“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
― Stephen King
Readers like to worry about characters in crisis. They want to tremble about what’s around the next corner (whether it’s emotional or physical). If a reader knows what’s coming, and then it does in fact come, the worry factor is blown. Your novel no longer conveys a fictive dream but a dull ride down familiar streets.
The fix is simple: Put something unexpected in every scene. Doing this one thing keeps the reader on edge.
So how do you come up with the unexpected? Try making lists. Pause and ask yourself what might happen next, and list the possibilities, centering on three primary areas: description, action and dialogue. For each one, don’t choose the first thing that comes to mind (which usually amounts to cliches). Force yourself to list at least five alternatives.
Description: Dump generic details for ones unique to the character’s perceptions. How might he see a room where someone died? What’s one surprising thing about the wallpaper? The bed? The closet?
Action: Close your eyes and watch your scene unfold. Let the characters improvise. What are some outlandish things that could result? If something looks interesting, find a way to justify it.
Dialogue: Don’t always use “on-the-nose” exchanges. How might characters say things that put other characters (and thus, readers) off balance? Consider Clarice Starling’s first conversation with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice begins:
“I think you’ve been destructive. For me it’s the same thing.”
“Evil’s just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it’s just that simple. And we have fire, and then there’s hail. Underwriters lump it all under ‘Acts of God.’”
“I collect church collapses, recreationally. Did you see the recent one in Sicily?”
You can make these lists in your planning stages, just before writing a scene, and/or when you revise. Either way, the unexpected elements that result will perceptibly elevate the quality of your story.”
For more tips on writing from , click here.
“World-building should be quick and merciless.
In a novel, you can spend ten pages explaining how the 29th Galactic Congress established a Peacekeeping Force to regulate the use of interstitial jumpgates, and this Peacekeeping Force evolved over the course of a century to include A.I.s in its command structure, etc. etc.
In a short story, you really need to hang your scenery as fast as possible. My friend and mentor d.g.k. goldberg always cited the Heinlein line: “The door dilated,” which tells you a lot about the surroundings in three words. Little oblique references to stuff your characters take for granted can go a long way.
Make us believe there’s a world beyond your characters’ surroundings.
Even though you can’t spend tons of time on world-building, you have to include enough little touches to make us believe there’s stuff we’re not seeing. It’s like the difference between the fake house-fronts in a cowboy movie and actual houses. We should glimpse little bits of your universe, that don’t necessarily relate to your characters’ obsessions.”
For more writing tips from Charlie Jane Anders, click here.
“Comparison Joke is Your Best Friend
Comedy is hard, but some aspects of it are easier than others. Arguably there is nothing easier than a Comparison Joke. They are effective, and reasonably easy to come up with. Comparison joke can be a well-placed and unexpected metaphor, or simply comparing a thing to another thing for comedic effect. Here’s one of my favorite examples, source unknown:
Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.
This joke is asking a lot of its audience. You must be familiar with both Game of Thrones and Twitter in order to appreciate it. But if you happen to be a part of that target audience, you might find this hilarious. You will nod sagely, recognizing that the Game of Thrones book and/or TV series has an unwieldy cast of characters and something terribly unpleasant is happening to most of them at any given time. You won’t even stop to ponder whether terrible things are actually happening on Twitter. You won’t dissect it, chuckling at the comparison instead, because the joke works.
You can always spice up your description of absolutely anything with a comparison joke. Take care not to over-rely this tactic. Like everything else in life (with possible exceptions of coffee and chocolate), it is best used in moderation.”
“A common trick employed by newer writers is to have a character stare into a mirror, so the reader can ‘see’ what the character is seeing. This approach often feels contrived and does not help the reader to ‘see’ your character at all.
You’ve made up your mind that the male lead of your story is average height, has brown eyes and caramel colored skin. He’s getting older, has thinning hair and a tiny bit of fat sticking out beyond his belt. He has wide shoulders and narrow hips. He’s a bit bowlegged like he’s been riding too many horses even though he’s never set foot outside the city limits. Now, how do you describe him in your story?
Bob was rapidly approaching middle age. His brown eyes didn’t focus as well as they used to and he was wearing reading glasses as he scanned the paper. His wide shoulders jutted beyond what was considered the proper amount of “personal” space at the diner counter. His closely cropped brown hair was thinning a bit on the top.
Hair color and type
Descriptions that read like grocery lists are boring. And what if your story is in first person? How would you start then?
My name is Bob, I’m a 49 year old accountant with thinning hair and reading glasses. I weigh 195 which is a bit much for my 5’8″ frame. Not that I’m fat mind you, just a little out of shape.
Again we have a list.
So when does your character introduce him/herself? Do they walk into the bathroom and start listing their features in the mirror? This is a commonly overused ploy. (the same goes for still water in lakes, ponds and puddles. Also reflections in the bottom of cooking utensils.)
Working the description slowly into the story doesn’t disrupt the flow as much as the grocery list approach does. It allows for the reader to learn about your character as they go. The trick is to keep the reader interested in your characters and how they cope with the stories conflict. The reader doesn’t really need an in-depth description to get a feel for your character. They don’t need to know every wrinkle on the character’s face. It’s more fun to read about the wrinkles in their personality.”
For more excellent tips on writing from FictionFactor, click here.
“The real question to ask isn’t whether Mrs. Swingingjowls was right or wrong in teaching you to modify your sentences with adverbs. The question is, why are you modifying your verbs with adverbs?
This is an easy one to answer, when you think about it:
Because your verbs are weak.
Mark Twain once said, “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” Amen, Mark.
See, what’s going on is, you’re using a word that doesn’t really convey the sense, the feeling, the mood or whatever, you’re hoping to get across to your reader. “Walk” isn’t a very exciting word, and it doesn’t get across the antsy feeling you’re trying to portray in your description, so you make it “walk quickly” or “quickly walked”. You want your reader to see the force, the power in your characters’ argument, so instead of saying “they shouted across the table” you say “they shouted angrily and vehemently across the table.”
The problem is, the verbs you’ve chosen aren’t doing the job you wanted them to do in the first place. You don’t want your character to walk, you want your character to hasten, hurry, quick-step. You don’t want your characters shouting, you want them spitting words through clenched teeth, veins throbbing on reddened necks, molars locked and spittle misting between them.
The reason you’re reaching for adverbs to tell the story is because the verbs you’ve chosen are too weak to do it for you. The adverb isn’t the solution, however. Strengthening your writing is.
Think about this: If the verbs you’re using to describe the action in your story are weak and flimsy, the action description may be weak and flimsy too.
You wouldn’t be writing something with the intent of being flimsy or weak, would you? The reason you’re grabbing adverbs in the first place is because of discontent with what’s being said without them, right?
Why bother with modifiers for words that aren’t cutting it in the first place? The real crux of the problem is finding the right actions and descriptions for those actions, so that modifiers — adverbs AND adjectives — will be needed with rare and prudent infrequency.
When you’re writing adult fiction, the need to limit — if not eliminate — adverbs altogether becomes pretty obvious. What adult wants to read a grade school type of book?
No, adults want to be pulled into the story, and be engaged by it. The use of adverbs won’t get the job done, and loses the reader early on.
Show, Don’t Tell — Adverbs are NOT Good Description
With the evil adverb dragging your writing down, it’s now safe to say that using adverbs isn’t a way to make a lousy description good. It’s a lazy way to make a weak description obvious.
What adverbs do, in a nutshell, is tell the reader what’s going on in the story. That’s NOT what you want to do.
“But — I thought I was TELLING a story here?”
No. You’re not. If you’re a serious writer, you’re not “telling” a story, you’re SHOWING a story.
Don’t be lazy. Be specific. Use specific nouns and verbs to do the bulk of the work in your writing. By letting good, descriptive words do the heavy lifting, the occasional adjective and adverb aren’t the problematic, amateur-flagging beacons common in weak writing.”
For more great tips from DarcKnyt, click HERE.
Writing about place or location of the event or experience is an important technique in creative nonfiction. It often plays a vital role in your story. It allows you to recreate the scene and experience in the mind of the reader. It can act as a backdrop or provide context for a personal essay. It can add meaning to a memoir. For instance, if a writer creates a memoir about child abuse, the place or location is significant. Place can also be the subject of creative writing. If you are writing a travel essay, you will be writing about the place you are visiting. Often, without a place or location, you have no experience or event.
This article will define what creative nonfiction writers mean by place/location and explain how to write about place/location in your creative nonfiction.
In creative nonfiction, the place or location where the event or experience took place is more than just about the name of the place. It is also the physical location of the place, the physical attributes, such as the urban setting of crowds, pollution, public transit, traffic jams or the rural setting of open spaces, fewer people, fields, farms, and small communities.
Place is also about its socioeconomic attributes of a setting. Some places are poor, while others are wealthy. Some places have high unemployment, while others have an abundance of employment opportunities. Some places have schools and hospitals, while other places have nothing.
In writing about travel, place is much more than the physical location. It is about the culture, language, values, morals, beliefs, customs, cuisine, traditions, and way of life.
In writing a memoir, place often has significant meaning. It can be a catalyst for memories of childhood, adulthood, unique experiences. In the memoir, My Life: The Presidential Years, the Whitehouse was a special place for Bill Clinton. Place can also have significant meaning for ordinary people. In writing Eat, Pray, and Love, place had a powerful meaning for Elizabeth Gilbert. After her divorce and a mid-life-crisis, Gilbert decided to travel for a year by herself in an effort to restore balance and meaning to her life. Her memoir chronicles the three places she visited: Rome, India, and Bali. Each of these places had significant meaning to herself and to her life. She wrote about this powerful meaning in her memoir.
Some creative nonfiction writers view place as character. In recreating the scene or experience, the writer views place as a character in the story. Similar to developing a character, the place needs to be developed. The writer can use personification to develop the place. It can become nurturing, menacing, foreboding.
Yet place is more than just character. It is also about meaning. A place or location often has significant meaning. We can associate a particular place with good memories or bad memories, as being a happy place or sad place, as being a relaxing place or stressful place.
Clearly, when a creative writer writes about place, the writer must consider more than just its physical attributes or location.
In writing about place, you ought to consider the following:
When writing about place, you first need to consider its name. Where did the name of the place originate? What is its history? What does it symbolize? For example, the city of Toronto originated as the Mohawk phrase tkaronto, later modified by French explorers and map makers.
You also need to consider writing about the important features, amenities, and physical attributes of place. For instance, in writing about Toronto, you can consider writing about its multicultural population, sports teams, and public transit, shopping centers, unique neighborhoods, landmarks, popular attractions, and the fact that it is located on Lake Ontario.
A place can also be about “home.” You can begin by exploring the meaning of home. Home is suppose to be a place of escape, comfort, protection, love, stability, and permanence—even solitude. What does home mean to you? What was my home like as a child? What did a like or dislike about the place called home? What memories do you have about your childhood home? For some people, home is a transient place, especially for people who travel, who are new immigrants, who end marriages or relationships.
In writing about place, you can also consider it in relation to nature. In his memoir, “Waldon”, Henry David Thoreau viewed nature, wildlife, and the woods as having a being a special place. According to Brenda Miller, who wrote “Tell It Slant”, a popular creative nonfiction text, Thoreau viewed the “human consciousness moved through nature, observing it, reacting to it, and ultimately being transformed by it. Miller goes on to suggest that when you write about nature as place, you need to consider how nature embodies larger forces, such as the physical attributes of a person you admire or the human condition or human experience.
In writing about place as a traveler, don’t write what everyone else has written. Your purpose is to find “a purpose for your writing above and beyond the travel experience itself”. (Tell It Slant) To create a travel piece that is more than just about transcribing the experience, you need to consider the theme and the significant meaning of the place.
When writing about a particular place, you ought to consider what meaning the place has for you. You can start by ask yourself the following: What does this place mean to me? How do I feel about this particular place? Do I like it? What do I like about it? Do I dislike it? What do I dislike about it? What are my memories of this place? What favorite memories do I have about this place?
When writing about place, you must be original. You must be able to write about place from a unique perspective.
The place or location of an event or experience can have many meanings. Place can be your home, a travel destination, or a walk in the woods. When writing about place, consider its name. Write about its physical attributes. Write about what the place means to you. Write about the significance of the place. Write about theme and universal truth as it applies to place. Write about place from your own unique perspective.”
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