Descriptive Writing: Sharing Your World.

The single most incredible thing about writing is the imagery it can produce from mere text. The power to translate the words of a story into a clearly envisioned scene within the minds of readers is, for me, a truly beautiful gift for a storyteller to have.

That being said, I’ve always hated descriptive writing.My comfort zone has always been deeply rooted in writing dialogue but when it comes to writing, – particularly in prose – descriptive text isn’t something that can be avoided. It’s an absolute essential to the creation of an engaging story yet there are so many ways it can be done wrong.

Shattering The Illusion

I wouldn’t presume that to be down to inferior writing though. Sure, some writers may simply need to refine their abilities so they can provide a clearer image of the world they’ve created with words alone but in my experience that’s rarely the real problem. The most common crime in descriptive text is actually the complete opposite.

I don’t know about you folks but for me, there is nothing more off-putting in a story than a large wall of descriptive text providing in-depth information on something that seems pretty much irrelevant to the bigger picture of the story. Entire cities and landscapes can be described with giant blocks of text when only a small portion of what’s described has any relevance to the story itself.

This is quite possibly the biggest problem for writers to watch out for, whether they be aspiring authors or professional scriptwriters. When somebody falls in love with a story, it’s because they aren’t just reading words, they’re partaking in a new journey. How many times have you been lost in the worlds created by others and imagined yourself there in that moment? Perhaps you’ve seen yourself as the protagonist who leads that journey, or maybe you believed yourself a simple spectator.

The second a story is disrupted by descriptive text that doesn’t engage you, that journey falls apart in your mind. The illusion dissolves and you find yourself once again sitting with a mere collection of words. I’m ashamed to say as a passionate reader that on more than one occasion I’ve found myself skimming through large portions of an otherwise wonderful story for that very reason but I know I’m not the only one.

So how do we stop moments like that from happening? Where is the line between fine writing and too much information?

In my opinion, the problem isn’t so much about the line as it’s about how you as a writer perceive your own story.

See The World As The Character, Not The Writer.

Writing a story you truly love is one of the most exciting things a writer can do and we feel the need to share as much of that world as possible, especially when they’re set in worlds of our own creation.We strive to be as clearly descriptive as possible so that the reader can vividly see the world in their mind and feel the same excitement and passion for it as we do.

There’s one slight hitch with that though: It’s easy to forget that the average reader isn’t interested in what YOU see in this world you’ve created.

Now I know that sounds a little strange but just hear me out! You are the author, true…but after you’ve completed your task of actually writing this unique piece of fiction, are you relevant to the story at all? Does your personal vision of this world have any importance to what takes place or to the reader?

Of course not! It doesn’t matter that you are this world’s creator! Just like your readers, you are an outsider. Even if you decided to fashion one of the characters after yourself, you are not that character! It doesn’t matter if you’re the one pulling the strings of fate in this story because in the reader’s mind, you’re not the one leading the journey. That task falls to the characters themselves.

They are the ones your readers wish to follow, to relate to and empathize with. After all, they are the ones dealing with the challenges you’ve put before them! And so, it’s up to you to look through the eyes of your characters, see the world exactly as they see it and describe their perception of things rather than your own. If you can only see the world as yourself, an outsider, then you make outsiders of your readers as well.

Relevance To The Character Is What Matters

How many characters are going to fixate on the designs of a town hall’s floor tiles, or the changing flight patterns of birds in the skies or what each individual stranger they pass is wearing? How many characters contemplate what the standard attire of winter is when the story is set in Summer? Who can give the fine details on the practices of a religious organization they have no desire to be associated with just by passing one of their churches?

That kind of descriptive text isn’t necessary unless it’s relevant to your character or your story! While I have no doubt that you’ve created a truly rich and vibrant world for this story to take place in, you can’t expect the typical reader to take interest in these walls of information! Sure, they may want to know more about your world but they don’t want it to be forced upon them when it only serves to delay the progression of the story itself!

If you entered a strange place, what would you take notice of? What would you inquire about and what would you already know of it? How do you describe your hometown to a stranger within a few minutes and what do they ask when you’re finished?

These are the questions you need to ask when writing descriptive text because the reader doesn’t want all the answers at once and the ones they do want need to be relevant! Each sentence should paint a new coat of detail on the image in the reader’s mind and every detail should be of some importance to the journey in question.

Always look through the character’s eyes, not the writer’s. Something should only be noted in descriptive text if a character notices it and a new process should only be explained if the character understands it themselves.

Be the character describing their vision of the world, not the writer who sees all. You’re writing a story, not an encyclopedia.

And if you find yourself writing those large blocks of descriptive text, just stop and ask yourself: How can your readers feel a sense of discovery if you do all the discovering for them?

Haiku Horrors: Fiends

Stay in the light, child!
Only from deeper shadows
Can the Fiends arise!

Night is falling child,
All we can do is flee now!
Do not leave my sight!

Keep back from them child!
For if they take your shadow,
Your soul soon follows.

Be silent now, child!
Still your voice and close your eyes,
Fiends are approaching!

Heed not their calls, child!
Their voices mimic loved ones
Their words like honey.

Do not trust them, child!
The Fiends are great deceivers
Who toy with their prey!

Why do you run child?
Please do not abandon me,
You will draw them in!

Where did you go, child?
All I can see is darkness,
I am so frightened!

Are those your eyes, child?
I feel a chill in my blood.
Why am I so cold?

Ahh, there you are child.
Thank goodness you have returned!
I feared for the worst.

Don’t be frightened, child.
For dawn is now upon us
The Fiends soon depart.

Now join me, my child,
Come closer. Here in the shade.
The sun hurts my eyes…

Image created by Skaramanger from deviantart.

Writing Exercise: The Character Profile

Objective: Describe a character in the form of a story from the perspective of another character.

Ralph and The Riverfish

It takes a special something to be known by everyone while having them know nothing about you. Whatever that something is, bartender Ralph has it in spades.

Nobody really knows where he came from but from the day he walked into town he seemed to know the place like the back of his hand. Everyone knows everyone in Solhaven so new arrivals who don’t announce themselves are usually met with distrust and suspicion.

The day he walked into my shop, I sized him up with that same suspicion and all the while he spoke to me like we were old friends. A couple years older than me and half a foot taller, he had the build of a guy who’d done some heavy lifting in his life. His hair’s got grey specks these days but back then, it was a thick brown mane tied back in a ponytail with some thick stubble coating the edges of his face. No matter what we spoke about he always kept this big smile on him like he’d found his place in life. That sureness of self quickly chipped away at those walls I’d put up and despite myself, I began to like him before I’d even realized it.

He asked me about my business and I asked him about his. Mine was simple enough but when he told me he was going to be the new owner of the Riverfish tavern, my caution shot back quick sharp.

You see, Patch Grayson was the owner of the Riverfish and a real bad bastard. He’d owned the Riverfish since before I’d even bought my little shop. Everyone had learned from the get-go that Patch would never sell and he didn’t appreciate the offers he got one bit.

A few folk had tried to buy it from him over the years, seeing what a shithole it had become under his leadership. One of those people tried to get pushy with Patch about it and ended up with a knife between their ribs. Not many folk drank there anymore unless they had shady dealings to make over a few dirty beers. Folk could only speculate on how much involvement Patch had in them but those shady dealings were the one thing keeping the Riverfish running these days.

I told Ralph the exact same thing, with eyes open wide and sweat on my brow but it didn’t mean a thing to Ralph. He just gave me a wink as he paid for his cigarettes, thanked me for my service and went off about his business. The most curious thing…

So curious, in fact that I spoke to a few of the neighbours about it later that day as they stopped by for their own goods. It turned out Ralph had told a bunch of them the exact same thing. We didn’t know what to make of it but most of us thought Ralph would be lucky if he got to leave the Riverfish alive. It’d be a damn miracle if he was planning to force Patch to sell up like the last bunch. He was a big guy, sure, but big doesn’t stop a knife and it certainly doesn’t stop the knives of every lowlife skulking around the Riverfish.

Not that that mattered though, I don’t know why but I didn’t see Ralph as that kind of guy. Then again, who can judge someone they just met? Either way, I decided not to pay any more mind to it. People come and go pretty often in Solhaven and those who stay get used to expecting the worst.

Closing time came and I started heading home. I don’t know why but I took a longer route home, passing the Riverfish. It still looked banged up to shit. A couple of drunks sat outside bickering away, both slurring threats and insults but neither with the sobriety to stand or strike. By the sounds of it, a fight was breaking out inside too: The usual crowd, no doubt. No change after all.
I stepped up my pace a little just in case gunfire started up, you could never tell with Patch’s place. Once I was round the corner, I let out a deep breath that I didn’t remember holding in the first place.

I spent the rest of the walk wondering to myself what I’d been thinking passing that place; nothing changes in this town. I got in my front door, changed for bed and poured myself a drink before lying down with a book, putting the Riverfish clean out of my mind. Sleep took me sometime shortly after my third whiskey.

Morning arrived to the sound of a banging on my door. My shop was shut for the weekend so I wasn’t best pleased at a wakeup call. I threw on some clothes and opened the door to find Annie Mires from next door waiting for me.

“Annie,” I hollered, squinting as I see the sun on the horizon, barely dawning. “What damn time do you-”
“Hal, you gotta come see this!” She had the strangest expression on her as she grabbed my hand and started to drag me down the street, not caring for my foul mood or the fact I had no shoes on.

Outside the Riverfish people were frozen all over the street, mesmerized with what they were seeing. The old sign for the Riverfish was smashed on the ground and Ralph was stood up on a ladder banging a new sign up with a hammer. A few of the smashed windows were already fixed up and a big pile of broken tables and chairs were dumped round the side of the building.

“The banging started a few hours ago.” Annie said, letting go of my hand as I stepped ahead for a closer look. “Gerry on night watch said Old Patch left Solhaven late last night through the gate, not a scratch on him.”

Annie had a good heart but she had a damn scary way of hijacking the gossip around town.

A few days later the Riverfish reopened with Ralph’s big smile waiting for us all behind the fanciest looking bar I’d ever seen. A few of the older folk who’d been around when the Riverfish was first built swore they’d never seen the place look better. We drank the place dry – or tried to at least – as we danced the night away, our own little welcoming party for Ralph who was now an official member of our dainty little town.

It’s been a few years since then and Ralph still hasn’t told us how he got Old Patch to sell. I don’t think he ever will but I like to try my luck now and then. No matter how much I ask, it’s the same every time. He just gives me a wink as I pay for my beer, thanks me for my service and goes about his business.

We rarely learn more about who Ralph is or where he’s from. Some folk wouldn’t trust someone that mysterious but there’s not a soul in our town who gives a damn. Ralph’s one of us now and these days, the Riverfish is the busiest tavern in Solhaven.

Haiku Horrors: The Gardeners

Atop a great hill
A magic garden is blessed
To grow all year long.

Folk gather and laugh
Delighting in it’s beauty
Through winds, rain and snow.

At the great hill’s peak
A shack, the gardener’s home
Yet no one lives there.

On every wall
Grapevines climb up to the roof
Reaching for the sun.

The fruit that they bear
Grant long life and good fortune
Or so it is said.

But when the night falls
The sun fades and the grapes sour
Their scent travels far.

It draws those children
Who do not heed the warnings
To sleep when they’re told.

Hoping for a taste
They gather around the shack
And the vines reach down.

Grabbing hungrily
Small hands gather blood red fruit
Their feast is short lived.

In the children’s mouths
The grapes become dust and ash
As the garden strikes!

A new morning dawns
Grapevines reach up for the sun
Fresh grapes on their buds.

The fruits of the hill
May bear their magic blessings
But there is a price.

The garden’s bloodied
But the gardeners are thankful
For they have been fed.

Recommending: “The Stripling” by Helen Victoria Murray

I found the Stripling cowering under the van in my dad’s garage. They were like a stray, scared animal – a very young bird or a very old cat. They had bound their eyes up with one of my dad’s oily rags.

After my first glimpse of them, the urge to scream abated.

Hello

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Writing Exercise: “Witnessing Power”

This week I’m sticking with the theme of “Witnesses” to practice writing from alternate perspectives. Not every major event in a story needs to be told from those involved and can sometimes give greater insight when told by an outsider.

I always find it interesting seeing how regular people adjust to superheroes in stories so thought I’d take a crack at writing that kind of short story myself.

Objective: Write from the perspective of someone witnessing the use of powers they don’t understand. This can be via superheroes, supervillains or any other kind of power that is commonly perceived as unnatural.

The Cleanup Crew

I began reading comics when I was a kid and they lasted all the way into my adult life. You’d think that would give me the creative imagination to accept something like superpowers in the real world.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot the comics missed out back then. Things that you never think of, things you wouldn’t want to think of.

When they showed up on the news, it was amazing in a funny kind of way. People flying around, stopping bad guys and saving the day. We all felt like we were in a movie or something. So long as it didn’t mess with our lives, why would we care about it all beyond the entertainment?

Things started getting tense once the governments started giving them official jobs I think. It began with the term ‘civil servants’ and began to spiral downwards. Soon the “Specials” were putting the enforcement in Law Enforcement.

Even then, it wasn’t too bad. We had a few “accidents” at the start but things began to quieten down…until the war began.

I don’t remember why Europe and America came to blows but it certainly had something to do with the Specials. Their existence was more terrifying in war than a stockpile of nukes, now all we needed for that were radioactive people.
I don’t think any of the Governments were happy with that but somehow they all fell in line, at least until their armies were jam-packed  with militarized Specials.

Now I’m walking through London City. The fighting here has stopped, for a time. In another war I’d be the kind who gets drafted automatically. I should feel lucky that the Specials are around to fight my battles for me… but looking over London City I feel a weight in my stomach like I’m gonna hurl. Amongst the destruction there are men and women, casualties on both sides. They’re mainly Specials, London City was evacuated before the showdown began but that makes it worse.

You don’t know what you’re going to get when you pull up a body. They’re all burned but some don’t burn the way they’re meant to. Buckingham Palace got blown up yesterday by the glowing purple man they were carrying out. He was confirmed dead but his skin just kept glowing. They threw him onto the back of the body truck and suddenly they were blinded by complete darkness. That’s what they saw anyway but what we saw was something crazier.

One minute it’s a typical cloudy day in London, the next a dark shroud forms around the palace. The wind starts to pick up, drawing towards it and we all brace, gripping whatever we can find. My fingers felt like they were tearing off around the time I realized that it wasn’t wind.

That dead man had left us with a black hole, slap bang in the middle of Buckingham Palace.

It was gone again in seconds but when the darkness lifted, the palace was a shambles. All the men working down there weren’t just dead, they had disappeared. All but the one who told us what happened.

When they found him, he was already close to bleeding out. There was no way we were saving him, with his legs gone the only thing stemming the blood was the huge chunk of rubble that had crushed him from the waist down.

They never told us about that in the comics and it wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was dealing with the ones who were still alive, especially if they weren’t one of ours.

An American Special called Solus had been one of the guys to lead the charge on London. A few days into the cleaning up we found him. He had a bum knee but he was alive and his temper was fierce. We followed orders to keep back and call in the Specials to take care of him.

They were good and proud about catching someone from their most wanted list, too proud to remember how dangerous he was. Not that I can blame them, we all thought his bum knee would be the end of the fight for him. Idiots.

Two of them start dragging him off explaining he’s a classic prisoner of war while four more follow close behind. Just as they’re giving the signal for us to carry on the cleanup, they get engulfed in flames. Solus goes full power, clearly he’d rather die than become a prisoner of war.

The flames miss my crew by inches but it’s getting bigger. We’re about to turn tail and run when suddenly it all goes out at once. All that’s left is Solus, passed out on the ground and six of our own writhing Specials, screaming as the flames eat through them.

This time, I really did hurl. They sure as hell never showed us anything like that in the comics…

Writing Exercise: “Change Of The Times”

 

“Change Of The Times”

Objective: Write from the perspective of someone witnessing the unveiling or testing of something new and life-changing! This can be a technological advancement, the enforcement of a new unexpected law, anything that would change how people live their lives whether it’s a big or small change.

We never seem content with the technology that we have. There was a time when the single shot muskets were considered revolutionary but these days it isn’t worth s**t if it requires both hands and doesn’t fire at least sixty rounds a minute.

Surely there’s someone out there who would prefer the traditional musket but they sure as hell aren’t going to parade around with it when they go to war.

It’s the same for me with transport. I preferred the good old days of the classic ‘car.’ Sure, it was a huge chunk of metal that we sat inside but they were simple and effective.
We had roads that navigated where we should travel and in what direction.  It wasn’t always as efficient as you’d hope – after all, almost everyone was using one at the same time – but even in it’s failings it had comforts.

You could travel yet still sit out of the rain, there were heating and air conditioning facilities, you could play music or just socialize with your family and friends who were travelling with you. It doesn’t sound like much but the way things have changed, that social outlet has been all but forgotten.

The day they showed off the hoverboard didn’t seem all that important. It was a fun, quirky little thing, sure, but nobody would actually buy one seriously! At least, that’s what I thought.

Then they started making them faster but safer, more efficient, cleaner for the environment. The second they got cheaper, everyone was buying one.

Yes, even me. I was astounded by the technology. We were practically flying! Sure, it was only a few inches of the ground but they added a design that stopped it from ever crashing. They’d implemented some kind of forcefield that encompassed not only the board, but the rider. You could see it there like some kind of blue transparent bubble that acted like a magnet against another magnet. Suddenly, transport accidents were non-existent.

Some people still drive cars but it’s not feasible anymore. There’s no jobs left for car mechanics so if you can’t fix it yourself, you’re screwed. On the bright side, there’s a pretty big surplus of leftover parts so maintenance is cheaper than ever. They don’t even consider the old parts worth melting down.

Part of me wishes I’d kept my car. Thinking on it like this makes me yearn for the chance to drive my wife and two daughters out for a camping trip. Nowadays if we want to go camping we all have our own board. The journey’s quicker but it’s silent. Then again, the girls are a older now so I doubt they’d be up for a camping trip with boring old mum and dad anyway.

Sitting with my wife now in front of the TV, – that timeless creation that never goes away – I feel a little anxious. We’re watching a live presentation by Stephen Employ, the CEO of the company responsible for the hoverboard. If he has something to show off then chances are I’ll have something brand new that I need to buy the girls.

“Ladies and gentlemen…” He begins. “The future is here!”
“He always says that.” I mutter.
“Shh.” My wife hushes me. As much as I love her, she’s that one older woman who’s constantly chasing the new generation of technology. Never mind the girls, the wife is the one who’ll want whatever this is first.
“Since the dawn of the hoverboard, gas emissions have decreased almost ninety seven percent from the age of land transportation.” Mister Employ says. “The invention of the wheel is no longer regarded as highly as it once was, for we have taken to the skies!”

The crowd there roar up in applause and my wife is sitting there, nodding to herself excitedly. As for me, I hate the build up to these things. I’m a no-nonsense guy, I’d prefer to just know what his point is. Employ raises his hands up and the crowd starts to die down.  

“But…We can still do better.” he says once everyone has fallen silent. “It has been my personal goal for years to continue creating environment friendly methods of transportation so that the damage done to this planet by our predecessors can finally begin to heal! A ninety seven percent decrease is phenomenal progress in pursuit of that goal but I did not begin this company seeking ninety seven percent…” He’s sounding emotional now but I know manipulation tactics when I see them. He’s just aiming to get the crowd riled. “…I began this company seeking the full one hundred percent, I’m seeking to rid this planet of gas emissions in it’s entirety!”

His tactics are working, he’s got the crowd cheering even louder now. He lets that one sit with them, lets them chant away, scream and shout like he’s some kind of rock God. The man’s ego doesn’t sit right with me but I can’t say much when half my life is spent using the stuff he makes.

“Well today ladies and gentlemen I have news…We’ve done it.”

A smoke machine goes off behind him and something raises out of the floor. Once the smoke settles I see it looks like some kind of shower cubicle. Without another word Mister Employ walks over to the thing. He slides open the front and steps inside it before closing it over again. A low humming sound emanates from it and suddenly there’s a flash of light.
People in the audience scream and turn away but me and my wife are leaning closer to the TV now. Did we really just see that?

Stephen Employ is now standing up close to the camera on the opposite end of the room, looking right at it like he can see the viewers at home. People in the audience around him are standing up, looking at him in awe.

“You’ve got to be f*****g kidding me!” I whisper. For once, my wife doesn’t chastise me for my profanity.

“I present to you…” Mister Employ says. “…The first working teleporter in history!”

The crowds cheer and my wife begins babbling away about it but I don’t hear her. I’m thinking back to that old car of mine. I’m thinking back to the days that transportation forced us to interact with our fellow man.

I’m also thinking that the next generation of cities probably won’t even have roads anymore.