Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Building Blocks of Writing Part 3: Description

So here we are at last; the third and final element of storytelling (if you're just tuning in, check out action and dialogue) There's a reason why I put these three in this order. Action moves the story and the reader from A to B, whether through emotion, pacing, or the character's actual movements. Dialogue dives deeper into the human aspect of the story. It's what breathes life into it. But both are used to describe the story. A story is nothing but a series of events being described to the reader. It's a picture that we're painting with our words so vividly, the reader might as well be watching a movie.

But therein lies the problem. Too much paint makes for a big, brown, blob. So how much description is too much? We've discussed the power of suggestion in the action segment, how a little goes a long way, and the same goes here. But weren't we just talking about painting a vivid picture? Think of it like this: a story takes place 100% in the reader's mind. If we're going to tell them every detail about everything, we might as well gear them up with a helmet and squeaky shoes so they don't get into trouble (shout out to my little sister) It's demeaning, but more than that, it's boring. Instead of telling our readers about every grain of sand in the desert, weave it in with action and dialogue and create not just a description, but a scene. Check it:

Tim hacked up another wad of sandy spit and groaned as he wiped it on his sleeve. "Ain't this desert ever going to end? Dust's killing me, Alan, and I mean it!"

Alan raised an eyebrow back at him. "Still a long ways yet, boy. You best get used to it."

But he ain't going to get used to it. How the hell could anyone get used to three days worth of saddle rash, and waves of sand scratching out their eyeballs? Alan grinned like he could see how bad Tim was hating it. He clucked at his horse and clouds of sand puffed from its hooves, and Tim's eyes seemed to catch every grain of it. The ride to Elwood was going to be a hell lot longer than Alan said.

Here we've got setting, we've got plot and character, dialogue, action, description all in one small bundle. We might not know the whole story, but we know enough to build a world. We know we're dealing with two guys riding to Elwood through the desert, and we can guess Alan's older than Tim by the way he called him "boy". Notice I didn't put any physical appearance beyond that. As soon as a character is introduced, the reader's going to have a mental image of them. Whatever physical attributes that are important to the character must be mentioned as close as possible to the moment they take the stage. In this case, Tim's male, and he's young. If there were any other physical attributes that were important to the story, it should've been described before I moved on to Alan, or I'm only distracting the reader and sacrificing story in favor of useless details.

Every detail we write must have purpose behind it. Say I have a character who's so fat, he has a tough time pulling his pants on in the morning (FYI that right there would be how I describe he's fat—writing that epic battle between him and his pants) This detail might not be what the story revolves around, but it has to be consistently important. Maybe he's made fun of for it, and that causes him to have a jaded outlook on the world. Or maybe he's fine with the way he looks, but when running away from pirates, he can't keep up with his friends and ends up being caught. 

The same deal goes for clothing. Clothing can be tough because there's so much detail in what a person wears. It irritates the heck out of me when I have to wonder whether someone's in hot pants or skinny jeans, but this goes back to the context. What kind of person are they? Where are they and what's the climate like? Instead of spelling out the main character's dusty old cowboy hat, sprinkle in these details and let the reader assume what kind of clothing he's wearing. Unless, of course, that hat has a direct impact on the plot.

"So what do you say, Al? It ain't a big herd, and those cowpokes won't put up much of a fight. Most of them are as scrawny as that boy you've got there." Gene flashed his yellow toothed grin at Tim, and if he could, Tim would knock them teeth right out. But all that'd do would make Alan mad, except Alan wasn't paying no attention to him, or to Gene. His eyes were on the shelf atop the fireplace—on the black hat he set there long before Tim was born, when his outlaw days were done. 

Alan's rocking chair gave a tired groan as he got out of it. He stepped up to the fireplace, reached for the hat, and Tim knew it was a done deal. The moment he put that hat on, Alan was an outlaw again.

It's not just a hat anymore, is it? The hat represents Alan's days as an outlaw, and by putting it on, it sets up a conflict for the rest of the story. At some point, the story will have to round back to that hat. Maybe he loses it saving Tim, showing he chose Tim over the outlaw life. Or maybe he gets shot in the head, and that bloody bullet hole represents how that life got him killed. In the meantime, the reader is always going to picture that hat on him unless it's stated otherwise.

If I want my reader to know that Tim's also wearing a hat, that hat doesn't need to have metaphorical significance, but it does have to be a prop to move the story along. I might have him push up his hat and wipe his brow, killing two birds with one stone. I'm painting the setting (it's hot) and showing the reader Tim's hat without having to spell out either of them. 

It's all about keeping it simple, using only as many words as the story needs. For instance, I didn't need to say Alan got up slowly out of his rocking chair. I let the pacing and the context do it for me. I weaved the description in through action. See? All of the elements are connected. Just like DNA building all life of earth, binary creating everything you see on this screen, protons, neutrons, and electrons creating everything thing in the universe, these three, simple elements of writing are what create stories. Learn to weave them in the right way, and we can create worlds.

Current Stats
Watching: American Dragon (shut up :|)
Listening: Glitch Mob
Reading: Armada by Ernest Cline
Playing: Nothing :( Too busy preppy for NaNoWriMo!
^^^What are ya'll up to? Comment below!^^^

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