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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Description: Immerse, Don't Drown

If you're a little late to the party, allow me to explain what you're seeing in the image above. This is a piece, the 3rd so far, of the cover design for my next book: Curse of the Spider King. The first book of an epic fantasy series coauthored with Christopher Hopper, Spider King takes the traditional "portal fantasy" and turns it on its head. Rather than just sending a few kids into a fantasy world, we ask, "What would happen if the fantasy world came to us?"

A lot of writers, editors, and publishers will tell you that, if you don't "feel it" when you're writing a story, you're readers won't "feel it" when they read the story. I can honestly say, Christopher and I were "feeling it" as we wrote Spider King. It is the MOST fun I've ever had writing, and possibly the most "creeped out" I've ever been writing. There's one scene that Christopher penned that is every child's worst nightmare come true. It reminds me of a recurring dream I used to have, one that completely freaked me out.

Also, just a reminder that we have a contest going on. Design a HEADER for this blog and win a signed copy of any book I've written, including Spider King! See the earlier posts for details.

and now for something completely different...The Larch, er…just kidding.

The Art of Description

I. When to Describe:

The first thing to consider about description is that it generally slows down the pace of the story. So, if you're working on an action scene, you may not want to hit the brakes with a bucket of description. Imagine a car chase: frantic, treacherous action…but then, the author takes half a page to describe the nearby skyscraper. Good idea? Uhm…not so much.

Here are some times when you probably want to describe:
A. When we first meet a character: readers need to see who they are dealing with.
B. When you bring the reader to a new setting: see the picture above. This is the scene in Fellowship of the Rings when Aragorn brings the team to Lothlorien. It is the reader's first glimpse of the place. Tolkien spent pages describing it. Good idea? Absolutely.
C. When you are foreshadowing: dropping clues early on in the story can lead to supercharged scenes later. Sometimes, a clue is a little too obscure. Give it a little extra description, so it will stand out just a bit. The reader will wonder, and that's a good thing.

II. What to Describe:

Let's say you've identified a place you want to describe. Your hero has just wandered into the forest above. Now what? What do you actually want to describe? Rule #1: Do not attempt to describe everything. This goes for characters and settings alike. I can't tell you how many young writers introduce a character by giving a page of head to foot description. YIPE. If there's anything that screams: NOVICE, that's got to be it. Describe just a few things, but particularly something your reader can use to tag the character or place. Harry Potter had a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. Gandalf had bristling white eyebrows that stuck out past the brim of his hat. Robert Crais character Pike always where's aviator sunglasses. Those are quirky descriptive tags that allow a reader to file the character away. Every time the character appears thereafter, the reader says, "Oh, that's the kid with the scar."

Look back at the picture above. Sorry, I couldn't find a larger version of it. It's a cool picture of a creepy forest. So what do you describe? Give it the glance test. Glance at it. Look away. What do you remember?

I remember that it was misty. The trees were very dark. And, they seemed to be leaning in. It feels kind of suffocating, doesn't it? Cool! Describe that element. Don't mention that a little white moth flew by. Who cares?! Again, give the reader some meat for his/her imagination. The rule is: Immerse, don't drown. You want the reader to go there, but not to get sick of being there.

III. How to Describe:

Everyone knows you describe with adjectives and adverbs, right? Sure. But what about verbs? You might ask, uh, but those are those action words, right? They don't describe anything. In fact, that's why we have describe verbs. Right?

Wrong. Verbs are action words, but put another way, verbs are words that SHOW action. Sound familiar? How many times have you heard: "Show don't tell"??? It's too true. And verbs are the perfect thing to show the readers what's going on. The key is to use specific verbs. Why say "He ran quickly." When you can say, "He sprinted" --OR-- "He charged."??? Find the right verbs for the scene. Be precise with your verbs and watch your story come to life.

A word about mood: When getting ready to describe something, consider the scene's mood. What do you want the reader to feel. If it's sad, don't describe the cheery elements in the scene. And don't use cheery words to describe things. Pick the bleakest elements of the scene and describe them in bleak terms.

Christopher Hopper does a cool drill with students. He has them look out of a window and describe what they see. First, a happy scene. Then a sad scene. The results are amazing. For the happy scene, kids described the warm sunlight, the light breeze, the bright green leaves, the bunny shading beneath a full pine. For the sad scene, the kids described the veil of clouds that obscured the sun, the breeze that did nothing to soften the brutal heat, the dead leaves, sagging branches, wilting plants, etc. Try it yourself and enjoy the difference.


B. D. Eastman said...

Always awesome advice!! Thanks you're helping to improve my story everyday!!

DogsnBunBuns said...

I love it when you're in an "advice" kind of mood, Mr. Batson. =] =]
The last couple of posts have been really great!!!!! I love it.

~Prism~ said...

Wow! You should do a writer's workshop or something!

I'll be on the lookout for when writing for detail errors. At times its a little hard when knowing how much is too much, but you've cleared it up. Thanks so much!

Eärwen said...

Can I just say that 'The Door Within' is the best book next to Lord of the Rings? I love it!
I'm writing a story with two identical twins named Kayle and Yane (like yours! I LOVED them! They were the best)!
I noticed a lot of things taken from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in your books - the fish with bulgy eyes in underground rivers, the way the guy and the twins fight over the war-hammer and the bows, etc. but it was SO great! I can't wait to read the next ones!!! I've won writing contests - 5 of them! And 2 first places. I hope to be as good of a writer as you!!

Ellie said...

Those were great tips! I love writing, and, incidentally, am an absolute detail-freak. When I was 10 and 11, and writing, I'd spend pages describing something. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad... Really, this has helped. Especially the "glance" test! I love that technique. I'll be using it lots. But I have a question. I am writing a Lord of the Rings fanfiction, and I just wrote a part where I described the Rohan stables. Is this TOO much description?

The two children slowed as they approached the vast structure of the broodmare barn. Wide-set walls loomed overhead, connecting with soaring arches. Slender columns paraded down the sides of the elongated building, like graceful tree trunks. Wrapped around these solemn sentinels were golden vines, topped with rearing horse heads. At the top of the “trees,” wooden branches brushed the thatched roof, really acting as further support. Between each pair of columns, a roomy stall rested, home to one of Rohan’s prized mares. Further off, to the left, an identical structure marched across the dusty ground. This was the stallion barn.

Paris said...

Keep it up! I love learning :D

I love describing things, so it's hard to stop some times!

R.P.H said...

“The Curse of the Spider King,” sounds awesome! Thanks, for the teases and more info on it every couple of days(:

I have been loving all of your advice on writing. I really (really) appreciate it.

Bye For Now,

Kel said...

I agree! you should teach this stuff! Thank you so much for all the advise- it's really great! I have a lot of fun doing descriptions, but I'm not that great at them. I'll try to keep this in mind next time I sit down to write!!

Alos: I cannot WAIT for the Curse of the Spider King! the concept sounds AMAZING!!!

Cirtolthiel said...

Thanks for the advice!
Right now, I am writing about three or four different books, and I need help with description and mood for all of them. The one that I am currently writing, is with a friend of mine. I keep reading over it and saying, "alright, we need more description. No, that's too much. Now we don't have enough!"

everlastingscribe said...

One of the most delightful things as a reader is to be deemed INTELLIGENT by an author.

Nothing will make me roll my eyes faster than when the author gives too much description. I feel like they're being condescending to me saying in effect "Okay you dimwitted twit, I know that you just crawled out from under a log in your swamp so let me tell you what a spooky house looks like/sounds like/smells like"

Nothing gets my hackles bristling (yes, I have hackles) more than that.

I know what fog looks like, I know what a creaking door sounds like, and I know what rotting wood smells like.

Unless there's something particularly important I need to know, like the wood was rotten but there was an odor of lilacs that hung over it, don't tell me what it smelled like. Don't bog me (the reader) down with irrelevant details. If you do, I will drop your story faster than hot coals. And, more often than not, I won't get you another chance.

I'm a reader. I'm unfair like that.


ElizabethOfMena said...

I've actually thought about the backwards portal type of story. I thought that it would be fun to write sometime. It'll be REALLY fun to see what you guys did with it. :)

Galadriel said...

I agree with doggy Buns. Advice is great!

Sword Warrior said...

Cool! I can't wait to read Curse of the Spider King! It sounds awesome!

And, also, great advice! I've always had problems with knowing how much to describe. At times, I put too little into my stories, and at times (especially with character descriptions) I put too much. I will keep your advice in mind!

Leighton said...

Hey Wayne!

I looked at some other blogs on Blogger/Blogspot and saw that they were pretty lax about the whole header width/height thing.

Is it possible to enter one in your contest that is different from the the 660x105 rule?

Also, what do you think about foreign accents in books? From your perspective can that be overdone?