Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Former Readewave Blog

A Dark And Stormy Night
 This essay first appeared as a blog entry on, the link to which no longer exists. So I am posting it here with a few minor edits.
Most beginning writers believe that the point of description is to create a mechanical scene, inside of which the story can take place.  A room decorated so that a character can have a door through which to enter and exit, and a chair to sit on, and objects to throw when annoyed.

But description is more. Much, much more.
Description creates the emotional tone that cannot otherwise be stated without telling.
All writers know that one should always show never tell.  So how do you show that a character is afraid, or unloved, or embarrassed?  The temptation, by the beginning writer, is to show those emotions by describing the responses of the character. The beginning writer shows fear by causing the character to back away, moaning, sweating, or physically unable to escape. They show that the character is unloved by having that character mope around, or read ads on an on-line dating site, or watching others kissing in a park.  They show embarrassment by having the character blush, or look away, or stand suddenly up, or fumble an apology.

1. The Beginner

Here is how a beginning writer might have described a living room:
He smelled soup cooking but didn't see his wife. The living room was had a big leather sofa in the center facing their wide-screen TV. Along the back wall were shelves holding all his bowing trophies. He shouted, "Honey! I'm home." When there was no answer, he began to sweat and became afraid.
When this character, "became afraid," did you feel that fear? Probably not because there was nothing in the description that helped you feel it.

2. Consider fear:

How do you describe a living room to evoke the feeling of fear?
The wind outside howled through leafless trees casting wild shadows across the living room walls. He hesitated at the light switch.  Something smelled off.  Was food beginning to rot in the kitchen? He touched the light switch. If felt sticky. "This is wrong," he muttered.  "Just plain wrong."
Here the plan was to have the reader hear, "Just plain wrong," and feel the character's fear. Ask yourself, was there enough of the right kind of description to make you feel fear when the character spoke. If not, how would you improve the description to achieve the desired effect?  Remember the objective here is to make the reader feel the character's fear without using the word fear.

3. Consider unloved:

How do you describe a living room to evoke the feeling a character is unloved?
The living room was quiet and was exactly as he had left it.  Nobody had broken in, nobody had visited. He hung his coat on the hook to the right by the door.  His wife had always used the left hook. Last night's pile of print-outs from lay on the table next to the sofa, stained under the glass of whiskey he had spilled there. He stared at the glass on its side, now empty. He didn't want to move. He sighed.
Here the plan was to have the reader feel sorry for this unloved man when he sighed and to feel his loneliness.  Did the description guide your emotions into that desired direction. If not, how would you fix the description to achieve that effect? Note that the goal here is to have the reader feel that he is unloved and alone, but to do so without ever using those words.

4. Consider embarrassed:

How do you describe a living room to evoke a character's embarrassment?
He stood there, his back to the front door, now slammed hard closed and shivered.  He listened for his wife and kids but the house was empty.  "Thank god," he said.  His living room was normal. He had a wife and two kids. Normal too. Gold carpeting, slip-cover over the sofa, a big TV, yes all normal. Outside he heard the three teenage girls talking loudly to each other.  Making up names for him. He shivered again, naked against the door. "Oops," he said.
The plan here was to guide the reading into feeling the character's embarrassment when he said, "Oops." Is that what happened when you read the paragraph? If not, how would you revise the description to achieve the desired effect? Note that the goal here is to make the reader feel his embarrassment without using the word embarrassed.

5. Summary

Whenever you describe anything (be it setting, character appearance, relationship, or action) always ask yourself: What emotion your description is intended to evoke? How do you want the reader to feel?  When your reach the end of your description, what does the next paragraph or bit of dialog to mean? Did your description add impact to that meaning?

Once you have an emotion identified, you can compose description that is in support of that emotion.