Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: description

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

It’s me, Cait Reynolds, and I’m going to be brutal here. You’ve been warned. But, honestly, I get a little stabby when I encounter a Mary Sue in a book. Mary Sues are death to fiction, yet they’re more common than head lice in Kindergarten (and about as desirable). For the sake of time today, we will focus on the most common Mary Sue peeve…the Mary Sue Shopping Spree.

What is a Mary Sue Shopping Spree?

It’s wish fulfillment at its worst.

First of all, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the term “Mary Sue,” the best definition is here at Urban Dictionary. But, for our shorthand use, a Mary Sue is an impossibly perfect character.

She’s beautiful (flaming red hair and emerald eyes, for example) and smart (better grades than Hermione Granger but never seems to be in the library). A Mary Sue falls in love with the hero/hero falls in love with her early, often and easily.

What IS a “Mary Sue”?

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

There are all kinds of Mary Sue’s–no genre is safe. Here’s just a sample:

  • Victim Sue! with an impossible streak of bad luck/tragedy/knack for getting kidnapped and/or stalked.
  • Warrior Sue! who has a mouth like a sailor, throws a mean punch, fights like Lara Croft and Bruce Lee’s love child (and probably has a lineage about as weird), and still looks amazing in a ball gown (but doesn’t want to be taken for a sissy girl!).
  • Magic Sue! with similarities to Warrior Sue in that she has unheard of powers that usually get her into trouble (see Victim Sue) until she learns to control them, and then with a wave of her (slender, delicate) hand, saves the day without chipping a nail.
  • Misfit Sue who is the proverbial ugly duckling, except all she needs really is some good conditioner, a fairy godmother, and a gift certificate to Forever21 in order to turn into the hottie that suddenly attracts all the guys.

There are so many issues with Mary Sues, but the single largest Mary Sue staple is—GROANS—the shopping spree.

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

This is the point in a story where everything grinds to a halt so the heroine can get ready for the ball/date/wedding/party/sacred mage ceremony, etc.

You know the kind of scene I’m talking about…but in case you don’t, let’s look at an example.

Mary Sue Goes to the Ball

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Let’s use my favorite Mary Sue stand-in Seraphina to illustrate. Seraphina has had a hard life as a disinherited princess living in hiding in a faux medieval village and secretly training to use her immense magical powers to take back the throne and rid the land of evil.

She finds a way to infiltrate the castle by sneaking into a fancy ball that the king is giving. But, in order to blend in with the crowd, she will need…a ballgown.

What comes next is any combination of the following descriptions:

  • Shopping or gathering all the necessary clothing
  • Hairstyles
  • Dresses
  • Jewelry, and other accessories
  • Makeup (!)

But…it’s not just descriptions. We, the readers, are subjected to descriptions in excruciating detail.

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Also, every character involved in the scene is kind, excited, happy to help with the preparations, and relentlessly cheery. Apparently, there can be no conflict in the dressing room (unless it’s Seraphina objecting to the ‘girly pink’ or ‘frilly’ dress, thereby making a statement of profound strength of character and independence).

We read about sweetheart necklines, bias cuts, skirts that gently flare out, lace gloves, sleeves that come to just above the wrist, silver embroidery patterns of magical runes (or flowers, whatever).

Gritting our teeth, we skim over the part about hair that is piled high with loose curls falling softly around her face, or braids intricately woven with pearls and jeweled flower pins with just a few errant and untamable curls falling softly around her face.

The author beats us over the head with the fact that she only wears a little bit of eyeshadow and lip gloss (WTH? Do they even have lip gloss in faux medieval realms?) because she doesn’t really need any makeup to enhance her natural beauty.

That strangling noise?

It’s us. The readers. Being garroted….

With the heroine’s delicate chain complete with cheesy symbolic pendant (dragon, rose, snake, rune, whatever) because that’s not a dead giveaway to the bad guy(s).

Hey, doesn’t that girl with the opal-eyed dragon pendant that looks like the one that belonged to Queen Margitte look a lot like dead Queen Margitte?.

Also, a general rule of style is to match the formality of jewelry to the formality of the outfit. One doesn’t wear parure with buckskin breeches, and conversely, charm necklaces are not to be worn with ballgowns. (Yes, I just channeled my inner Tim Gunn.)

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Let’s not forget how Seraphina chooses sensible low-heeled slippers as opposed to the…um…lucite platform heels offered by the empty-headed ninnies who only care about boys and clothes.

Because taking time out from pace, tension, plot, and relevance to talk about dressing a character totally doesn’t paint the author as having the emotional range of a fifteen-year-old. 

All joking aside, let’s look a little closer at WHY the Mary Sue Shopping Spree is so problematic.

Go Ahead. Sue Me!

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

It’s not really Seraphina’s fault that the author wants to play out a Cinderella fantasy. Unfortunately, this violates one of KLamb’s most basic rules: NEVER MAKE IT EASY FOR THE CHARACTERS!

Nobody wants to read about everybody being happy, getting along, and things going their way. Can you say, “Snooze-Fest?”

Can you imagine Harry Potter if he’d grown up with his parents alive, been BFFs with Draco Malfoy, and figured out how to vanquish Voldemort without leaving the comfort of Hogwarts?

No, you can’t because no reader would have made it past page TEN. Harry Potter would have been another forgettable character in yet another bad book.

But he isn’t. Why? Harry Potter is legendary because of CONFLICT and seemingly insurmountable odds. Not everything slipping in place as if his life is coated in Teflon.

The same goes for the Cinderella moment. Let’s look at why.

Slumber Party or Plot Point? 

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Getting-ready-for-the-party scenes must obey the rules of fiction just like all the other scenes. Where is the conflict that drives the story? What is the relevance of the getting-ready-for-the-ball scene? Is there any character growth? Are there any obstacles?

If the answer is no, then we need to think twice about putting in a scene like this.

Hemming and Hawing 

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Set aside the sins of over-descriptiveness for a moment. Instead, look at the science of how we read and process the written word. In general, we read at about 200-400 words per minute (cool, non? Read this for more!).

That means that careful description is critical to the FLOW of a reader’s understanding and visualization. If we STALL the flow by making a reader stop and try to visualize EXACTLY what a character is wearing (I’m looking at you, hem lengths and embroidered bodices!), we risk losing the reader’s immersion in our world.

Anachronism Alert!

The Mary Sue Shopping Spree also showcases when an author hasn’t bothered to do his or her homework with either historical research or fantasy world-building (LIP GLOSS???). With historical, this is easily solved with just a modicum of research–and luckily for you, I’m obsessed with historical fashion.

Check me out on Pinterest for a decade-by-decade breakdown of fashion across the centuries (and a WHOLE lot more!).

With fantasy, there’s still no excuse for not considering things like climate, culture, how easy it is to get your hands on expensive clothing, etc. Thinking it through isn’t hard. We just have to do it.

Get Seraphina a Personal Shopper and Move on

All of this isn’t to say that we can’t have a makeover scene now and then. There’s just a better way to do it. Here’s how.

Relevance

Makeover scenes must be relevant to the plot and/or character. For example in my book Downcast, I use a literal shopping spree to reveal Stephanie’s growth as a character, in beginning to make her own choices and tap into her own confidence.

More than that, though, Stephanie’s shopping spree sets up a MAJOR conflict.

In fact, it’s one of the biggest pivot points in the whole plot. Could I have used another ploy to get me there? Sure. But, a teenage girl going to the mall for her 18th birthday is both plausible and appropriate for the context (and the YA genre).

If we’re going to use the shopping spree–be it contemporary, ye olde, or beware hippogriffs! style–always ask three things:

  • Is it relevant? Does it move the plot forward?
  • Will it offer any new clues/information or set the characters up for conflict?
  • Does it reveal and/or conceal anything important about the characters (from each other, the reader, etc.)?

If we can answer yes to all three, then we move to the next step, which is…

Bippity-Boppity BORING!

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Fairy godmothers way overrated. Why not have the wicked step-sister be the one to have to help get Cinderella ready for the ball? Will the Wal-Mart generic brand wand be up to the challenge of whipping up a ballgown?

Is there a crack in one of the glass slippers? Does the color blue make her look jaundiced? Is anyone willing to tell her that?

What if she really, really wants to wear blue, but the only color the Wal-Mart wand can produce is pink? She has to wear the pink dress. If you transform a pumpkin into a carriage, does it smell like pumpkin on the inside? Is that a good thing? Are the mice unionized?

You get the idea.

The point is the getting-ready-for-the-ball scene should be FULL of delicious difficulties and confectionary conflict. Remember KLamb’s rule: MAKE IT WORSE UNTIL YOU MAKE IT WEIRD. NOTHING COMES EASILY…EVER!

If everyone is happy and excited to help Seraphina get ready for the ball…meh.

What’s the point?

What makes me (reader) want to turn the page? But, if Lady Jordan slips itching powder down Seraphina’s chemise, or the fairy godmother makes an unthinking remark about how to fix the way Seraphina looks a bit puffy…well, NOW we have something to work with!

Give Up Control

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

The reader will never, ever, ever be able to picture a gown exactly the way we see it in our mind’s eye. Ever. You can tell me all you want about length and fabric and cut and jewelry. However, it’ll either be too much detail, and I’ll lose track of all of the bits I’m supposed to remember, OR, I will just skim and skip until the plot resumes.

Seriously, we need to give up the idea that our descriptions will ever create an exact picture for the reader. Descriptions are meant to be evocative. They also…yeah, you know what I’m going to say here…wait for it…have to be RELEVANT.

And, yes, here’s another handy checklist to work through to determine if a description is relevant:

  • Is there something unique, interesting, or important about the dress, jewelry, etc.?
  • What is truly different about these clothes for the character and her life experience?
  • Are there smells, textures, or sounds (like bracelets clinking) that are unusually pleasurable or uncomfortable?

For example, for a fantasy genre scene, I might describe Seraphina’s reaction to her ball gown like this:

Her first instinct was to decline the gown. The fine silk and rare lapis-dyed color screamed the kind of wealth she had barely ever encountered, let alone would feel comfortable impersonating. She didn’t dare touch it, afraid that the calluses on her fingers would catch and snag the delicate fabric.

Still, she drew closer, fascinated by the  pattern of dragons in mid-flight picked out in silver thread around the hem. When Lady Jordan gave the skirts an expert–if impatient–flick to smooth the creases, the embroidered dragons looked as if they were truly in flight.

A brisk ‘tsk’ from Lady Jordan jolted Seraphina from the daze of admiration, and she shrank from the disapproving moue on the older woman’s lips.

I would probably also make the dragons mean something or be symbolic in some way, though I might not have Lady Jordan inform Seraphina of that because…well, she doesn’t really like the girl or want to help her, and if she must dress a sow’s ear in a silk purse, then at least she will get some entertainment out of it later when the girl stumbles over the etiquette of the significance of the embroidery.

Because being mean to my characters is what makes it fun for my readers.

And, it has nothing to do with being a sociopath. AT ALL.

Next up…Getting Stabby About the Taylors and Shifters

If you’ve read any of my blog posts here, you know that Taylor is Seraphina’s male counterpart. And, Taylor can often be found in romance novels–especially shifter romances. If you think I’m prickly (and hilarious–admit it, you giggled at this post!) about Mary Sue shopping sprees, just watch me rip into shifters…and how to make them better.

You can even watch me do it LIVE this Friday!

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

Date: Friday, November 3, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Shifter romance is one of the hottest genres in publishing right now. It’s easy, right? You just take a hot guy and have him morph into a wolf…or bear…or…panther…or…

Well, you and the thousands of other shifter romance writers. So, how are readers going to tell your lusty wolf boys apart from another author’s lusty wolf boys? Sure, you can invent clan/pack rules and give your shifters certain features or restrictions.

But, if you want to create unforgettable shifters that will have readers coming back for more, you need to shift your world-building into high gear. (See what I did there with the play on words with ‘shift’? Ha! I’m so funny.)

This class will help you create richer shifter ‘cultures’ by showing you how to:

  • Construct the history of your shifters, and by history, I mean real history
  • Use science (even if you’re not a science person) to add delicious bits of plausibility to your shifters
  • Catch world-building details that create giant gaps in logic that can distract the reader from your story
  • Develop stronger characters by giving them a richer, fuller historical, scientific, and world-building context
  • Drive action and plot twists in unexpected ways using expanded shifter world-building
  • Amp up the romantic and sexual tension using the history and science of your shifters

We are now offering ADVANCED LEVELS for this class. Extra help from an EXPERT.

In a world of a gazillion forgettable shifters, let Cait help you take your shifter to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL.

Shifter GOLD

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story. 

Shifter PLATINUM

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER!

Other upcoming WANA classes!

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

If the cover is an invitation to the party in your book, then the blurb (the back cover description, the summary, whatever you want to call it) is the RSVP card readers check off as attending-with-the-chicken-option when they buy your book.

The trouble is that for so many books, while the cover is invites you to a rave, the blurb reveals it’s really polka night at the VFW.

The Book Cover
The Blurb

So, if the blurb is so important, why is it so hard to write? Raise your hand if you hate writing blurbs. Raise your other hand if you agonize over writing a blurb, and it still feels like it’s awful when it’s done.

Even Tolstoy probably downed a gallon or two of vodka while trying to write the blurb for War and Peace.

Well, for today’s Girl Friday, you get me, Cait Reynolds (you know, the chick who goes on vacation with six books and comes back with, uh, eighteen – no lie!), and my tips and tricks for turning blurb writing hell into blurb writing heaven!

Actually, *I* do.

I used to hate blurb writing with the heat of a thousand suns. Now, I pop them out like Pop-Tarts from a toaster. I used to think blurbs were a challenge set by the Devil (totally on par with that 40 days in the desert thing) to test my resolve in being a writer. Now?

The Lord rewards the righteous, and the way of blurb writing is littered with goodness and manna with sprinkles.

Why is blurb writing so hard?

In order to fully understand the solution, we have to look at the problem.

We write a book. We are so freaking excited about it! It’s such a good story! We want everyone to know what a good story it is! It has all these characters and a quest that is going to change the world! Oh, and then, there’s this really crucial part about…

…aaaaand that’s where we need to stop.

We have come down with a serious case of “KSS” – Kitchen Sink Syndrome. It’s probably safe to say that we have also contracted a secondary infection of “ISS” – Inadvertent Snowflake Syndrome.

The symptomology of Kitchen Sink Syndrome is easy to spot:

  • The urge to make sure the entire arc of the plot is covered;
  • Reassuring the reader that there will be a satisfying resolution;
  • Showing just how exciting the story is by revealing one of the twists;
  • Erupting in a rash of “No Character Left Behind” in the description.

If we can check off one or more of these symptoms, then we definitely need to get tested for Inadvertent Snowflake Syndrome, just to be on the safe side.

Signs of ISS include:

  • Mentioning the age of any character unless crucial to the plot;
  • Including irrelevant physical descriptors (I’m looking at you, raven-haired beauty!);
  • Reassuring the reader that the protagonist has best friends who will go with him/her on the quest;
  • Admitting that any characters fall in love with a 70% chance of happily ever after.

So, now we have a diagnosis that on the surface seems to nix basically anything we want to put in the blurb. It feels like we are further away than ever from that golden moment of revelation of how to write a blurb with ease and panache.

Yet, like chicken soup, antibiotics, and puppy-snuggling, there is a slow-and-steady cure for the blurb-writing blues.

Celebrity Death Match: Blurbs vs. Summaries

The first thing we have to do is stop thinking of the blurb as a stand-in for a synopsis or summary of the book. Stop thinking like a writer, and start thinking like an advertiser.

A summary tells all, reveals all, and has a purpose that is totally different from a blurb. It’s an editorial and production piece that rarely sees the light of day with the public.

A blurb is an advertisement. It’s meant to lure, entice, and tease. It is a selling tool.

And, just like most effective selling tools, absolute accuracy isn’t really necessary. Think of the blurb like it’s an ad for wrinkle cream (Thanks, Kristen!).

It will leave your skin softer and smelling good. Whether your skin is smoother or not is entirely subjective, so the claims of the ad can’t really be proved or disproved.

What I’m trying to say is that we can fudge things a little bit in a blurb if it will make it more exciting and enticing. For example, if Seraphina is learning to become a mage but ends up flunking out of mage school and not being a mage after all, we don’t really have to be honest and up front with the reader in the blurb that Seraphina will fall short of her goals and our expectations.

Just like the old saying, “There are no good lawyers, only lawyers who do their job well,” there are no good blurbs, only blurbs that do their job and sell the reader on the book.

Hokey Pokey blurbs

Good blurbs leave us wanting to know more, thinking about the problem posed, or fascinated with one little detail that was mentioned.

These are the things that lead us to buy the book. I totally get that it is wicked hard to pry ourselves out of the mindset of a being a writer and and into the slightly swampy mindset of being a marketer. So, here’s a little game I play when I sit down to write a blurb:

The Hokey Pokey.

You put your protagonist in. You leave the best friend out. You put the problem in. You leave the twist out. You do the Hokey Pokey and leave ’em on a cliffhanger. That’s what it’s all about.

(Look, I never said I was a poet or good at rhyming stuff.)

Obviously, there are exceptions and tweaks for every genre, and it’s a good practice to browse through both indie and traditionally published books in whatever genre we are writing to study the blurbs. Things to note as we read the blurbs:

  • How long are they?
  • How suspenseful?
  • What are some key words and phrases in the genre?
  • Do they start with a tagline (a one-sentence/sentence fragment that is a tease for the entire book)?
  • Do they end with a tagline?
  • What is the balance between the protagonist’s personal peril and the global peril of the plot?

If we look hard enough, patterns for the blurb emerge (kind of like those 3-D eye puzzles I could never get to come into focus). In all seriousness, the structure of a blurb is super simple and can be summed up by 3P’s made of 2-3 sentences each:

  • Protagonist: Who are we rooting for and where are they in life when the book starts?
  • Problem: What is the main problem of the book?
  • Peril: How does the problem bring the protagonist to the brink of X?

And leave it there. Don’t reassure the reader about anything. EVER. Reassurance is what they get when they buy the book and read it all the way through.

Which is why we write the blurb in the first place…

I’m not gonna lie. The kid has talent. I kinda want to read this. (From Mrs. Baldwin’s Class Blog – http://mrsbaldwin5.edublogs.org/2014/08/14/what-is-a-blurb/)

Blurb writing blows…but, it doesn’t have to

If you want to learn more about writing blurbs and get your blurb workshopped, join my class tonight!

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, October 6th, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

The blurb. Back cover description. 150-200 words. Your entire book in 3 small paragraphs.

The heart’s cry goes up from every single writer ever: “THIS IS HARDER TO WRITE THAN THE 90,000 WORDS OF MY BOOK!”

And yet, it shouldn’t be. Approached from a different angle, a blurb should be one of the easiest and most fun things to write. Yes. I went there. I said it. Hopefully, after taking this class, you will be saying it, too. No more blubbering over blurbs. Ever.

This class will cover:

  • Understanding the purpose of a blurb in attracting readers;
  • The top secret formula to structuring a blurb;
  • How to plug-and-play every blurb, every time;
  • Why everything you think is important in your story really isn’t (in terms of the blurb);
  • The secret to keywords, blurbs, and algorithms.

As a bonus, bring a copy of your blurb to the class for group workshopping!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

GOLD PACKAGE

With the Gold Package, you get a 1 hour consult and hands-on blurb editing session with Cait!

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

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Description. Ah the crack for most writers. Many of us never met a modifier we did not love. Forget a BLUE sky. Why would you have a BLUE sky when you could have a cerulean sky?

*chops up line of metaphors with a razor and snorts*

Granted, there is also the other side of the writer coin; those who never use description or very sparse description.

Also known as…freaks.

I am KIDDING!

….kind of.

But even if you don’t use a lot of description, don’t fret. That’s just your voice. Readers like me who looooove description will probably gravitate to other books and that is OKAY. This doesn’t absolve y’all completely though. If you use very little description, then it is more important than EVER to use the right description.

Personally, I’m not a fan of austere modern houses with stainless steel everything and weird chairs no human could sit in and most cats would avoid, but? There are plenty of people who dig it. I also don’t like a lot of knick-knacks and clutter. Makes me want to start cleaning.

Same with books. Not too little or too much. Yeah, I’m Literary Goldilocks.

Plain fact? We can’t please everyone. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice. BUT, the blunt truth is it is almost impossible to tell a story with NO description. That is hard on the reader. She needs some kind of grounding. So, whether you use a little or you lay it on heavier than a Texan with hairspray? These tips will help you be a master at description…

Avoid “Police Sketch” Description 

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-9-34-56-am

I assume most of you have watched TV. A witness is asked to give a description of the mugger, murderer, whatever. Well, he was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes. Very muscular.

She was short, blonde and fit.

The reason I (as an editor) don’t care for this kind of description is a good writer is a wordsmith and we should be able to describe characters better than someone who’s been at the wrong end of a purse-snatching. Is there anything wrong with this description? Nah. Just it’s something anyone can do. It isn’t anything unique.

Avoid the “Weather Report” or “Google Maps”Description

Weather can be vital and even its own character (which we will get to). But putting in weather just to tell us it’s a hot sunny day? Again, surface. Same with describing a location. Cities, streets, stores can come alive with the right description.

Avoid “Info-Dump” Description

I was really bad about this when I was new. I described everything in a room. I believed the reader needed to know all the positions of the furniture, what was on the bookshelves and end tables, the colors of the walls, just to “get” what I was talking about. They didn’t need all that and likely lost interest in the point I was trying to make anyway.

I didn’t give my readers enough credit and most of that information was for me anyway. Novels are for the reader not for us, which is important to remember and easy to forget.

Good description doesn’t automatically mean MORE description 😉 .

What Makes GOOD Description?

Again, this is subjective, but I read…a LOT. I need a 12 Step Program for the sheer number of books I buy. Since I dig description, I often highlight it when it’s done WELL (which is why I cannot check out books from the library or EVER yell at Spawn for coloring in books). The common denominator I see in great description is it delves beyond the surface and evokes some kind of feeling.

In this post, I’m merely giving some of MY favorite examples (from many different genres). I recommend that, if you want to use description, go to those stories that spoke to YOU. Those highlighted spots can be telling about your voice, preference and style. You don’t need to copy, but you can deconstruct how the author did something WELL. And likely, if you are a fan of that kind of writing, others are too and you might share the same kind of readers.

Characters

One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. He describes people in a way that instantly evokes a visceral resonse. Sure there is a tad of physical description, but not much. Most is left out and yet we SEE these people.

For instance, Rot and Ruin (which is a YA series about our world 12 years after the Zombie Apocalypse. A teenage boy is the protagonist and my entire family is now INHALING this series, too).

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.10.56 AM

This is a scene in the first book when the young protagonist Benny goes to hang out with his zombie-hunting hero, Charlie Matthias:

“It was a 1967 Pontiac LeMans Ragtop. Bloodred and so souped-up that she’d outrun any damn thing on the road. And I do mean damned thing.”

That’s how Charlie Matthias always described his car. Then, he’d give a big braying horselaugh, because no matter how many times he said it, he thought it was the funniest joke ever. People tended to laugh with him rather than at the actual joke, because Charlie had a 72-inch chest and 24-inch biceps, and his sweat was a soup of testosterone, anabolic steroids, and Jack Daniels… (Page, 24)

In this example, other than the size of Charlie’s muscles, we get very little literal description. Everything in this is “feeling oriented.” We get a real sense of who Charlie is and who he might be. As a zombie-hunter, he seems the epitome of who we’d want taking out the undead, but there is an undercurrent of tension that makes us (readers) uneasy.

To me, this is far more powerful than:

Zombie-Hunter Charlie Matthais was well over six-feet tall with bulging muscles and wild red hair. (Zzzzzzzzz. Btw, I have no idea what color C.M.’s hair is, but did I really need to know?)

For the Literary Folks: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men:

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(Sheriff Bell) came across a hawk dead in the road. He saw the feathers move in the wind. He pulled over and got out and walked back and squatted on his boot heels and looked at it. He raised one dead wing and let it fall again. Cold yellow eye dead to the blue vault above them.

It was a big red tail. He picked it up by one wing and carried it to the bar ditch and laid it in the grass. They would hunt the blacktop, sitting on the high power poles and watching the highway in both direction for miles. Any small thing that might venture to cross. Closing in on their prey against the sun. Shadowless. Lost in the concentration of the hunter. He wouldn’t have the trucks running over it (Page 44-45).

In this story, a good lawman is after a soulless criminal who is nothing short of pure evil. This above description is important. The red tail hawk is a parallel of Bell. Bell is also a hunter who’s in danger of being so caught in the pursuit, it could get him killed. Even though the lawman is tracking a criminal, he takes time to honor a fallen hunter even though it’s “only” a bird, something the psychopathic antagonist, who has NO VALUE for any life, would ever do.

Part of that “Show, don’t tell” thing ;). We don’t get a description of what Bell looks like, but through action, we know who he IS.

If you are into the “Less-Is-More-Description” here’s an example from Daniel Suarez’s cyber-thriller Daemon:

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Merrit stopped short and turned to glare at the man—a federal bureaucrat type, late twenties. The kind of person you forgot even while you were looking at him (Page 242)

Short, sweet and we all know this kind of person. We fill in the blanks and it’s emotive (or rather non-emotive, which is the point).

Weather/Setting/Information Without Being Info-Dump

For the sake of time, we’ll bundle three into one. Depp does a fabulous job of weaving weather, setting, and information in a tight cord of emotion. This selection is from Daniel Depp’s Loser’s Town.

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The protagonist, Spandau, is a P.I. is following a Hollywood agent to a movie set to meet a client who’s being blackmailed:

Spandau smoked, and thought the city gliding past was much like an overexposed film, too much light, all depth burned away and sacrificed. All concrete and asphalt, a thousand square miles of man-made griddle on which to fry for our sins. Then, you turn a corner and there’s a burst of crimson bougainvillea redeeming an otherwise ugly chunk of concrete building. Or a line of tall palm trees, still majestic and still stubbornly refusing to die, stubbornly sprouting green at the tops of thick dying stalks, guarding a side street of bungalows constructed at a time when L.A. was still the Land of Milk and Honey….There was a beauty still there, sometimes, beneath all the corruption, like the face of an actress long past her prime, when the outline of an old loveliness can still be glimpsed through the desperate layers of pancake and eyeliner. (page 23)

In this description, we get more than a play-by-play of the L.A. streets he passes. Additionally, I feel the description is very telling about the character. Note the contrasting biblical references or even the tension inside the character. He hates this place, but can still see the loveliness that tears at him and keeps him there, keeps him coming back.

The description is an extension of the feel of the city—no depth, manmade, hardened, lost (but still something beautiful worth staying for).

Note the description is processed through the feelings and backstory of the character. Instead of sounding like a travel brochure, there is emotional flavor adding depth. We pretty much know the weather—bright and hot. We experience the place rather than just “seeing” it in a boring “and then he turned on this street and then that street” fashion.

The description also shows us Spandau is likely an excellent detective—he sees more than the surface and instinctively searches deeper.

Again, description–how to do it, how much, how little—is subjective.

But, I believe that good description can make the difference in a caricature verses a “person” or “place” so real we’re sad to say good-bye when the book ends. Also, I hope I’ve given examples of how we can describe a character or a place without “describing” it.

Are we describing with the same depth as any literate person with a laptop could do? Or are we digging below skin and into marrow?

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself skimming description and didn’t know why? Do you highlight great description, too? Or are you a minimalist? There aren’t any wrong answers, btw. Who are some of your favorite authors who ROCKS description? What are maybe some tips/thoughts you have that takes description from blasé to beautiful?

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