Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Breaking Up is Easy to Do

One skill new writers have to learn is how to provide a description of a new location or a new character without slowing down the story. Experienced writers have discovered all sorts of tricks for weaving descriptions naturally into the story, subtly slipping them in during bits of action or interior thought or in the middle of dialogue. For those of us who have yet to learn these skills, our descriptions tend to read more like lists. You know what I mean. Three or more sentences in a row whose sole purpose is to list the contents of the room the MC has just entered or to catalog the physical appearance of the character who has just shown up. I’m guilty of this myself. And while this method works fine in most cases, as long as the description is written in an interesting manner, there is room for improvement.

One trick I’ve been using of late involves breaking the description up into pieces and spreading it out over the page. Instead of starting out with four or five sentences describing the spooky room the MC has just entered, I find it works better to limit myself to two or three descriptive sentences at first, enough to give the reader the right impression, and then dispersing the rest of the description over the next several paragraphs (or pages).

Not only does this keep the story moving, but by delivering the description in piecemeal fashion, you make more of an impression on your readers. One thing I’ve learned while teaching chemistry is that you can’t drown the student with too much material at once. You need to spoon it out a little at a time and then build upon what you’ve already told them.

It works the same way when writing fiction. You can only have so many sentences in a row telling the reader the room is spooky before their effectiveness dwindles, but by spreading the sentences out over several paragraphs, their effects multiply. Every time they see another hint that the room is spooky, it reinforces all the earlier references to spookiness.

This technique works for backstory too. Although I don’t mind backstory as much as some, too much backstory all at once can be a drag. By dripping in bits of the backstory a sentence or two at a time, in small doses dispersed over many pages, most of the problems with backstory disappear, especially if you’re good at weaving backstory naturally into the narrative.

Question: Are you one of those writers who weave description gracefully into your story, or are you like me?

1 comment:

  1. This is something I struggle with! I've been trying really hard to clean up my pages and not just "list" those descriptions out. :)