A popular post from April 2008
by Heather Moore
In Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (Chapter 6), he warns us not to BEGIN our book with a lengthy description.
When you start describing a pretty sunset, a dark, leafy forest, or a calm blue ocean, the action of the story stops. So you want to make sure that you don’t BEGIN your book with a lengthy description. When you begin a book, you want to start with dialog, action or thought (internal dialog).
Also, watch for cliché descriptions. There are isolated circumstances when lengthy descriptions work. But until you get published, you need to follow the rules and make yourself competitive against the thousands of other writers out there. In fact, in writers and publishing circles, according the Bickham, cliché descriptions have become a hallmark of poor fiction writing—a red flag that signals the “beginning writer”. i.e. “the rosy fingers of dawn”.
Why? Bickham notes: Fiction is movement. Description is static. In other words, to describe something in detail means that you have to . . . stop . . . describe it . . . then move onto the action again.
Ask yourself this question. When you are reading a book, what do YOU skim over? Have you ever “skimmed” over descriptions to get to “what is happening next”?
It's important to find a good balance with description. Of course, you still need description, but you don’t need a page describing the desert terrain, or even a paragraph. Description must be worked in carefully in small doses.
Description isn't just about describing sunsets, landscape, details of a house . . . Description can also include writing about every single thought and every single action a character has. The seasoned writer will describe a little (tell), and demonstrate a lot (show).
Over the past decade or two, readers have changed. Readers today want you to move your story forward, not stand around picking apart the scenery or discussing every little movement.
From Bickham's book (15), I've modified his speed tracker idea below. If your story is moving too slowly, look at the form of writing you are using most, and speed it up with a higher “mph.” Or if it’s moving too fast, you can slow it down.
10 mph: Exposition—slowest of all.
1. Straight log of factual information—biographical, forensic, sociological, etc.
25 mph: Description
1. Some is necessary, but monitor it carefully.
40 mph: Narrative
1. Characters are in the story “now” and their actions, etc are presented moment by moment with nothing left out.
2. Similar to a stage play and what most of your story should be in. Moves swiftly.
55 mph: Dialogue
1. Talking, very little action or interior thought
2. Can be very quick, like a tennis match, when the characters are talking in short bursts
70 mph: Dramatic Summary
1. Summarizing. i.e. by Bickham: “A car chase or argument that might require six pages of narrative might be condensed into a single light-speed paragraph.”
2. Moves the story forward in leaps and bound.
Our ultimate goal as a writer is to keep the story moving. Don't let the description slow you down!