Making Descriptive Passages Work for You

Description can bring readers into your world, but if used
incorrectly, it can also slow the pace of your narrative or skew your
characterization. We can all think of writers whose descriptive skill we envy,
but how do you get there?

The first step, I believe, is to understand that everyone’s
experience of the world around them is colored by their past experiences, their
personal knowledge, their mood in that moment, and a million other little
details that we, as writers, need to be able to imagine for our characters.

As writing exercises may have told you at some point, describing the where your character wakes from cryo-sleep is going to be different from describing the room where your character walks in to look for their sister who should be in cryo-sleep but has, through a strange accident, died. By the same token, a tree seen by a botanist on an alien world should sound a lot different when described by one of the people who grew up on that world.

So in order to write good description, keep in mind the
following:

  • Don’t use words that your characters wouldn't use. Be aware of the vocabulary that your character has access to because of their world, their upbringing, their education, their job, and think about the kinds of language and metaphors they would be comfortable with. Is your character poetic, pragmatic, brutally straightforward? Do they have different associations than you do with certain colors? You can have a lot of fun with this, but the first step is to always be aware of it.
  • Think about where your character is emotionally, and use that in your description. If they're sad, even something pretty is probably going to make them feel sad and think sad thoughts, while if they're walking on air even the dreariest setting is likely to seem pleasant to them.
  • Every description -- every time your character encounters a new object or person or location - is an opportunity to show who your POV character is and how they think. You don't want to go too far in this -- don't waste time in the narrative describing things for the sake of describing them -- but if you're deft about it you can get a lot across merely by how a character sees the world around them.
  • Consciously limit yourself to only the things that your character regards as important in that moment. You'll never get lost in painting an overly-detailed word picture that derails your scene or slows down your action if do this. Nothing else gets written down, because the character didn't think it was important enough to notice. If a character is racing to escape the evil sorcerer, they’re probably not going to take the time to think about how lovely the mosaic they’re running over is. Conversely, if they’re waiting for a contact who’s running late, they may spend a lot of time looking at that mosaic and analyzing every detail of it in whatever way suits them best.

Of course, that last item can require some tricky
manipulation, and as you practice you'll learn to manipulate this in order to
make sure your character notices what's important for the reader to see. If you
need a character to notice something that isn't the sort of detail that
character would normally notice, then you need to be clever about drawing their
attention (and therefore the audience's attention) to that thing. For instance,
if the character needs to notice the time but they're an easy-going sort who
doesn't run their life on a schedule, then something needs to draw their eye to
that clock.

Another theory I like comes from author James Alan Gardner. He recommends that writers think of every description as the story of the character's encounter with a place or object. I can't put the reasoning behind this better than he does:

Too often, writers describe things just by making lists of details. For example, when you want to describe a person, you may be tempted to list facial features, body type, clothing, and so on.

But that’s not how we actually experience other people. We don’t encounter people as static lists of characteristics, we encounter them in a temporal sequence of perceptions and resulting reactions: i.e. as a story.
James Alan Gardner, The Skill List Project

When we meet a new person or arrive at a new place in real life, we don't experience that encounter all at once -- we take in the details of it in a particular order, and react to them as a little mini story within ourselves.

Try a few of these hints out the next time you’re writing a description, and let us know on the forum or on Twitter what tricks you use to improve your description writing!


The Important Bits: Dreams and Writing

I have two burningly vivid memories of my
college writing professor. One is his insistence on making his students repeat
the same lesson on Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” every single
semester. The other is when he called bullshit on Toni Morrison.

Specifically, he was calling into
question her assertion that one of her novels (probably Sula, which was the only
Toni Morrison novel I ever got to read in school) had “come to her in a dream.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume
that this is an actual thing that Toni Morrison said. In which case, yeah, it
is a certain level of ridiculous. Entire novels do not simply fall from one’s
subconscious fully formed and without any input from the author.

But that’s not to say that you can’t
dream up a story. Just not in the way that’s presented here.

Let’s take another example: Robert Louis
Stevenson is reputed to have written The
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
after receiving the idea in a fever
dream, but what’s not often included in that story is that all of the elements
of the story had been in Stevenson’s brain for years. The tale of Deacon
Brodie, Edinburgh cabinetmaker by day and burglar by night, was one that Stevenson
had grown up with. He was educated alongside Joseph Bell, the doctor who
inspired Sherlock Holmes, and sat in the court galleries while an acquaintance
of his, a French man by the name of Eugene Marie Chantrelle, was convicted of
the brutal murder of his wife, having fooled everyone into thinking he was a
respectable family man.

So I do firmly believe that Jekyll & Hyde could have come to
Stevenson in a dream. But the story wasn’t created out of thin air. It was all
already there, in Stevenson’s head. He just needed his subconscious to turn it
into an unpredictable mélange before he could write the story he wanted to
write.

The most tired writing advice of all time
is “Write what you know.” I would like to propose a modification to that. Rather,
“Writer, know thyself.”

There’s value in writers listening to
their subconscious and mining those bizarre jumbled-up ideas for all they’re
worth. The first short story I ever wrote came from a dream. (I may even be
working on a short story collection right now that was largely inspired by
dreams.) I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, which was, um…A while ago. And
one morning I woke up from a dream about a walled garden hidden behind a bunch
of ivy and went, "Huh. That was kinda…cool. And like, story-ish." So
I made a story out of it.

That dream gave me a complete, if simple,
plot:

  • Girl meets Guy
  • Guy tries to convince
    Girl to magically stay with him for eternity
  • Girl turns Guy down

It’s not much, but it was made up of
things that were important to a lonely, dreamy, melodramatic preteen who read a
lot of fairy tales and had memorized a huge chunk of The Secret Garden.

And that’s the critical thing: the
recognition of what aspects of the writer’s life created that particular dream
in the first place.

The story isn’t going to come to you all
in one complete lump. Honestly, if it did, dreams being the slippery bastards that
they are, you’d be lucky to remember half of it long enough to wake up, grope
for your phone or bedside notebook, and start sleepily scribbling and/or
typing. But it doesn’t have to come
to you as a complete narrative.

The things that matter are what I’m told
board game designers call “bits.” The bits are the parts of the game that make
the game fun to play.

Stories—narratives with plots and
characters, and events that propel those plots and characters forward—are
easier to come by than the bits that make the story fun to read. And I have found that the best way to do that, and
make the story resonate with the reader, is to make it resonate with the author
during the writing process.

You don’t necessarily have to pour your
soul into your fiction, but you absolutely do have to put something of yourself
into the story to make it resonate with you, and dreams, which have an
unnerving way of rummaging around in our darkest thoughts and most private and
closely held hopes and then running those bits through a blender, can sometimes
provide the best way of finding that resonance.


New Years, New Worlds

The New Year as currently celebrated in Western Europe (and
from there in European-colonized places like the USA, Canada, and Australia)
started in 45 BCE with the adoption of the Julian calendar, instituted by the
Roman emperor Julius Caesar. However, this was far from the only way to
celebrate the New Year, then and now. Traditional Chinese and Jewish New Years
are both calculated on a lunar cycle and typically fall in early spring and autumn,
respectively. The Iranian or Persian New Year is celebrated on the spring
solstice (around March 21). And during the Middle Ages in Europe, depending on
where a person lived, they might have celebrated the New Year on any number of
days. In fact, across history and the world, there’s not a single time of year
that hasn’t played host to the New Year in at least one culture. (Don’t believe
me? Check out this list of different New Year’s
days on Wikipedia
.)

This matters to us as speculative artists because we are in
the business, one way or another, of creating worlds that don’t exist, and part
of doing that is thinking about how those worlds would work, and how the people
in them think and go about the daily lives that are about to be disrupted by
whatever adventures we’re plotting for them. This is particularly true for
writers, but I would suggest it matters to game developers, concept designers,
illustrators, and other artists as well to think about how the world they’re
creating works, and to make a conscious effort not to just repeat the
unconscious assumptions of our own cultures when we’re creating those worlds.

Give yourself a moment to think: When does the year start
for the people of the place I’m creating? Why? What’s the story that people
tell about that time? How do people celebrate? Is it appropriate (or even
required) to give gifts, or clean house in preparation, or wear new clothes, or
eat particular kinds of food?

In ancient Egypt, the year was divided into three seasons
based around the flooding of the Nile River—Flood, Emergence, and Low
Water. The year began with the flood, lasting roughly from what we think of now
as June to September. Why? Because for the common people, farmers on a thin
swath of fertile soil created by those annual floods and surrounded by inhospitable
desert, the river controlled what work needed to be done and when it could be
done, so the whole of their year revolved around that.

Think of the difference between both that and the four
agriculture-based seasons most of us live with, and a calendar created by, say,
a society that evolved underground, completely disconnected from the sun, moon,
stars, and the elements? Perhaps they would build their calendar around the
time when permafrost made the ground too hard to dig, or perhaps they would ignore
the cues of the natural world altogether and build their calendar around the
story of a god or cultural hero or historical dates.

Of course, this kind of reasoning doesn’t hold true just for
the start of the New Year. What kinds of holidays does your culture celebrate?
Spring and fall equinoxes and summer and winter solstices might be an easy
answer, but does that make the most sense for your culture? Or are there other,
more unique holidays that you could give them? The birth or death of a cultural
or mythological hero might be interesting, or the day that a particular monster
or villain was defeated. The day of the first frost might be significant to
them, or the rising of a nebula or quasar that’s visible from part of their
planet. Or maybe they reset their calendar when they left their world of origin
behind.

How are holidays marked? With group prayer, private
contemplation, community gatherings? With celebration, or with penance? If
gifts are given, are certain kinds of gifts traditional?

Most importantly, what do your characters think of all of
this? Does your heroine hate the fuss around the New Year, or miss being around
her family when it comes? Does your hero have the money to buy a new
traditional outfit, or does he clean up his old one as well as he can to avoid
pity and shame? Or maybe your point of view character is from a minority
culture within the larger one that celebrates its own holidays in opposition to
the dominant way in their city. How do people look on that minority group and
their practices? How do they think about the dominant culture and their ways?

Above all, remember that the people in this world of yours
are people, as varied as the ones in our world. They think and feel and believe
different things about the world around them. Give them a unique culture to
react to, but never forget that their reactions are still going to be their
own, not just a monolithic mirror of the worldview that you’ve created.

Whenever and however you celebrate the New Year, we at the
Dream Foundry hope yours is full of brightness, wonder, and creativity!


Setting Creative Goals... and Keeping Them

No matter what your art is (writing,
illustration, game design), you’ll often hear that you should work at it every
day. If you don’t do this, some people say, you’re failing as a creator.

Now, that might work for some people, but I’ve
tried writing every day on several occasions and it just doesn’t work for me.
It makes the whole thing a chore that I start to hate very quickly. Instead, I’ve
found that three scheduled sessions of at least a couple of hours keeps my
juices flowing, my motivation up, and my productivity on track.

The most important thing for me is that I have
a plan. Every time I sit down for a creative session, I plan out ahead of time
exactly what I want to achieve that day. And at the end of every session, I figure
out when my next one is booked for. That stops one or two days off from slipping
into more.

Another thing that works for me is to always
have deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed, and to make sure that I’m accountable
to someone else for those deadlines. If the only person I have to answer to is myself,
I will inevitably let things slip. What I would recommend is having a partner
in creation, someone else who also wants to achieve things and may need a nudge
every now and then. If you can arrange to meet up physically and keep each
other focused, then great! If not, maybe keep a chat window or video call open
during creative sessions and check in every half hour or so, to make sure
you’re both still on topic. And, if all else fails, just email each other your
schedule and your plan, and then report back after the session to celebrate
your victories. If you’re a writer who is more motivated by spreadsheets,
streaks, or games than by a creative partner, consider using something like 750words.com, 4thewords.com,
or getyourwordsout.net
to encourage you to meet those writing goals. Artists might get practice ideas
from artprompts.org
or the challenges, timed practices, and random poses on quickposes.com.
And no matter what your art, if you respond to gamification, something like habitica.com
might be just the thing to get you making the most of your creative time and
give you a sense of accomplishment as you make progress toward your goals.

That last point is important—make it easy to
celebrate your successes. If you have a big project, then just looking at the
whole thing may make it seem insurmountable. But if you break it down into
small tasks with sensible deadlines, you can have the satisfaction of ticking
off tons of little victories that you should absolutely congratulate yourself
on. If rewards help you (like “I can have a chocolate after I finish this
chapter” or “I can watch an episode of my favorite show once I’ve filled a page
with sketches”), then don’t hesitate to use that.

Most crucial of all is to find a system that works for you and just go for it.

What works for me is a rolling spreadsheet of upcoming submission opportunities (theme, word count, hard deadline, and possible publication all right there), sessions scheduled outside my flat with an accountability partner, and a list of very specific targets for each session. But the thought of all that organization might make you want to curl up and die. So try things out to see what fits, and once something works, don’t ever let anyone tell you it doesn’t make sense. The only person it has to makes sense to is you. And if it keeps you creating, then it’s doing its job and you should stick with it no matter what.