Posts Tagged Description
I’ve had a request from EJ Runyon (who you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor). She’s asked me, quite simply, to talk about writing emotions and feelings.
Emotions and feelings are the nucleus of a story. The whizziest plot events will have nil impact unless they matter to a character – and to us.
Put the other way round, a character’s feelings about an event are as important as what happens. And this emotional tide is the force that sweeps the reader out of their own world and binds them into the story.
So how do we communicate these emotions?
Here’s a big hint: don’t be guided by movies.
I say this because many writers unconsciously learn from movie storytelling. That’s good in many ways – a lot of us get an innate sense for structure and pace from movies. But movies are not a good model for involving a reader in emotions and feelings – because the mechanics are totally different in prose. Movies show emotions from the outside – with faces and performances and actors’ personas, plus atmospheric enhancements like lighting and music. If you try to do that in prose – which I see a lot of writers do – that’s not very effective.
But prose has a great strength of its own. It can go inside. Into the characters’ heads, motivations and thoughts. This is the real core of emotion and feeling – and prose can put us right there.
Emotion in descriptions
Let’s examine a common maxim – write descriptions that ‘use the senses’. This is usually interpreted as sensory input – sights, sounds, tastes, smells. But this misses a more fundamental sense, the one that governs it all – the inner sense, the consciousness. Consciousness is how we experience the world – through our evaluating and emotional faculties, our thoughts and gut reactions.
Film can only approximate this. But prose can transplant us into the character’s heart. Into moments of anxiety, elation, fear, dread, boredom, amusement, the tingle of hope. Prose can stretch time so that it emphasises an important experience – slow the seconds down so we relish an experience – or receive it in agonising detail. It can speed time up so that years pass in a paragraph.
To return to EJ’s challenge, if we connect with emotions and feelings, we can transform mere words into the illusion of real experience.
How do we convey this experience? By far the most powerful tool is internal dialogue.
Internal dialogue can give us context. Suppose your character does something apparently random, like ripping a poster off a wall. Why did she do it? The internal voice fills the gaps. Perhaps the poster is for a political party she disagrees with. Or perhaps it is connected with someone she has fallen out with, and they have posted it on her garden gate. (‘It was Peter’s silly little residents’ group. Well I wasn’t having that on my property.’) Without these details, the act looks random. With them, it is understandable. We know what it’s like to be her. (Of course you might want the act to be puzzling. If so, do that as a deliberate choice.)
This sounds obvious, but I see a lot of writers present such scenes as though they were imagining them in a movie. They intend the moment to express something about the character, but they fail to give us the character’s narrative – so the action just looks baffling. Or they try to convey it with external, visible signs, as though describing an actor’s face – wide eyes and a tightening of the mouth. This is even more baffling. In any case, a facial expression is much more polyphonic than an eye-pop and a scowl – it’s very difficult to describe them precisely enough for them to make sense. Nevertheless, I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots with gurning and grimaces, as they try to demonstrate their characters are emoting. And still, we might not grasp what that emotion is.
But internal dialogue is much easier – put the reaction into the character’s thoughts. ‘Crikey, I’m not having that abomination on my gate. Not after what he did to me.’
Stronger doses – handle with care
A final point. Emotion and feeling are cornerstones of storytelling. But beware. Strong doses can leave us cold or even be off putting if not handled carefully.
Quite a few writers begin a story with characters in a strong negative emotional state – a character who’s angry with the world. This can work very well to get us on the character’s side, but only if there’s something less hostile to catch hold of. Otherwise, it’s like watching a stranger rant – we’d run away as smartly as possible. So if you’re going to open with a character ranting and raging, add another dimension – a flash of humour, or vulnerability, or maybe regret. Or write it so beautifully that the prose keeps us enthralled.
So … to sum up
1 Context is everything – the ‘why’ makes sense of the ‘what’
2 When writing description, don’t forget the consciousness ‘sense’
3 Use internal dialogue
4 Soften angry protagonists with something less hostile
There’s more on writing internal dialogue – and angry characters – in my characters book.
I could go on for longer. But I want to hear what you guys think – or even feel – about this. And thanks, EJ, for a great assignment.
When I work with a writer on their first serious novel manuscript, there are certain aspects they usually get right on instinct alone. There’s the content – a believable story world, characters with solid backgrounds and stuff to do. They usually write fluently too. But there are other, more hidden levels of craft that they usually haven’t noticed in good books, but will make an immense difference to the quality of their work. So here are a few.
1 Keeping the reader’s curiosity
When we’re kids we’re taught we must finish any book we start. Like eating every morsel on the plate, even the detested Brussels sprouts. But a reader will not persevere with a book out of politeness. So writers have to be relentless showmen (within the expectations of their particular genre, of course). Curiosity is the name of the game. Compelling writers will prime the reader to be curious about everything they show – a character, story development, back story or historical context. How do you learn this? Read with awareness. Analyse what keeps you gripped in books you enjoy. (Often when I point this out, the reply is: ‘I get so swept up that I don’t give it a thought’. QED. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment, but learn to read with primed antennae.)
2 The beginning has to grab attention …. But it also makes a promise to the reader
Don’t start with a thrilling piece of action if the rest of the book doesn’t contain that kind of action. lf you do, you’re wooing the reader under false pretences. Instead, find an intriguing scene that is representational of the entire tone of the story, its themes and concerns. That’s quite tricky and you might try out many beginnings. Indeed, you often don’t get the beginning just right until you’ve written the end.
3 Descriptions come to life if you add humans
You might describe a tidal wave by saying it was the height of a house. Or the earthquake split the town hall in two. These specifics are good, but they’re lifeless. For real impact, try showing how it affected the people in its midst. Just as photographers or painters might use a figure of a person to show scale, you can convey the power of disasters by including humans – cowering, trying to run away with a cat under their arm, filming it on their phone while a friend yells at them to flee.
4 Show not tell
Show not tell is one of the trickiest storytelling techniques to learn. In a nutshell, it’s about creating the experience for the reader. Instead of writing ‘fear was on everyone’s faces’, show us what the characters did that would make you conclude they were afraid. Here’s a post that explains more and you’ll also find lots more discussion of this concept in the Nail Your Novel books.
5 Decide what you want to emphasise
Sometimes you can tell, not show. If you want the reader to feel the impact of the experience, write it in a way that ‘shows’. If the experience doesn’t really matter, you can ‘tell’. Sometimes you can write ‘She had a terrible voyage’ and that might be enough for the purposes of the story. At other times, you want the reader to share the terrible voyage.
6 Don’t wait too long before telling us your main character’s rough age
You don’t have to state it explicitly or numerically, just give us enough to figure out whether we’re looking at a pre-teen, a teenager, a person in their 20s, 30s, 60s. I read a lot of manuscripts where I can’t fathom that out and it interferes with my ability to interpret the action. A person in their 20s who yearns for adventure or love is very different from a person in their 40s or 70s.
7 Home isn’t just a geographical location
It’s a place that owns us – we want to return to it, escape from it, inherit or disown it. If your characters talk about home, what does it mean to them? Take time to let us know.
8 Don’t accidentally create a passive main character
A lot of writers fall into this trap. They create a central character who is thrown into trouble by the actions of other people. They are pushed from one crisis to the next. The pressures mount, they get a bit anguished, but do they do anything about it? No, they wait for the next piece of trouble. That might be lifelike – many of us would prefer to avoid difficult situations. But it makes for a frustrating read (unless the passiveness is a deliberate choice). Otherwise, readers prefer a character who in some ways creates their difficulties and adventures – perhaps because they are restless, or a control freak, or because they succumb to temptation or yearn for something new.
9 Don’t forget to conjure the set-up at the start of each scene
Many writers forget these essential orientating details at the start of a scene – where we are, who is there. Indeed, they often don’t realise an author is doing it every time they load a new location. Even if it’s an ordinary room or an ordinary street – although once you’ve made an environment very familiar to the reader you can use shorthand such as ‘I sat at Mary’s battered piano’.
10 You can’t set the scene through dialogue alone
Although dialogue can help establish the scene, it can’t do it all. Often writers try to, and end up with artificial-sounding lines such as ‘Hand me that glass from the mahogany table’. But prose is a medium of description as well as dialogue (unless you’re aiming for a deliberately abbreviated style). It’s an environment and you want the reader to experience your scenes with all their reading senses. Include the last rays of sun slanting over the roofs. The family unloading children and picnic hampers into a cluttered hallway. The tinkling of crockery as a meal is prepared.
Would you add any? What eye-opening tips have you been given by editors or beta readers?
This is me, passing before your eyes as an extra in Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter . (Here’s my post about it, since you ask. Back now? On we go.) Blink and you’d miss me because your eye would quite rightly be on Matt Damon and the other characters who mean something to you.
And look at all the other folk in the scene. Extras, nameless, not even in the script. All of us, there to be ignored.
But if we weren’t there you’d miss us even more.
Something I see so often in first novels is that scenes look unpopulated. The main characters and the setting may be well drawn, but there is no sense that there is anyone else in the world of the story. School gates are deserted; the shopping mall is empty; there is never another car on the road. It makes the reader feel something is wrong. Background people are a crucial detail for making us feel a scene is real.
I know why this happens. When you envisage a scene, it’s hard enough to put in all the stuff that is relevant. But the background?
Directors on big movies have the same problem. They concentrate on the principals. The job of making a background come to life belongs to the assistant director and team. You almost have to do a similar thing yourself when writing – make one of your jobs populating the background.
Of course, you don’t want too much of it. It mustn’t get in the way. When you’re opening a scene and letting the reader know who’s where and what they’re doing, add a person or two – perhaps a woman with her chin snuggled in her yellow scarf, walking fast to her car. The postman in a fluorescent vest swinging his leg over his bicycle.
You can use details of movement or life to punctuate pauses in dialogue or to underline tensions. Perhaps one of your characters hears a clack of bricks being thrown from the scaffolded house into a skip. He thinks that throwing something was exactly what he felt like – and instead he’s having a conversation that’s going nowhere. Or someone sitting in a cafe sees someone at an adjacent table waving to a passing friend and it reinforces their sense of being alone.
Imagination wrung out like a rag?
Of course, we’ve all got enough to think about inventing our significant stuff. It used to frustrate me too until I discovered Flickr. Now I search for a street scene or a bar and grab one that has the right look and feel. Instant background people – and I can get back to the characters I know and what they’re doing.
When you’re setting your scene, don’t forget the unimportant people.
Do you have any tips for populating a scene? Share in the comments!
You know one of the best ways to irritate someone? Keep telling them how wonderful a person is who they don’t know – and never say why. ‘She’s so lovely.’ ‘She’s great.’ ‘She’s terrific.’ Result? After a while, you think ‘she’ is anything but.
I’ve been reading a novel where the author has been doing exactly this. The main character has been separated from a girl he has fallen in love with, and for long periods is wondering if he’ll ever see her again. The author did a grand job of setting up the romance earlier. The problem was when he was separated from her and the yearning began.
Tell me again, I can’t bear it
We have endless screeds of ‘he loved her so much’. ‘She had a certain something.’ (What did she have? Three ears?) ‘He felt a pain whenever he thought of her.’ (In what way was he thinking of her?’) It was unsatisfying, empty – and pretty soon very irritating.
Why? Readers (in general, not just heartless old me) don’t like being told what to feel. We want to feel it too. Or we actually react the other way. (Which is fine if that’s what you want. In this book it wasn’t the case.)
Besides, it’s not truthful. Perhaps that’s why we resent it, because it seems empty and insincere. When someone’s really missing their dear one, they don’t remember their summary of the emotion. They’d get an exquisite flashback of the time they got lost together walking back from the bus stop in the pitch dark. They’d find themselves snagged by faces in a crowd, because their foolish brain was saying ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if she was there’.
Show not tell
This is, of course, showing, not telling. And it’s so powerful. Showing makes the reader feel what the character feels. It casts a spell of experience. It is not analytical. It is not a summing-up. It presents the truth and lets the reader make up their mind.
Show not tell is one of the hardest things for a writer to remember. The example that provoked this post is actually from a published novelist of otherwise impeccable accomplishments. Show not tell requires the most imaginative effort and all the writers I know slip unintentionally from time to time.
I’ve often wondered why this is. Maybe it’s because our analytical brain is saying ‘in this scene he missed her’ and it’s easy to write that. Showing it means we have to submerge into the character’s experience – which isn’t always easy. But showing intimately what a character feels is one of the most gripping things a writer does. Good writing isn’t words. It’s an experience. And experience is not analytical.
Don’t write the analysis. Write the experience.
Let’s play a game. Find an example you like and leave it in the comments – and afterwards show how you’d squash it flat by telling instead of showing. I’ll kick off.
‘Once he had been strong enough to lift a carousel horse in each arm. That was a long time ago.’ Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Telling version: ‘He used to be so strong’.
Take it away, guys
Thanks for the pic Philip Morton