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The Power of Description with Kerri-Leigh Grady

Think back to high school—I know, it’s a painful journey, but I promise we won’t stay long—and the books we were assigned to read, discuss, and evaluate. Think about the classics of American literature, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Aldous Huxley.

Think back to the experience of reading those stories, especially compared to the popular fiction you might have read in your spare time. Different, right? Like, really different. What makes the experience of reading classics of yore depart so much from that of reading compelling contemporary novels? There are so many elements, so many ways in which the language and the art of storytelling has evolved, but one of the biggest departures is in the accepted style.

People are busy, and distractions are everywhere. It’s hard to compete with twenty-four-hour television programming, perpetually breaking news, cat videos on the interwebs, family members who demand we actually have discussions or take on our share of the household duties, jobs. It’s rough for a book lover, man. It’s almost like nobody wants us to get an undisturbed hour of escape. It’s a conspiracy, I’m sure.

As authors, we have to compete with distractions, and though quality fiction—classic literature—taught us that things like setting, description, and other elements of the narrative are stupendously important to give readers a fully realized story, those things can bog down the fast pace. And a solid pace is absolutely necessary so the reader doesn’t feel like she’s trudging through river muck to get to the meat of the story.

Really fast, blink back on those high school novels. I remember slogging through The Scarlet Letter and its interminable paragraphs of forest description. I remember glazing over long passages of All Quiet on the Western Front and A Separate Peace. I remember, most of all, enjoying the intercalary chapters of Grapes of Wrath more than the story itself. Which is weird. Because that was mostly narrative description.

If those books were on submission in New York these days, do you think they’d get picked up? Maybe, but I can see they’d be edited a lot. Even literary fiction doesn’t allow much leeway for pages-long descriptive paragraphs. For a reason.

Because we are a society of distraction, and if we want to capture the attention of readers these days, we have to do it with steady pace, tension, and compelling characters.

However, that doesn’t mean we leave description by the wayside. It doesn’t mean setting isn’t still super important.

Think of some of the most popular stories these days. Harry Potter. Can you picture Hogwarts in your mind? Yes?

Description.

What about Twilight and the lushness of the northwestern setting? Did you get that when you read the book? Yes?

Description.

The Fault in Our Stars. Can you still see in your mind’s eye the scene by the canal with the flower petals falling from the sky? How vivid was that? It was really captivating, right?

Description.

The Secret Life of Bees. Lily, kneeling on grits or working in the garden. Can you still smell honey? Yeah?

Description.

It’s so important because it engages the reader and has the potential to put them inside the story as an actor and not just as a viewer. It’s important because it creates a world around the characters that brings its own conflicts and tension. It’s important because how it is rendered says so much about the character offering the point of view.

Now look back at all these examples and ask yourself how different the story would have been if the setting were changed. What if a vampire had come to a dry, sunny town in Arizona instead of Oregon? What if the Hogwarts Express had whisked Harry and his friends off to a twenty-year-old school in Brazil? What if Lily grew up in Alaska in the 60s? What if Hazel and Augustus had met in a space station basement?

Setting is important, and it’s just as important to consider how it is described. Setting can be as important as the characters in the book. Description of that setting is as important as the characters. But how do you write setting? How do you describe the lay of the land, the characters, the action without bogging the reader in literary river muck?

Next week, here at Savvy Authors, I’ll present a three-week course that will allow you to play with ways to deliver setting and description to readers in ways that will keep their attention…so the only way she’ll feel like river mud is sucking at her shoes is if she also feels like a serial killer is right behind her.

There are amazing ways to immerse your reader in your world so the story plays like a movie in his mind, and he doesn’t hear the doorbell ring, doesn’t realize he’s hungry, and forgets he meant to watch UFC tonight. There are ways to present your story in such a compelling way, the reader will think back to your story and remember viscerally the way petals fell from the sky, the ache and sting of grits under knees, the amazing beasts that ride through your world, and the emotion each of these images conjures.

Are you ready to write a world no reader will forget? Let’s do this.

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On August 1, Kerri-Leigh’s workshop: Pace your Prose: Creating the RIGHT amount of setting and descriptions starts.

Workshop Blurb: Setting and description are vital elements of any story. Without them, characters are nothing more than talking heads, drifting through a sad, sad world. Nobody wants to read about a sad, sad world. Well, some do, but let us never speak of them again.

Alas, incorporating the details of the scene can be tricky—too much, and you slow the pace and bore the reader; too little, and you leave the scene feeling empty and the characters untethered. In this intensive three-week class, we’ll go over how to present a scene, how to keep the characters from floating through the story, how to use the description to further story elements, and how to turn the setting into a character all its own.

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Kerri-Leigh Grady loves to sink into happily-ever-after tales and blow-up-all-the-things tales, especially when her testosterone-loaded house has hit its monthly limit of athletic socks and slapstick. She is a writer and a former Senior Editor and Editorial Director at Entangled Publishing. She holds an MFA from Seton Hill University and a BS in computer science, both of which have been useful to her as an editor and writer. With the fun degree, she’s learned craft and art and editing and how to hold back the eye twitches and self-flagellation until afterthe critique session. With the less fun degree, she’s learned the art of breaking down ideas and craft into processes and to fear the day someone comes up with a recursive storytelling form. *shiver* Her stories tend toward horror and romance and weird spaces somewhere between these genres. She’s a nerd with an unnatural love of dark humor, gadgets, chickpeas, BJJ, and ATS bellydancing. When the zombie apocalypse happens, she’s likely to be patient zero. If you see her bite someone, grab your water and head for your bunker.

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