Thursday, September 29, 2016

Making it "real".

Beginning writers often fall into the same traps, one of which is to describe the hell out of EVERYTHING.   What people looked like down to the smallest details, places, houses, kitchens, closets, stores, how to drive a car…you name it, I can promise it has been described to death by thousands of writers.

Writers do it because, especially when we’re just starting, we’re trying to make it real for the reader—to do that we need to make them see it, right? Every last button, lace, design on the dagger?

Ummm- no.

Good writing has a trick to it—it implies real life, it gives the illusion of real life, but it’s not real life.  Use dialogue as an example.  We may eavesdrop on folks to pick up on things, but you’d never use real conversation in a book (and if you are, stop it. Please. ).  In real conversation people are repetitive, they use fillers (um, ah, etc) they talk over each other, hop subjects, are boring, and a whole lot more.

So, we don’t write like people speak-- we write what feels like how people speak.  Our dialogue needs to give the illusion of real conversation, but in a much tighter and structured form. 

The same thing with description.  A laundry list filled with tiny details might make for a happy writer in some cases, but it’s not going to make for a happy reader.  As writers we have to give an impression of our characters, their homes, their lives.  Give enough detail to anchor the reader a bit, then let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting- let THEM determine what everything looks like.

I had a friend ask how I pronounced one of my character’s names once.  I shrugged and told her.  She frowned and said she thought it was something else.  To which I said, “Yep, you’re right too”.  I know how my characters look, sound, move, and react.  It’s in my head all the time.  But once a reader meets them, those characters are theirs now as well.  If they build that character based on your words and their own imagination, that character becomes far more real to them than if the writer forced a list of descriptives down their throat.

Heavy lists of what things look like actually slows down the reader as they try to pull the very detailed image together.  It ruins the pacing and pulls them out of the story.  A death sentence for any book.

I’ve come across books that gave me no classic descriptives of a character at all.  No eye color, hair color, skin color, height, weight, nothing.

And I can promise you I KNEW what that character looked like just from the writer’s other words.  Now, did my character look like what the writer was thinking?  Maybe, maybe not.  But what’s important was that I as the reader saw the character. I didn't see the writer telling me about the character.


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  2. You're so right, Marie. I think the trick is to give just enough information to start the reader's own imagination putting the rest of the pieces together. I always remember Isaac Asimov's words too, which sort of relate to what you'e saying 'Say what it does - but don't try to explain how it does it." Especially true for we SF writers!

    1. Asimov was a very wise man :). And so very true! Just enough to keep the reader connected. Thanks for coming by!

  3. Very good points here. Personally, I'm awful at remembering how characters are described, and usually skip those parts and say "From this point on, I shall imagine this character as Nathan Fillion!"

    1. I do the same thing! Okay, not always Nathan, although he is a good choice for the guys ;). But there have been sometimes that an author will post, "THIS is what so-and-so looks like" and I am just totally at a loss, since that's not what I thought they looked like at all ;). Thanks for coming by!

  4. One guy I beta read for is rather minimalist in terms of description. But every once in a while he'll suddenly dive into a setting description that's several paragraphs long for no apparent reason. I have to remind him that long descriptions not only slow the pace, but often indicate to the reader that this is very important to know. And they'll be disappointed later when they find out it wasn't important.