’d have made more of an effort to respect my mother’s wishes. If I’d only known…

Karen Duvall said...

Hi, Jean! Thanks for posting. This looks like the start of a good story.

First off, the correct word is that, not which, in "that wound around." A lot of writers get the two confused, but you want to use "that" because it's a restrictive clause. You only use "which" for nonrestrictive clauses.

I'm not sure what POV you want to use for your story, but your sample here is a mix of first and 3rd. It's best to use one or the other, not both, especially in the same paragraph. If your 1st person narrative was intended to be italicized to show her inner thoughts, you don't need to change to 1st because even in 3rd, we know there's just the one character, so she's the only one who could be thinking anything.

I can't help but wonder if maybe you're starting your story in the wrong place. The character is contemplating all these things "if she had known" and without context, this has no relevance. The reader can only speculate on myriad things she could have known, which isn't compelling. You need a hook to draw readers in.

I think if you address these issues, you'll be off to a great start. Good luck!

Vicki said...

Rick heard the shot just before a deep red stain bloomed dead center of the white summer blouse on the woman standing next to him. The woman he’d just been talking to on the beach. The woman he’d been dancing with twenty minutes earlier. The woman he’d been about to kiss.

Karen Duvall said...

Wow, Vicki, what a powerful start! Short and to the point. Good job!

I don't have much to say other than to watch your use of adjectives. Deep red stain sounds a bit generic so you might consider scarlet stain, or crimson stain. White summer blouse could be condensed to white blouse. The fewer words you use, the more powerful your sentences will be. Start strong.

I'm not so sure about the repetitive "he'd been," though I understand the significance. Do you really need "he'd been" at all? Get rid of the gerund and 2 past participles in a row by simply saying "he'd talked" and "he'd danced" and end on "he'd been about to kiss." Try it and see if it doesn't make a stronger statement.

Good luck!

Vicki said...

OH yes! Thank you!

Mary Frances Roya said...

Darn that english grammar and punctuation errors. I will work on that. This is the beginning of how Samuel dies and is traped in the building that he haunts. I appreciate what you have said and will work on it. Thank you very much.

runninggal said...

At 8,500 feet, I kicked off my new marriage, sliding down a snowy embankment, face down, and unconscious. My husband Cory and I were on the second part of our honeymoon with plans to meet up with Mike, Cory’s roommate of four years, and a few other college friends. It was day two of our seven night trip in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Eastern Oregon. Traveling side by side with this enchanting man was the beginning of a lifetime of doing this. I had spent at least three miles absorbed with this new reality: I was a wife, a spouse, a part of a duo, no longer answering for just myself. I sounded profoundly older as I tossed around my new name in my mind. For a little more than two weeks, Mrs. had preceded my name. I couldn’t have been happier.

And then the world went black.

Thanks for your ideas!