Like a novelist, a nonfiction writer can engage the reader’s imagination through the use of the five senses.
☐ Vivid details enhance the reader’s understanding and highlight key points.
We usually think of this kind of detail as being visual. The shape of someone’s eyeglasses, the colors of the flowers in a garden, or the clutter on a desk. Continue reading
A portrait painter works in large tonal blocks first, light and dark, before adding detail. As writers, we can do the same, focusing on the big-picture elements as we write and do our developmental edit. But now we are down to line editing, adding the details that will make the portrait of our characters come alive.
One thing that elevates prose from mediocre to great is word choice. Using precise words rather than general ones enhances the reader experience. It’s one thing to give your hero a car. It’s another thing to give him a sports car. Give him an Aston Martin and you’re at a whole other level. Continue reading
I used to have a critique partner who was really good about examining each scene for the sensory details that were missing. For example, when a couple of characters walked into a kitchen where a woman was cooking, and I hadn’t thought to describe the smells.
☐ All senses are engaged as appropriate to each scene.
Try not to obsess over this kind of detail early on, but once you reach the polishing stages of your edit, run down every scene and consider all five senses: is there one that belongs there that you’re missing? Continue reading
One of the main reasons we must read other writers in our genre is that we must know what is usual. Readers of a particular genre come to it with a set of expectations. You may tweak those expectations to make your work unique, but if you violate genre expectations too wildly, you will lose readers. Their expectations will not be met, and they will say so in their reviews.
☐ The amount of description is appropriate to the genre.
I recall an Amazon review in which the reviewer complained that the author of a thriller had spent too much time describing people’s clothes. At first, I didn’t understand why this is a problem, because I personally like that kind of description. I had to read several other reviews of that book and others like it before I figured out that it’s a genre convention. Continue reading
Part of achieving balance in your descriptions is managing the details. While on the one hand it’s possible to give the reader sensory deprivation by not providing enough details, on the other hand you can give the reader sensory overload by including too many details, especially if they are the wrong kind of details. Relevant details are necessary. Irrelevant details are distracting.
☐ Details are relevant and add to the reader experience.
Unless you’re writing literary fiction, don’t throw in lots of poetic description for its own sake. Especially if what you are describing is the landscape. That worked for nineteenth century readers who didn’t have a thousand TV channels, video games, and smartphone apps clamoring for their attention. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy wrote in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Don’t write for those readers. Every one of those readers is now dead, and they aren’t going to buy your book.” Continue reading
One of the most difficult aspects of novel-writing is finding the right balance between providing enough description to create an image of the storyworld in your reader’s imagination, and providing so much that the story is bogged down and ceases to move forward.
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This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that every writer and reader has a different tolerance level for description. Faced with a paragraph of description, one critique partner may say it’s boring and encourage you to cut it, while another will be enchanted by your poetic imagery. You can’t please everyone so, at the risk of giving you a Ricky Nelson earworm, you’ve got to please yourself.
Within reason. Continue reading
Several years ago, Margie Lawson taught a workshop put on by the Florida Writers Foundation in advance of the annual Florida Writers Association Conference. Margie teaches about the need to delve deep into character emotion to reach readers. When, at the end of the course, she asked what most struck us, the fellow sitting behind me said “I need to learn to cut loose with the metaphors.”
I don’t know whether he is also a recovering journalist, but he’s right.
☐ Comparisons and similes are used to engage readers.
A farm boy. Poor. Poor and perfect. With eyes like the sea after a storm.—The Princess Bride, William Goldman
When Buttercup describes Westley’s eyes this way, she’s using a powerful simile that even echoes the backstory, because she believes he was killed while at sea. Continue reading
One key to having an appropriate amount of description in your story is proportion. The amount of time you spend describing an object should be relative to its story purpose.
☐ Settings and objects are described in proportion to their importance.
It’s easy to spend lots of time describing the places, objects, and people you can visualize clearly, and to gloss over the things you’re fuzzy about. But if you’re fuzzy, the reader will be, and that’s not what we want. Instead, provide rich descriptions of things that are important to the story, and gloss over the things that are incidental. Continue reading
Description is a necessary element of fiction, but people differ greatly on how much is enough and how much is too much. When you show your draft to critique partners and beta readers, you may get wildly different evaluations about how you’re doing on this point. I recently finished the first draft of the second book in the Prophet’s Chronicle series. Of one particular scene, I had one critique partner say the description ran too long and he started skimming. Another thought it was beautiful and poetic, and she loved it.
Nevertheless, there are a few things we can say about description that hold true across genres and writing styles.
☐ Each scene includes a baseline descriptor to aid the reader.
Even if you’re a minimalist writer, give the reader enough to ground them in the scene. This can be as simple as the living room, the outer bailey, Space Station K-7. Continue reading
Setting may not be the most important aspect of a novel, but it is critical to a great reader experience. Some genres are almost entirely defined by their settings. Regency romances are set in England during the early 1800s. Westerns are usually set west of the Mississippi in the late 1800s. Southern Fiction is set in the southeastern part of the U.S., but not so far south that you reach Disney World.
The setting you choose for your novel is an integral part of the story. That’s why Setting makes it into my list of Primary Elements. The setting of your book will affect many other elements. A story set in modern-day Pakistan will be very different from a story set in medieval Europe, even though both might be about arranged marriages. Continue reading