by Mary Lois Sanders & Sarah Nell Summers*
You have your story idea and its setting, but how do you write it so that your readers experience the characters, places, objects, sights, sounds and smells of the book’s world without “info dumping”? Simple, you weave description into your scenes organically.
True! We all want to choose the right “set design” in which our characters act out their tales. Or we need to create a “world” for our fantasy or sci-fi tale. But the last thing we want to do is describe it in detail like a list. Lists are for information boxes in magazines. Our goal is to find a more interesting and engaging style of letting our readers experience the story. But before we can WEAVE, we must KNOW!
And remember, enriching your narrative is not a license to create purple prose or convoluted sentences that bog down the flow of your story, .i.e., plot, etc. Enrichment is strong. It is active. It is sensory.
Know Your Setting: When you first conceive your story you need to decide whether your location is going to be a real place or a made up place. Either way, rich detail will make your location come alive for your readers. This is the enrichment that builds each time you revise your story, even unto the 3rd or 4th time.
Real Location: You’ve chosen a REAL location for your setting. Do you know that location well enough to give credible detail? If not, how far are you willing to go to do so?
Edwin Crisp, author of A Moving Toy Shop lived in Oxford. His setting is so well known to him that it is reflected in all of his writing. It is said that after reading that story several times, one could find her way around Oxford easily the next time she visited that old English city.
Here’s a thought. What would happen to your credibility as a writer if you set your chase scene in New York City and didn’t know which streets in Manhattan are one way and in which direction? Ah-ha!
Dickens is another writer who knew his city well. He had walked the slums of early 19th century London while visiting his father who had been sentenced to Debtor’s Prison. You can see this detail in Oliver Twist and other novels. Engrossing!
Read the Nobel winning author Alice Munro. She writes about her home in Canada and you feel as if you know that place well.
Fictitious location: If you’re going to create a town, base it on a real town and then research everything about that town. Not to copy, but to solidify in your mind, what your town looks like, feels like. Make a map. Locate that town in a part of the state (or another state) where there is no town. Voilá!
It’s not so strange. Dorothy Sayers, in her novel Gaudy Night, needs a women’s college in Oxford. In a note to her readers she apologizes to Balliol College for putting her fictitious school in the middle of its cricket ground! She has therefore created a fictitious setting within a well-known city. Hmm!
Sci-Fi & Fantasy: Needing different approaches, Sci-Fi writers must create whole new worlds, while Fantasy writers may choose future worlds or ancient worlds in which to set their stories. However, it isn’t just the setting that has to be created in either case. The writer must also create customs, language, history government, etc.
Now that we KNOW, we can begin to WEAVE!
Weaving Description into Your Scene Organically, i.e., no info dumping!
First, what do we mean by ‘organically’? Simply put, the descriptors are not a list lumped together, but details woven into the body of the narrative. This weaving should be seamless for the reader, too. Information he needs to know, that comes as he needs it.
This difference between ‘info dump’ vs. ‘weaving’ is critical. An ‘info dump’ stops the plot and forward flow of your story and can be quite boring. Never give your reader an excuse to put the book down.
- Sue Grafton: A is for Alibi – does both, but the ‘info dumps’ become part of the characterization of the detective at work as she summarizes what she has discovered about the case and writes these facts in her journal;
- Colin Dexter: The Morse Mysteries – characters do “info dump” as they talk clues and info to solve the mystery.
Weaving Character Descriptions: How much and who/what gets it?
So who gets the most? The Main Character, obviously, and somewhere, needs description. But rather than do the old “blonde, blue-eyed and statuesque” route, show us over time. For example:
If your MC is a short woman, don’t tell us. Instead, show us her surroundings from her perspective – the room is big and the cabinets are too high. Perhaps she can’t reach the back of the first shelf? But don’t overdo this. Once or twice is enough for the readers to get the picture.
But what about other characters? One who appears in one scene and disappears doesn’t need description, unless this is important to time/place/atmosphere/creepiness. Think of a plumber walking across the pristine kitchen of an obsessive compulsive housewife.
Creating the Ambiance of your scene:
What do you expect to smell, see, hear, taste and feel when you step into a house, mansion, office building, saloon, murder scene, etc? Don’t forget ANY of the senses! Examples:
- Smells: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood … the blood; William Inge’s play Picnic … man smell; Dickens’ Oliver Twist … workhouse, streets of London, Mr. Brownlow’s house; William Faulkner’s Barn Burning … smell of fire is the trigger for anger and fear.
- Sights: William Faulkner’s short story “The Near and the Far”, shows two perspectives. The conductor of a train sees two women waving from a house as the train passes. He envisions a house full of loving feelings between a mother and daughter. But when he visits the house, he hears bickering and harsh words. The sight from afar, was different from that from nearby.
- Sounds: Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth … locusts coming over the hill – the noise is deafening, so much so that the farmers must shout to be heard.
- Feel of a place: Louis L’Amour’s Radigan … a woman from Texas never realized how cold it could get in New Mexico. Size of a room … MC can stride across the room in three steps – describes a small room. Oliver Twist can’t see the judge in the court room because of the tall railing that blocks his view, etc.
- Seasons: How do we know what time of the year or day it is? Let us see heat waves shimmering from the pavement; hear cicadas buzzing in the trees; feel the bite of the cold north wind; enjoy the smell of damp spring earth as new grass grows.
- Textures: Touch is important – a man fingers his tweeds; a woman gathers her silk nightgown around her; a bug on a light switch in a dark room elicits screams; touch of a kind hand gentles a hurting soul.
- All of the above: Read children’s lit for this: Raoul Dahl; Jane Yolen, Shell Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, Judy Blume, ad infinitum. These will show you quickly and vividly how to work the senses into your writing.
All of the above: Read children’s lit for this: Raoul Dahl; Jane Yolen, Shell Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, Judy Blume, ad infinitum. These will show you quickly and vividly how to work the senses into your writing.
In closing, your genre may dictate the style of your writing, but the details breathe life into it.
* This workshop was presented at the 2013 Florida Writers Association 11th Annual Writers Conference, Orlando Marriott, October 19.