National Novel Writing Month starts tomorrow (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). For those who aren’t yet familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is a yearly challenge to write 50K words in thirty days. It’s a fantastic introduction into writing as a profession, because writing as a profession differs vastly from writing for a hobby.
NaNoWriMo is held during the first month of the holiday season. WHYYYY? Because a) there IS no perfect time to write b) pros have to meet deadlines, even sucky ones and c) writing professionally WILL eventually make us choose between word count and friends and family.
So, best to get that out of the way early.
For those who want to write a “novel” for fun or to simply see if you can finish a “novel” then today’s writing advice doesn’t precisely apply. Alas, everything changes when our goal is to produce a novel as a commodity—as in expecting people to pay money and part with 12-15 hours of free time they don’t have to read and love our words.
This brings me to my first point.
Description is NOT Story
Fiction isn’t just a bunch of pretty words. Many of us who decide we long to write a novel have been told most of our lives we are “good with words.” We probably even made top grades in English and believe we already “know how to write” because of all the As we made in school.
Ah, problem is this though. Our English teachers didn’t care that we used twenty-five modifiers on the first page of our short stories. They didn’t care because their GOAL was to teach us what a modifier was and how to use it…NOT to prepare us to write for commercial publication.
Yes, I know many of us received A++++ es for our cerulean skies and peridot eyes. Alas, fiction is about one thing and one thing only. PROBLEMS. Fiction is NOT description.
Fiction is a Crucible
Fundamentally, superb fiction is the hero’s journey and the hero’s journey is almost always (99.9999% of the time) about a person undergoing a TEST he or she didn’t CHOOSE.
Think of all the celebrated fiction, regardless of genre—Harry Potter (series by J.K Rowling), The Hunger Games (series by Suzanne Collins), The Help (Kathryn Stockett), The Martian (Andy Weir), In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad Book: Tana French), Winter’s Bone (Daniel Woodrell), A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman), etc.
In every one of these novels (series) the protagonist DID NOT ASK for the challenges that fate tossed at their feet, but they DID (eventually) take up the journey and enter the fire that would change them and their world forever.
Sure, some of these titles have AMAZING description. Into the Woods is total prose porn. YET, description isn’t story. Tana French, description genius she is, still had to have a core story problem or she didn’t have a novel.
One BIG reason a lot of folks will stall out and fail to finish NaNoWriMo is they don’t have a story. They have a crap ton of pretty words and are trying to create a ten-foot-tall cake with no cake…only icing and sprinkles.
Description and Voice
How any writer decides to use or not use description is a matter of voice. This said, the professional author recognizes this is a business. Books are a commodity meant to eventually be sold in exchange for money. Real money that buys stuff.
The more books we sell, the better for everyone. Agents are happy, publishers elated, bookstores celebrate, and libraries thrilled. Culture and society benefits from a literate, reading population AND…authors have money for coffee (which keeps the murder rate down).
This said, there are a lot of different tastes we can appeal to, much like any other product. Think about art. Some folks are willing to spend tens of thousands on a giant canvas that looks like the drop cloth from the last time I painted my office.
Others? A single red dot suspended on a vast white background. Me? I love anything on velvet that involves a bullfight and Elvis…because I’m a smart@$$ (if my art glows under a blacklight, that’s a bonus).
Actually, I am not—quite—that gauche but I’m not evolved enough to “get” anything at The Modern in Fort Worth (modern art museum, FYI).
Um, it’s a box and a lightbulb. Oh-kay. *looks around* I don’t get it.
The point is this. It doesn’t matter if we use a lot of description or a little or we’re somewhere in between. Why? Because there’s an audience for all styles—so long as we have a STORY to go along WITH that description (or lack thereof).
We Can Do Better
I know I’ve mentioned this particular bugaboo in a recent post. We are authors. Authors are artists. This means we should be able to do a better job at description than non-writers. It doesn’t take an artist to lean on raven hair, emerald eyes, or porcelain skin. Can we use simple descriptors like these? Sure.
But please keep in mind that books (thus authors) already have a lot of competition—and not from other books. We’re competing against Netflix, hot yoga, YouTube, cat videos, Spotify, video games, etc.
Humans have more ways to be entertained than ever before in human history. Should our potential reader (code for customer) choose reading as their distraction of choice, we’re going to have to up our game to make ours stand apart.
Suffice to say, more of the same is a risky plan. It certainly won’t be enough to catch the attention of a culture with the attention span of a crack-addicted fruit bat. AND, what catches the attention span of our culture largely isn’t what one would initially assume. They crave tough mental work and eschew being spoon fed.
Much of the modern audience is ignoring the blockbuster Hollywood movies, and choosing instead to get lost in Game of Thrones. A series so complex it need a GPS, a team of sherpas and a Dungeon Master Manual to keep up. Much of the brain-holding description so popular a decade ago now fails to resonate with contemporary audiences.
We (the audience) like to have places where we can fill in blanks ourselves.
This means the blow-by-blow police sketch description might have worked well enough in days of yore, but now? It’s common as clay. We CAN describe a character directly, though often oblique description is far more visceral, thus more resonant.
Oblique description. Er?
Perception is Reality
Far too often, description is used either to hold the audiences’ brains or to make word count or both. Why do we hold the audiences’ brains? We might be new.
Being new often means we want to be in total control (new at the whole “playing god” thing). Until we gain some experience we don’t trust the audience to “get it” without us spoon-feeding them.
Yet, the largest reason we fail to employ description for maximum impact is that writing is HARD. It’s an art that takes time, training and a LOT of hard work to get good at. It takes time to fully appreciate what description can really DO.
Description is a conduit into the mind of the characters. If we (writers) describe another person, a room, a landscape using a lot of pretty words that took an hour on the on-line thesaurus to compile, we are missing the point.
Description delivers perception. Perception IS character. How any character sees is WHO this character IS.
For brevity’s sake, I’m going to riff off a couple examples to make a point (these are EXAMPLES, not me trying to win a Pulitzer, so just do me a favor and roll with it):
Setting and Character
Anne hesitated, bracing herself against a heavy oak doorframe with tiny notches that ran almost up to her shoulder. Ghosts of her father’s expensive cigarettes lingered in the cheap damask curtains stiff from age and brittle with dust.
When she lifted the half-finished afghan from her mother’s side of the couch and clutched it to her chest, a cloud of cat fur sent her into a sneezing fit. Moments later, despite every vow to remain strong, her sneezes shifted to sobs.
Anne braced herself against the battered oak doorframe painted the color of molded avocado. The notches of long-forgotten growth spurts were still visible, scored through the lead-lined enamel. She absently ran her fingers along the marks like braille, though they still told the same story they had twenty years ago.
Nicotine stained curtains turned the room the color of weak tea. She knew at a glance there was no sense washing them. They’d only disintegrate.
Just like everything else.
Notice same name of a character, both leaning in a door (presumably of her home) but the experience and feeling is different. One Anne is, for whatever reason, missing someone who’s no longer around for whatever reason. Maybe they died, have been put in a home or are in the hospital. We don’t know, but the description evokes QUESTIONS.
***Questions are what turn pages, btw 😉 .
The other Anne is dreading some sort of task ahead she didn’t ask for. Probably similar scenarios. Family that’s passed away, disappeared, had to be placed in care facility. Yet, the emotions THIS Anne experiences in a similar room are very different.
Characters and Character
Sarah almost knocked over her desktop when her boss, Frank O’Leary, barked her name. She managed to hit the Alt-Tab fast enough that he didn’t see she’d been playing the on-line game Buzz Off instead of doing her quarterly projections. She’d named her giant fly-swatter O-Dreary.
She used O-Dreary to obliterate butterflies into bright clueless smears on glass, even though it cost her points. The object of the game was to kill the mosquitos and not the butterflies.
But O-Dreary didn’t get that point any more than O’Leary. She enjoyed the poetry. It helped pass the time.
Sarah didn’t even bother glancing away from her desktop when her boss, Frank O’Leary, barked her name. She’d been playing a game of Buzz Off with someone from Accounting using the call sign BigMan007. O’Leary peered over her shoulder, then let out a laugh when she swatted BigMan007’s wasp into a giant smear of Technicolor goo.
They still had yet to figure out the real identity of BigMan007 and could only agree that BigMan007 probably wasn’t from Accounting and definitely was overcompensating for something.
Normally, they’d engage in a heated debate over this pivotal mystery but today was different. One look at O’Leary’s face told her it was time to get to work. For real. Not a good sign.
Again, perception is reality.
In the first example, we get that Sarah doesn’t like or respect her boss or her job. She has a dark sense of humor and her boss has NO sense of humor.
In the second example, however, her boss joins in and the reader sees there is some sort of odd rapport between boss and employee. Maybe she doesn’t take her job seriously or maybe she’s very good at her job and has been passing time until something worthy of her skillset arrives. Her boss gives her leeway to goof off because she does the heavy lifting.
Whatever. We could go any number of ways. The point is simply we use action to show character instead of being lazy.
Sarah hated her job and did everything she could to dodge her task-master boss.
Show Don’t Tell
Description, used properly, permits the audience to participate in the drama. They can cast the person THEY conjure in their minds’ eyes (likely a boss they once hated, which is far more emotive). We’re also hooking with story, not every fancy word we can extract from the obscure section of the dictionary.
Sure, we could describe every detail of the home Anne (above) is visiting, but the details mean nothing until they do.
It wouldn’t matter if we described the sofa as a late Victorian reproduction with faded blue velvet, dotted with needlepoint cushions. If we fail to assign what this all MEANS to the character, it falls flat.
The late Victorian reproduction dotted with needlepoint cushions Anne’s mother bought with money Anne saved for college AND the late Victorian reproduction dotted with needlepoint cushions Anne and her mother made together before her mom spiraled into dementia are TWO TOTALLY different sofas.
What Does It MEAN?
The goal is to captivate the audience with STORY. Description is an amazing device for kidnapping—um, captivating—an audience (until we let them go at three in the morning hating themselves). Yet, I challenge all of us to strive to do more with less.
Feel free to describe what the character is wearing. How does he/she feel about the outfit? Is he/she miserable? Does he/she feel like a phony? Do his/her high end labels act as armor to hide deep insecurities? What do his/her clothes mean? Go read Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive or Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box to see my point.
Clothes should be more than what’s draped over a mannequin (lest our characters end up with the depth of a mannequin). If we bother mentioning clothing at all, the outfit should speak volumes about our characters and the story.
A great example is MC—Detective Ryan—from Tana French’s In the Woods:
When I made the Murder squad, I already had my new work clothes—beautifully cut suits in materials so fine they felt alive to your fingers, shirts with the subtlest blue or green pinstripes, rabbit-soft cashmere scarves—hanging in my wardrobe for almost a year. I love the unspoken dress code.
~In the Woods, Tana French, page 7.
We learn A LOT in a couple sentences. First, Murder an ELITE squad and the unspoken dress code should reflect that.
Detective Ryan is a high achiever, assured of himself. How do we know this? He bought the “uniform” for a squad he hadn’t yet made—a YEAR before he made it.
We can see he pays extreme attention to detail, which is excellent for a detective. Ah, but he’s also self-absorbed, concerned with image. This is a noticeable harbinger of major problems.
Again, feel free to describe the room, the car, the office, but ponder what it MEANS. Furniture is only furniture until is isn’t (refer to sofa above). Weather can be and should be more than weather. Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island is a fabulous example. Setting can become a character.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Does this spark new ways to use description? Mind bubbling with creativity? Good!
***Announcement: Whether or not you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I invite you to join us over at W.A.N.A.Tribe. It’s a NING I created where we meet every weekday (on the CHAT tab) to WRITE. We sprint in forty-minute intervals until we gas out. We officially begin at 7:00 a.m. CST but often we’re there far earlier.
We’ve been going strong for almost FIVE YEARS. Rain, sleet, shine, holidays, we are there.
W.A.N.A.Tribe is a paid site, so there are no ads, bots, trolls, politics, distractions, etc. It’s a water cooler where we team up and push one another for excellence. If you’re looking for accountability and a place free of distractions, sign up. It doesn’t cost y’all anything. I have to approve your membership (diligence to weed out bots).
Other than that? We sprint, then we relay what we accomplished, chat a few minutes then get back at it. Sprints can be used for word count, research, revisions, editing, etc. (basically anything productive). If you’ve done three sprints sitting on your butt, feel free to use one to tidy the kitchen and move around.
The point is simply focused productivity. THIS is the place to be if you want to finish NaNo. I think our record is someone finished in ten days. We are NOT alone, so can’t wait to see you there 😀 .
I LOVE hearing from you!
I’m loading new classes. They’ll be up next post. What are some classes y’all need? Topics you’d like me to talk about here on the blog. I dig suggestions!
Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Or is every month NaNoWriMo for you? Does it intimidate you? Or, does it let loose the creative rage-unicorn trapped inside stabbing its way out? #RuiningUnicorns
What do you WIN? For the month of OCTOBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Your comments on description hit home and they are spot on. Oddly enough, I can see the effect in other works, just not my own. But I am planting this seed in the writing part of my brain to improve my craft.
Great post. The examples used for each different topic were especially revealing and helpful, and I like the reminder to let the reader fill in the blanks.
About NaNoWriMo. I participated last year and wrote over 50,000 words and felt really good about that. In Camp NaNoWriMo my second book was finished. I’m not participating this November so I can edit those. They are resting on the shelves right now as I wrap my head around editing and re-writing.
As far as classes go, suggestions on the editing process would be helpful.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Love the post especially how description needs to have a point as shown in the In The Woods example. I find myself describing things that are pointless and get cut on edit.
Great post, especially liked the different examples!
This will be my 10th NaNoWriMo and I’m definitely aiming for another win. Super excited to get started.
For me NaNo is like the ultimate accountability/excuse-maker. I’m usually terrible at actually taking time to write with everything else going on in my life, but during NaNo I HAVE to write. Oh you want to go for a coffee? Can’t, I’m doing NaNo! Oh there’s laundry to be done? Weeell I can’t, I still need some more words!
So yeah, I’m definitely a NaNo-person.
Awesome post! And just in time for NaNoWriMo. I’ve just started going through my ms for just this reason. Previous drafts were just getting the story out for me. Now its time to make it enjoyable for the reader.
Loved the examples, they really showed the difference between plain and engaging.
Thanks for the reminder about story over everything else. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of that.
A fascinating post, and it has given me much room for thought. I love the way each of your examples created a totally different feel.
I’m not doing NaNo this year, although I’ve done it the last 3 years, and camp NaNo, too. I’m in the process of editing my latest WiP. It needs a lot of work!
I’m learning to show rather than tell, but it’s a challenge. Thank you for your encouraging tips!
Love the examples of description! I’m going to comb through my WIP and make sure there’s character emotion tied to the descriptions.
Thank you so much Kristen. I really benefited so much from your post. Your description and the examples were clear and so relevant. I really appreciate this as I’m trying very hard to improve my writing skills.
A good example the the way effective description reveals character is the fiction of Raymond Chandler. Read the opening chapters of The Big Sleep: Marlowe’s descriptions of people and interiors doesn’t just tell us a lot about them; they are Chandler’s primary way of revealing Marlowe’s character–his values, his attitudes, his view of 1930s Lost Angeles and what the city reveals about the soul of America. Take out the description and the artistic loss to the novel becomes obvious to both the beginning and the experienced writer. Reading Chandler is a master class in the use of description.
Well said, this post was both inspirating and helpful. Character and scenario building are so relevant and evoke such different feelings and questions depending on our approach…lot of people don’t realize how relevant these things are, thank you for these tips!