Becoming a Fan Favorite: Writing Description and Direction

In today’s post, I talk about stage directions in fiction, writing natural descriptions, why some books are constantly reread by readers, and, to an extent, immortality.

Orderly Description

Ever played that “blind drawing” party game? You close your eyes or put a piece of paper on your head and someone gives you direction upon direction to cram into one picture?

Here’s an example for the party planning website Sophie’s World (which, consequently, is the title of one of my favorite books):

“I’d like you to draw the outline of a house. Just a simple little house, right in the middle of the page… Now, beside the house I’d like you to add a tree, a medium sized tree, not too big, not too small… Oh, I forgot! You need a front door on your house. Please draw a front door so that the people can come in and out easily… Oh, did I tell you there are apples in your tree? Draw a few apples, maybe 5 or 6, in your tree now… And don’t forget the windows in the house! I think two would be nice… Did I remind you to draw a chimney? Let’s put a chimney on the house, with some smoke coming out the top… Oh, and look! There’s a dog in the yard… And a picket fence… And of course there’s a family…”

This is the kind of experience a reader has when you describe something in an unnatural order:

blind drawing
It’s also what it’s like when description is given out of order. When describing a scene, consider camera shots.

Zoom in from broad descriptions, ending on one specific detail. Or zoom out, starting on a detail and working your way out to observing the whole. Pan in one direction. Going in an unnatural order gives the nauseating effect of “shaky cam.”

Adding details too late, after the reader has already created the image in his or her mind, gives what I like to call the “awkward goat” effect.

Writer: “I went to give the goat a kiss. Then the other goat—”
Reader: “Wait, there’s another goat?”
Goat: “SURPRISE! I’ve been here the whole time!” (maniacal goat bleating)

surprise-goat
While this is used effectively in visual comedy, redirection doesn’t really work in fiction.

Overcomplicated Stage Directions

Another problem of ineffective description is overcomplicated stage directions. I see sentences like this all the time in unpublished manuscripts:

“Come with me,” Jorge said and turned around while kissing my hand as we ran away together.

Though these are most often found in dialogue tags, I see overcomplicated stage directions all over. That sentence above is just one I made up, but let’s rewrite it so it doesn’t seem like “he” is doing a hundred things at once.

First, find the perps: “and,” “as,” and “while.” The two latter words can often be cut in stage directions. The former is a fine word that sometimes gets overused. Let’s focus on no more than two actions at once.

Said + turned, kissing + ran

“Come with me,” he said, turning around. He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

Let’s also apply what we just learned about orderly directions, and cut the unnecessary dialogue tag.

Jorge turned around. “Come with me.” He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

What did I just do? I took advantage of my friend the progressive verb.

A progressive verb is a verb ending in -ing. That ending tells us that the -ing verb is happening while something else is going on, while letting us cut the “while” or “as.”

“While” and “as” aren’t bad words. It’s not about the word, it’s how you use it. By all means, use “as” to make a simile (e.g., “as [adjective] as a [noun]”). “While” is an innocent preposition until proven guilty. The problem is using them to show more than one thing happening concurrently. Show me a manuscript which uses “while” or “as” in the first page in stage directions, and there’s a big chance that same construction will keep showing up over the next ten pages.

Doing a find/replace search for all instances of “as I,” “as we,” “as she,” “as he”  (depending on your POV), repeating the search with “while,” will help you see if you’re going overboard. Also be on the look-out for “then” and “before,” more signs of wordiness and or disorderly directions.

Use them a few times, and that’s fine. Do it a few times per page—or worse, per paragraph—and you’re just being unnecessarily wordy. Gone are the days when novelists are paid by the word.

The Divine Detail

Remember, your novel has to compete with online, in-demand television and movies. You need to keep your reader’s attention. That doesn’t mean your novel needs explosions or murders every other chapter; it means your prose needs to be immediate and precise rather than longwinded and wordy. You want to be Robin Williams giving his Seize the Day speech, not Ben Stein droning about economics. The difference isn’t just subject, it’s diction. Do diction right, and you’ll engage readers that otherwise don’t care one iota about your subject. That is, until they start reading your book.

When describing, choose one or two vivid details, referred to by editors as “divine details” that can set the scene or characterize, and let the reader fill in the rest of the image. Compare the chaos of the drawing above (ain’t I an artiste?) with expansion drawings done by children:

expand-drawing

Image via ArtMommie. Click for more images.

When the reader is allowed to contribute, your work takes on a new form. It evolves in the readers’ individual minds. It’s a spark which they build upon to create a conflagration.

Letting the Reader In

It doesn’t matter how brilliant of a writer you are—writing and reading are collaborative efforts, and that collaborative effort will bring more life and beauty to your work than you could hope to do by yourself.

Sometimes we write because we’re control freaks. We are the masters of the universe, and we will plot and plan and tell our characters exactly what they should do. But when we let our characters breathe and give them freedom, when we let the reader have some creative liberty, our work takes on a life of its own.

Maybe that’s a cliche, but if you want your work to live on after you’re gone, you need to let your reader experience your world naturally. You need to let them read between the lines and contribute to the meaning and world of your fiction. When you let them participate, readers will not only want to buy your books, they will want to reread your books over and over again, letting them become part of their life, seeing how their interpretations change over the years.

Chapter Outlining like a Pantser

I know, I should be writing my novel and not using up words by blogging. But there’s something about a baby’s screaming that sucks the creativity right out of me. So say hi to baby R, everyone. He’s on my lap sniffling while I type this one-handed. 
Chapter Outlining Like a Pantser | Write Lara Write

I wanted to share how I’m outlining my novel. I’m a pantser, but my pantsing has yet to flesh out a working manuscript, because novels are so very different from short fiction and because I can’t write by the seat of my pants when I’m writing about a setting I’m still largely unfamiliar with (England, 12th century). Research has to come first, and then the exposition follows.
My last few attempts at fleshing out this manuscript have been as a plotter, but after all the planning, I have a skeleton and some ligaments. Now it’s time to add the meat, then the skin, the hair, the eyeballs, some freckles, and some pimples before I can present it as a living thing that can go out into the world.

Step One: Have (at least a vague idea of) a plot.

I’ve written many posts on plot for you, complete with my own method for plotting and downloadable worksheets for you to try. If you don’t have the 8 C’s, though, at least have an idea of the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Obviously I came up with my own method for a reason—the other methods weren’t hacking it for me, because I needed something more spelled out—but I also recommend the Plot Rollercoaster found in the novel planning workbook from NaNoWriMo. Download the workbook for free here.

Step Two: Outline

My outline is basically a Plot Treatment. Read about plot treatments and its value for both plotters and pantsers in my post “Letters from Anne Lamott.” But instead of writing paragraphs for each chapter, I’ve basically made it into a hybrid plot treatment and beat sheet.

Here’s the basic format.

Chapter [number or title]

Point A (How it begins)

Point B (How it ends)

What happens between those points?

What questions are answered?

What questions are still unanswered?

What needs to be researched?

That last one is especially applicable for me, because I’m writing historical fiction, so it might not be as important for you.

I suggest being open with the beat sheet part (the “what happens between those points”) at first, especially if you’re a pantser, so that your outline doesn’t limit your creative juices while pantsing it from A to B.

Here’s the format filled out for the first chapter of The Hunger Games:

Point A (How it begins):

This is the day of the reaping

Point B (How it ends):

Prim is chosen

What happens between those points?

  • Introduce Prim and mom, Buttercup the evil cat
  • Establish setting: District 12, the Seam
  • hunting is illegal
  • The capitol, dystopia
  • Gale; he wants to leave
  • Establish setting: The Hob
  • Madge
  • the reaping: its system for choosing tributes, getting ready, Effie and Haymitch

What questions are answered?

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • Who are her friends and family?
  • Where does this take place?
  • What kind of world is it?
  • Why should I read this book?
  • What’s Panem? What are the Hunger Games?
  • Will Katniss be chosen?

What questions are still unanswered?

  • How will Katniss react to Prim’s being chosen? How will every one else react?
  • Who will be chosen as the boy tribute?
  • Who will survive?

Research:

Suzanne Collins may have needed to research hunting for this chapter.

I’ve got the first twelve chapters laid out like this so far. I make sure the chapters will end at a point that leaves more questions than that chapter has answered. Then the next chapter either begins with a reaction to that point, or it goes somewhere else entirely, and then comes back to that reaction. I’ve heard the quote, “Never take your reader where they want to go.” In this context, another way of saying that is “Don’t answer your reader’s questions right away.” Your suspense will keep them reading.

Since my book will have a sequel, there will be some questions that won’t be answered at the end of this book, but most of them will be tied up to form a conclusion. Try to answer at least a couple questions per chapter to appease the reader. They need to be far enough away from the answer to keep them running after it, but close enough that they can remain interested. If you want a dog to chase a rabbit, the dog has to be able to smell the rabbit.

Next steps for me are finishing this outline, choosing a chapter I want to write, doing the research for that chapter, and then writing that chapter like I would write a short story—with as much pantsing as possible to connect from point A to B. If I end up at point x, then I adjust my outline once I get stuck, and then I keep going.

Do you outline? Do you use beat sheets? Do you use them while writing? During revisions?