Tag Archives: description

Settings: Bland & Vivid

In wrapping up this series on setting in fiction writing, I’d like to demonstrate the difference strong, well-presented setting can make.

Writers who compose their settings with bland generalities and cliches, supply only vague information, avoid specific details, and omit a viewpoint character’s physical senses and awareness of the location are shortchanging their readers.

Vivid settings come alive because of specific details, descriptive passages that employ dominant impressions, and the utilization of a character’s physical senses where and when appropriate.

Consider the following:

Bland:  Sitting at a small table in her sister’s new kitchen, Jane sipped her coffee while she pondered how to ask Sheila a question about their father’s finances.

Vivid:  New kitchen? What a laugh. Jane sat down gingerly on an old chair that creaked under her ninety-eight pounds. None of the chairs matched at a rickety little table with peeling paint. Who used peeling paint in a kitchen? It looked unsanitary, like chickens had roosted on it for thirty years in a barn, and it probably had lead paint. Sheila was so proud of her cabinets–bought cheap at a thrift store–like that was something to brag about. They didn’t match either and could be infested with bug eggs just waiting to hatch out. Jane eyed her coffee–served in a tawdry souvenir mug with a faded map of Florida emblazoned on the side. Her first sip scalded her mouth, making her gasp and bang her mug too hard on the table. A flake of green paint floated down from beneath the table, landing on her foot. Why did Sheila buy such bitter blends? Why did she overbrew the coffee until it was so scorched and hot that drinking it was an ordeal? If she couldn’t afford decent mugs, why didn’t she go to Target and buy an inexpensive box of them like normal people instead of rooting through filthy thrift shops for the garbage castoffs of society? Now she wanted Jane to admire her kitchen when it looked like something even hippies in the past century would have thrown away. Jane was here to discuss their father’s financial ruin before it was too late to save the money, but Sheila refused to listen. She kept chattering about how the bargains of scratch-and-dent appliances had enabled her to buy a behemoth cast-iron sink off Craigslist that probably cost even more than it weighed.

*

One sentence versus a too-lengthy, dense paragraph. Hmmm, does that mean vivid has to be long and overblown?

Not at all! I would take the “vivid” paragraph and break it apart into small pieces that can be dropped into the dialogue between Jane and Sheila. If the sisters are talking at cross-purposes–critical Jane wanting to discuss Dad and romantic, creative Sheila wanting to evade the topic–then the details can be sprinkled throughout where appropriate.

Let’s try another comparison.

Bland:   Jimmy hurried anxiously along the school hallway, afraid he’d be late for class.

Vivid:  Intent on breaking through the locker gridlock so he wouldn’t collect another tardy slip, Jimmy juked around knots of girls giggling together, collided with a scrawny seventh-grader with big glasses and a cowlick, and trampled the foot of Arnie Bixmaster, a looming football bruiser with shoulders as broad as the doorway to algebra class.

*

Even as we imagine the trouble Jimmy’s about to be in when Arnie the giant–maybe nicknamed The Beastmaster–turns on him, can’t you hear the noise of hundreds of voices punctuated by slams of steel locker doors? If the “vivid” sentence evokes memories of your schooldays, it’s done its job.

Sometimes settings fail to do their part when they are simply a vague cliche. Lazy writers tend to rely on old, worn standbys without realizing that whatever made them work originally has long since faded from overuse. Writers also tend to fall into the vagueness trap when they haven’t visited a setting, or done their research by talking to people who have.

*

Bland:  Esme Jones had always dreamed of visiting Paris in the spring. She walked along the city streets, drinking in the sights, and spent her afternoons at the Louvre, gazing at the wonderful art hanging there. She planned to eat at sidewalk cafes, and practice her high school French on the locals.

Vivid:  Esme Jones was lost. Instead of taking the Metro from her hotel to the Louvre, she’d decided to walk. Her phone had no signal, and her GPS wasn’t working. Rain pelted down, blurring the tall apartment buildings and narrow, unevenly paved streets into a gray smear. The flower markets had shut, with rolled-down awnings, leaving only a few trampled blossoms of pink and yellow lying on the sidewalk, which meant she couldn’t even take any pictures for her Instagram feed. What a rotten, miserable day. April in Paris was a lie! All it did was rain, and she was sick of it. Pedestrians had vanished, driven indoors by the weather. She had no idea of where she was or how to get back to her hotel. Telling herself to stay calm, she cut along what she thought was an alley leading back to a larger street. Instead it grew narrower and more crooked before opening to a tiny square surrounded by looming old buildings of brick and stone jammed right up to the sidewalk. It was a dead end, but she found herself pausing just to look. Ornate iron fencing surrounded a gnarled almond tree. Its delicate pink blossoms shimmered in the rain, and Esme inhaled the fragrance. At each corner of the fence stood rusting urns of white flowers she didn’t recognize. The blooms spilled over the sides, cascading to the ground. A worn statue of a cherub peered out from beneath a shrub, its rounded face dotted with lichen. As she clutched the cold iron spindles to stare at this enchanted little garden, Esme forgot about how wet and chilled she was. The rain suddenly stopped, leaving the air damp and still. She caught the scent of freshly baked bread. There must be a bistro nearby where she could ask directions. But maybe first she’d eat some thick, hearty bourguignon.

Pardon, mademoiselle!” called out a brisk feminine voice.

Esme turned and saw a middle-aged woman in a white belted raincoat and beret walking toward her. Beautifully made up, with dark hair cut in a stylish bob, the woman was slender and very chic. She carried a marketing basket filled with radishes, carrots, and several tiny parcels wrapped in paper and tied with string. A white West Highland Terrier in a bright blue raincoat trotted on its lead beside her.

*

Leaving Paris behind, let’s try a different location:

Bland:  Mineet parked the car at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and got out to look at the dunes. It wasn’t what she’d expected.

Vivid:  As soon as Mineet exited her rental Escalade at the White Sands National Monument, she was blinded by intense noon sunlight reflecting off dunes as white as sugar. Even her polarized Ray Bans couldn’t quite handle the glare. She squinted, her eyes watering, and lifted her hands to shield her face. After a few seconds, she managed to open her eyes to a slit, enough to see miles of sand stretching beneath a cobalt-blue New Mexico sky. She crouched to scoop some into an emptied Sonic styrofoam cup because Karthik had asked for a souvenir. The sand was cool to the touch, not at all burning hot like she expected. Completely reflective, she thought in surprise and took off her sandals to dig in her bare brown toes.

*

But what if you’re not writing about trendy kitchens or Paris or New Mexican deserts? What if you’re writing instead about a planet no one has ever been to, a world that exists only in your imagination? No need to worry about cliches there, right? After all, you can’t research if there’s no one to ask about it. So you’ll just make it up, and enjoy yourself.

Even so, details should be specific, vivid, and plausible.

Bland:  Carl Farstrider climbed a hill to survey the valley where his shuttle had landed. It was a broad valley, with a dry river bed. With sunshine and patience, the colonists he’d brought here would do quite well. Satisfied, he opened his communicator. “Farstrider to ship,” he said. “I’ve found where we’ll establish our first settlement.”

Vivid:  Carl Farstrider followed an old trail that zigzagged up the tallest hill overlooking the valley. His surveyor’s map had marked it as being the broadest, flattest of the numerous valleys and mountain ranges covering the upper hemisphere of Ceti Tau VII. There were traces of indigenous building sites–abandoned now–dotted along the upper reaches of the valley, and other indications of past inhabitants such as this trail, but Farstrider wasn’t concerned. Whoever or whatever had once lived here had gone long ago. The colonists waiting aboard his ship now orbiting the planet would probably enjoy such quaint archeological details of an extinct race. Farstrider considered that a few antique artifacts usually gave a place charm. He’d use that angle in his next promotional recruitment campaign.

The wind picked up, blowing harder now with a bite of cold, and he turned his face into it, liking its freshness after months of stale, recycled ship’s air. Clouds obscured a weak G-Class sun, but although it wasn’t robust like Terra’s Sol, it was within the parameters of life support. Putting his binocs to his face, Farstrider scanned the deep canal bisecting the valley floor. No water ran there now, and along this end the canal walls had been dressed with cut stone, cleverly fitted together with no visible mortar. According to his data, an aquifer was located about fourteen klicks northward, at the upper end of the valley. Tomorrow drilling would commence, tapping that essential water supply and pulling it to ground surface. It could flow along this canal and then be held in a large reservoir he planned to build at the south end of the valley.

Once that was done, Farstrider could leave the eighty-seven colonists here to establish the first settlement of a planned forty such communities. Ceti Tau VII was going to be successful, all right, and profitable. That would help him recoup the losses he’d taken with the disastrous Cirenterra colony halfway across the galaxy. He didn’t plan to repeat the mistakes he’d made there. Nope, Ceti Tau VII would prosper, starting with Settlement I right here in Farstrider Valley. No more massacres. No more starved colonists. No more nightmares to haunt him.

 

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Searching for Diction

It’s that spooky time of year, the week leading up to Halloween when my neighbors drape cobwebs across their doorways and front yards sprout headstones, pumpkins, and life-size zombies. Even this morning, the classical music station on my car radio treated me to Saint Saens’s Danse Macabre, an anecdote about how some people at the turn of the twentieth century believed composer/musician Paganini had struck a deal with the devil in order to play so well, and very eerie scrapings on a violin intended to depict the dancing of La Strega.

So, given the slanting golden days of late October with the wind whipping falling leaves and shoppers rushing to load up on candy in preparation for All Hallows’ Eve, I’m joining in the spirit of things by writing a post devoted to diction and the imagery it can create.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines diction as “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.

And a much simpler way of defining it is just “word choice.”

Can that make much difference in writing? You bet! Words are our sculptor’s tool, our chisel, our brush, our paint. We manipulate reader imaginations through the various words we use as descriptors. We can make a setting dull and uninteresting or vivid and appealing. We can evoke reader sympathy for characters or influence readers to dislike them intensely. By utilizing vocabulary with precise intent, we can add another layer of entertainment value to the stories we create.

Let’s look at some examples:

The large, red dog trotted along the sidewalk. He seemed to know where he was going. He ignored all the pedestrians he passed. At Sixth and Elm, he crossed the street, evading the oncoming cars. A cop noticed him, but by then he’d vanished into an alleyway.

Are you enthralled?

No?

I’m not surprised. The diction of this example is flat, dull, ordinary, and without imagery. It lacks the specialized (or coded) language that would fit it into a particular genre, and it is not focused into any sort of dominant, lasting impression.

Let’s shift and tweak this a bit so it fits instead into the romance category:

The magnificent Irish Red Setter trotted along the sidewalk as though leading a parade of pedestrians. With his coat gleaming like a copper penny in the sunshine, he disdained all the passersby and ignored every attempt to catch his attention or touch him. So regally did he move that the crowd parted ahead of him, and even at the normally busy intersection of Sixth and Elm the cars halted to let him pass. By the time a cop saw him, the setter was disappearing into an alleyway with a jaunty wave of his plumed tail.

More adjectives? Yes. More adverbs? Yes. Longer? Definitely. The dog is moving down the sidewalk, but now we have a specific breed, plus visual cues from similes, and a focus on the animal’s beauty and regal bearing.

What about putting our pooch into a mystery?

No doubt about it, the mutt was a stray. I watched him scurry down Broad Avenue, searching from doorway to doorway for the little bowls of kibble that softies among the shopkeepers left there. Good way to attract rats and roaches, if you ask me. But the dog knew the drill and was ready to mooch for what he could find. A couple of guys in suits called to him. One even tried to grab the dog’s collar. It was just a piece of dirty rope tied around his neck, the snapped end dangling where he’d made his break for freedom. But he dodged the attempt to catch him with an outraged yelp and shot across the intersection of Sixth and Elm. Cars honked and squealed brakes to avoid hitting the mangy fleabag.  On the corner a cop put in a call, probably to the dog catcher. Yeah, like the pound could arrive in time to catch anything. Muttsie meanwhile was already ducking out of sight in the nearest dark alley.

Yes, I used “shot” deliberately as a verb and “snapped” as an adjective. I gave the street a name because mysteries focus on specific details. I used a first-person narrator and viewpoint in the detective tradition. Other terms selected as appropriate for this genre include “stray,” “mooch,” “rats,” “roaches,” “drill,” “break for freedom,” “dirty rope,” etc.

And urban fantasy?

In the thickening twilight, nightfall spread across the broken pavement. Dead weeds had pushed up through the cracks in the cement and died there, their desiccated corpses casting crooked little shadows in the streetlights’ amber glow. A lean hound, as black as the cloak of death, moved between shadow and light, seen and unseen, its pads silent upon a sidewalk littered with glints of broken glass and the occasional crumpled soda can or food wrapper. Only a few people remained out. They hurried, clutching their coat collars, and dodged to let the hound pass unhindered. No one reached out to the animal. No one called to it. For it wore the heavy black chain of its master, and to meet its glowing red eyes was to look through the gates of Hell.

Here, I’ve chosen harsh descriptors, making the weeds into dried-up corpses, crumbling the sidewalk, and littering it with trash and broken glass. I’ve also set my stage with darkness and shadows, long the playground of danger. And, yes, this time I’ve given people the collars and the dog a chain–all on purpose.

As you can see in each of these examples, I’ve altered the dominant impression to create imagery and to establish a certain mood in my readers’ minds. I’ve chosen to emphasize very different details, or created them to fit the atmosphere I want. Essentially the same action is occurring–although in the fantasy I dispensed with traffic and alleys. But each sample points to a very different plot and story world.

Tone, mood, atmosphere, weather, and setting. Beyond the writer tools of plot and characters, adopt the strategy of making diction also work for you. Edgar Allen Poe employed it in the nineteenth century, and yet this device is by no means out-dated. You can use it to frighten or enchant readers, charm them, alarm them, or even make them laugh out loud.

 

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Adding Without Padding

I tend to focus on cutting manuscripts because I can spew out words and words and words and words. I always have more manuscript than editorial permission. My very first novel published required me to cut it in half before the editors were satisfied.

However, there are folks out there who write lean and mean. A friend of mine has always written so tightly, so sparingly that her prose–while superb–always comes in under length.

So if that’s your revision problem, here are some tips and suggestions:

1. Don’t pad.
Never lengthen your copy by injecting material that’s extraneous, flowery, or rambles. If it doesn’t contribute to your story, it shouldn’t be there.

2. Look at your scenes.
Can you strengthen your protagonist’s motivation so that he or she will push the conflict harder? If you don’t let the protagonist give up just yet, can you wring another three paragraphs–or even three more pages–from the scene?

If it’s possible, without having the conflict become repetitive or mere bickering, then write it!

If you don’t see how you can alter character motivation, then raise the stakes.

If you can’t raise the stakes, then let the antagonist pull an unexpected maneuver. Such a twist is unpredictable, a nasty surprise for the protagonist, and needs dealing with. Hey! It means you’re adding plot!

3. Have you rushed the climax?
I’m one of those writers that wants to wrap up the story fast. Often I rush the dramatic climax and don’t give it as much attention as I should.

Go back through the ending of your story. Have you made the sacrificial choice hard enough? Is your protagonist in a tough enough quandary? Does everything look lost for the protagonist and have you let your lead character stew enough in apparent defeat before you bring in the reversal?

It’s so easy to rush the Dark Moment and so important not to.

If these three suggestions don’t add enough length to your short story, or if you’re writing a novel that needs a lot more content than just a few extra pages, then consider the following solutions:

4. Add a subplot.
Maybe you’ve been busy focusing on your protagonist’s external plot problem, but you’ve neglected to do much with his inner arc of change.

Ask yourself if your protagonist has inner flaws. If so, are there any scenes or confrontations dealing with them?

Look at your secondary characters. Are any of them interesting enough to supply a subplot to the story?

5. Add characters.
Maybe your protagonist needs a sidekick. Maybe you’ve omitted a love interest for your main character. How would such secondary characters add to the story? Would they bring the potential for subplots? Would they add another layer or more dimension to your protagonist–or even the antagonist?

You don’t want to clutter a novel with more characters than are needed, but consider where an extra character or two might help.

6. Have you established a strong sense of place?
While description is often the first thing a writer cuts from a manuscript, sometimes a busy author forgets the setting altogether.

Or–more commonly–a writer envisions the setting clearly in her mind and neglects to remember that her readers aren’t telepathic enough to read her thoughts.

Descriptive passages are risky in that they slow down the pacing, but we still need them at key points to help readers imagine where the action is taking place. Or the clues of lipstick, a broken button, and a deck of cards scattered around a mysterious corpse. Or the silky touch of the blouse the heroine slips on. Or the thunderous downpour in a Malaysian monsoon doing its best to drown the rubber plantation. Or the fragrance of a man’s aftershave as he enters the courtroom to seek custody of his only child. Or the glutinous taste of the sludge that passes for Andorian coffee. Or the shot that rings out in the dead of night.

7. Have you explained?
I frequently caution my students against the urge to explain all the background in their opening pages, but in the middle of a novel readers need to know something more about the protagonist’s motivations or why these events are happening. Act II infusions of back story make a desirable change of pace. They don’t have to go on and on and on, but they can provide readers with a breather after an explosive opening section of a book.

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Whoa Now! Varying the Pace

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say, “Get on with the story.” He was talking about the tendency of the unsure writer to stall or slow down the story’s progression. Again and again, he stressed the necessity of keeping the pace fast. I’ve found his advice to be sound. Keep the pages turning. Keep readers from finding a stopping place. Keep things happening.

However, it’s just as possible to stumble with a story that’s too fast as with a story that’s too slow.

Any plot can become monotonous or dull if the pacing never varies. There are many terms for this: the story’s rhythm, the rise and fall of drama, the peaks and valleys of plot, etc.

Try this:

Bob darted around the corner with his Uzi held at waist level. He saw the target ahead–a shadow waiting for him in the alley. A flower of flame burst to life in the darkness. A split-second later, Bob heard the rat-tat staccato of gunfire. The bullets chipped pellets of brick, stinging when they struck him. He ducked, rolled, came up, returned fire. His opponent twisted, flung back by a hit, and fell. Bob raced forward. That was one down, but he knew seven more assailants waited between him and his goal.

This moves quickly, but if I gave Bob a moment to catch his breath and weigh a couple of options before he takes on Enemy #2, it would be more effective. Hit the reader with too much action, happening too quickly, with no chance to process, and within a few pages the reader’s circuits will be shorting out from overload. Burn out your reader, and the book is put down.

Let’s try again:

Bob eased his way across the corner, holding his Uzi at waist level. He concentrated on moving silently, taking his time, placing the soles of his shoes precisely in contact with the alley’s pavement. He was wearing a dark pair of New Balance cross-trainers, secure and reliable. Still, he couldn’t afford to let them squeak or scuff the cement. He knew that alert ears were ahead of him, ears listening for any sound that might signal an attack. Ahead, a shadow moved, and a burst of flame from a muzzle was all the warning he received before the echoing crash of gunfire bounced off the walls around him. Bob ducked, breathing hard and fast. His hands were suddenly sweaty on his weapon. He was shaking with adrenaline, unable to force his fingers to do what they’d been trained to do. Shoot back, he snarled at himself. Just shoot back! But everything had slowed down. He could taste sweat and blood in his mouth. His ears thundered from the staccato hailstorm of bullets. He wanted to throw himself flat on his belly and scream, but instead he brought up his weapon, and squeezed the trigger. The Uzi bucked in his hands, sending death in reply. Bob saw his opponent twist and fall with a choked cry. Then all was quiet, except for the ringing in his ears. His nostrils were full of cordite stench. He let his knees wobble beneath him as he sank down, breathing hard. He hadn’t killed anyone since that mission three years ago, the one he’d blanked from his mind as much as possible. Now, the smells and sounds came flooding back, the stuff of nightmares.

He forced himself to stay focused, and not dwell on the past. That was one, he thought. Only seven to go. This way in had been compromised now. They would be expecting him. Maybe he should retreat, but if he failed his mission how could he face the …

Gak! Enough of that! Here, I’ve deliberately written this action sequence to be slow. There’s too much concentration on descriptive details at points where Bob needs to be less self-absorbed and more focused on staying alive.

Pace, like so many aspects of writing technique, is a question of balance.

Keep Pages Turning

You keep readers engaged by utilizing hooks, plot twists, conflict, rising stakes, motivation, sympathetic characters, and unpredictability.

There’s an old Ronald Reagan movie called KING’S ROW. In the film, Ronnie suffers an accident and is badly injured. The town doctor amputates his legs–not because Ronnie needs an amputation, but because the doctor doesn’t want Ronnie and his daughter to become a couple. No actual gore is shown, but during the doctor’s grim assessment of this injured young man and his quiet orders to the other men to clear the room so he can take out his bone saw, the pace is slow but INTENSE. If you were reading this in prose, you would be turning pages.

Lesson to learn: Don’t rely on narrative summary alone to turn pages. Readers care more about what’s happening than how fast the events are unfolding.

No Stopping Places

Typically, readers want to put the book down at the end of chapters. Many like to read before they go to sleep at night and don’t intend to get through more than a few pages at a time.

A writer’s intention should be to prevent readers from laying down the book.

To achieve this, you need hooks at the end of every chapter. These can be cliffhangers, questions, plot twists, etc.

You should put hooks at the beginnings of chapters, too. Maybe you shift viewpoint or use catchy dialogue. These tactics can keep the reader intrigued and engaged.

Watch out for boring sections of your story. Have you allowed the conflict to become circular? (Straighten out the scene and make it work. Throw in a twist or an unexpected tactic from the antagonist.)

Are you stalling because you don’t know what you want to write next? (Figure it out and then cut out the padding.)

Are you relying too much on description and imagery to make pretty settings? (Readers like a sense of place, but too much description slows the pace.)

Keep Things Happening

Are the characters standing around talking instead of doing?

Has the conflict gone flat?

Can you add more conflict?

Is character dialogue chatty small talk or is it advancing the plot?

When was the last time you utilized a plot twist?

The point is that you shouldn’t stick to one speed from start to finish. You shouldn’t rely on one or two techniques all the time. When you become predictable, your story becomes boring–whether it’s overloaded with events of equal weight happening so fast that no one can make sense of them or whether it’s burdened with dragging, slow introspection from your navel-gazer of a protagonist.

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S-T-R-E-T-C-H!

Just as people hit the gym to keep their muscles toned and singers run through scales before they practice their arias, so should writers keep their techniques supple.

Exercise #1:

Pick an area of writing that you do especially well.  Maybe you’re really adept at description, or maybe you always manage to set a hook at the end of each chapter.

Now find a couple of modern authors–preferrably still in print–that are known for their skills in that same technique.  Let’s say you’re looking at how they manage hooks.

Skim through Chosen Author’s first, best, or most famous story and see how he or she handles hooks.  Are you doing as good a job?  Set aside your ego and be honest.  If yours are not comparing well, what is Chosen Author doing that you aren’t? 

Maybe some of your hooks are actually better or more surprising.  If that’s the case, give yourself a pat on the shoulder.

Then look at whether Chosen Author is offering a variety of hooks, keeping scenes or chapters ending in unpredictable ways.

Do you have variety, or are you clinging to a couple of tried-and-true-but-weary tricks?

Now look through Chosen Author’s most recent book.  Are the techniques that initially made Chosen Author famous still in play( maybe a bit worn by now), or is Chosen Author serving up surprises?  For example, I think John Sandford writes the best scene fragments in the business, and from book to book he never quite does them the same way.  Still distinctive to the Sandford style, but always fresh.

What can you learn from this?

Exercise #2:

For the next drill, pick an area where you know you’re weak.  Let’s say you aren’t very good at introducing characters.  You’ve read useful texts on the subject, such as those by Jack Bickham, but you still can’t seem to bring people into your fiction with any verve.

Once again, go to your shelves.  Select an author whose characters you really admire or respond to.  How does that writer introduce them?  If necessary, copy a passage on your computer, print it out, and lay it side by side with a page from your manuscript.  (No, I don’t care if you have a big monitor capable of splitting the screen.  You don’t want to do this on the computer.  Print the samples out on paper, preferably with both in identical courier font.)

Compare the two, not to squelch your bruised ego further, but instead to try and find where the pins and seams are.  Think it over, then open a new document file and write your character introduction anew.  Print that out and compare it with Chosen Author’s.

Don’t expect or try to become identical.  You must keep your individual style, your voice.  The object is emulation, not imitation. 

I happen to admire John D. MacDonald’s character introductions very much.  He spends as much care making minor characters vivid as he does the major players, yet he never leaves you in doubt as to their level of importance to the story.

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