autumn arrives, I go into academic mode. Blame all those years of
school when fall not only meant new clothing to wear, but new things to
learn. With this concept in mind, we'll start October with the first
installment of a series called Beauty in the Breakdown. In it we'll
cover how to edit various aspects of a story, including description,
dialogue, narrative, and scene. We also encourage your input.
Since these elements are common
to most stories, we often take them for granted and don't make each
word count, because we can still get by without each word saying
exactly what we mean. Yet, it's increasingly important to be selective
about what we keep and what we discard, because in this competitive
environment more people are writing, but not everyone is writing well.
So, here are reasons to perfect your craft: to distinguish yourself
from other writers, to learn about writing through your work, to hone
your editing senses, and to improve your style and technique.
The best time to edit—whether
it's description, dialogue, or narrative—is after giving the work a
rest. If you're editing your own work, paper is still a great way to
see your writing from an outsider's perspective, as is reading it
somewhere besides where you normally write. It's also important to look
back over a section after you've finished the next. This provides a
perspective you wouldn't have otherwise. While editing, slow down so
that you can see—and hear—the words and phrases.
One of the commonest facets of
fiction and nonfiction is description. Whether you're describing a
place, an event, or a character, description is everywhere, so much so
that we often fail to view it critically. And a critical perspective,
in the constructive sense, is key. If you catch your missteps, your
work will be more highly regarded and more publishable. Description is
important, too, because through your portrayal, you're asking the
reader to trust you, and today more than ever that's a tall order.
Still, trust is essential, and a writer must prove worthy of it.
Let's start with the function of
description. Because we're continually bombarded with information, it's
easy to believe the purpose of any description is to convey facts. Yet,
for writers, this isn't description's primary function—just stating
facts rarely reaches the core of a piece. When you describe something
or someone, you reveal its essence. Interpretation is up to the reader.
This approach is most satisfying—to reader and writer.
Here's an example. "Though it
was spring, the maple was bare." This, on the surface, is direct
description. It's a clear, descriptive sentence, maybe even a bit
poetic, and it conveys a fact—the
tree has no leaves. The
underlying question, though, is why tell readers this? To add layers to
a story, there should be a good reason to make this statement.
If the purpose of the sentence
is to say the tree has no leaves or that it was a rough winter, then
the description is adequate, but static. It doesn't take the reader
anyplace because it doesn't advance plot or reveal character. But if I
use the same sentence in a paragraph where I show that my character has
just had another miscarriage, then the barren maple becomes indirect
description, and serves to show my character's acute sense of loss,
especially when she's expected to be "in bloom," a perceived
shortcoming of which she's continually reminded.
queries about description, writers often ask which details to include
and how much. The question sounds good, but often shows the writer
hasn't made enough effort to figure out not only what she wants to say,
but why she wants to say it. That's the benefit of indirect
description, which can also be conveyed through dialogue. Here's an
example based on the premise above.
Diane opened the living room curtains.
Joe stood behind her. "Still watching that maple?"
She turned to him. "Do you think we should take it down and plant
Knowing the story's background,
this conversation says far more about what are now two characters
suffering through another loss. And that's the key—knowing the story.
If you're still unsure about your description, don't ask yourself what
you want to say; ask yourself what you want to convey.
One rule of thumb in editing
description for length: Longer is better to set a languid mood, convey
a literary feel, or slow the plot. Shorter is better to create
suspense, convey accessibility, or quicken the pace.
In the coming installments,
we'll talk more about character description, dialogue, narrative, and
scene. All stories include these building blocks, but that doesn't mean
we can afford to overlook how to best use them. On the contrary, if we
don't use the best material properly, we can expect the story we
thought was carefully constructed to crumble.
We'd also love to get your
input. To pose a query on a writing topic, e-mail