“Take your time” has almost become a mantra for me.
I’ve pretty well mastered Heinlein’s Rules, especially the all-important Rules 1, 2 and 3. I’ve also pretty well mastered writing off into the dark, which means keeping my conscious, critical mind (the hell) out of my writing.
Yet even as I’m writing, I have to remind myself occasionally to slow down, calm my mind and my characters, and record parts of the story that the POV character is seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. that are important to the forward momentum of the story.
It usually takes only a sentence or two to describe a secondary or flat (cardboard) character that the POV character encounters. But the description needs to be there. It fills-in for the reader what would otherwise be a non-entity, a blank space where you assured the reader a person was standing just a moment before the flat character is gone as the POV character moves past him or her.
Likewise, it takes only a sentence or two or three to fill in important details (and the POV character’s opinions) about the setting that the POV character notices.
For example, as the POV character enters an office where an altercation is about to take place, s/he would probably notice the “messy” (or “immaculately clean”) desk, the desk chair, and the “thin, sickly looking” or “healthy” jade or rubber tree in a pot in one corner, and so on.
The POV character would also most likely notice if the office were “chilly” or “warm.” S/he probably would also notice an “antiseptic” smell or “a hint of perfume” or “the stench” (or “sweet aroma”) of pipe smoke.
Include those things (and the file cabinet and the “comfortable, overstuffed, brown” or “uncomfortable, stern, wooden” guest chair or the “presumptious” certificates or “incriminating” photo on the wall, etc.) in the description.
Why? Because you can’t know in advance (you’re WITD, remember?) how the altercation will go.
When you record what the POV character sees, hears, smells, feels, etc. as s/he enters the office, you give the story the space it requires to let the altercation proceed however it will.
Maybe the bad guy will end up on the floor, his head near the pot that holds that jade plant. But maybe before he ends up there, the POV character will clear the desk or upset the desk chair (or both) with his body.
Maybe the POV character will slam him against a wall, an action that will cause those certificates or photo(s) to fall or hang at an awkward angle. And so on.
But those items can’t come into play in the scene if they aren’t there. Few things are more annoying to a reader than part of a scene suddenly appearing when it wasn’t there before.
How can a photo frame shatter on the floor if there was no photo hanging on the wall or sitting on the desk before the altercation began?
“Maybe,” you say, “the POV character didn’t notice a particular framed item on the wall until it shattered on the floor.”
Of course, that’s entirely possible. In that case, probably the POV character noticed only “a ‘pretentious smattering’ of photos and/or diplomas on the wall when he came in.
Later, during the altercation when one of those items falls to the floor and shatters, the POV character zooms-in or focuses on it (notices it) and realizes it’s a particular diploma or photo that provides a clue s/he needed.
The possibilities are endless, but not if the items that produce them aren’t there in the first place.
The point is, those things are all in your mind and in the POV character’s perception. But if they don’t make it onto the page, the reader can’t see, hear, smell, etc. them and won’t be in the scene with the POV character in the first place.
The POV Character’s Opinion
One of the more difficult concepts for me to “get” for the longest time was to insert the POV character’s opinions of the setting into the scene.
Yet the POV character’s opinions of the setting are all-important because they provide a little more insight into the character him- or herself and enhance the scene for the reader.
All of the items above in quotation marks are the character’s opinions. A “thin, sickly-looking” jade plant in a chipped red-clay pot evokes a different, more evocative image than a jade plant in a pot.
Maybe when the bad guy’s head hits the pot in which the jade plant resides, half of it breaks off and lays across his face (justice). But it probably wouldn’t do that if it weren’t sickly and weak in the first place.
Maybe where the pot was chipped it breaks and a bit of dirt spills onto the bad guy’s eyes. Who knows?
Now let’s talk for a moment about cycling.
Chances are, you won’t put everything necessary into the scene the first time through. I usually don’t. My POV character (and/or the action in the scene) surprises me most of the time.
So at the end of the writing session I take a break. When I come back and read (cycle) through what I just wrote, I add things that the POV character deem necessary, whether those things are items in the setting or the POV character’s opinions of those items. Then I move on into the new writing.
(DWS does this about every 400-500 words. I do it about once every scene, so about once every 1000 to 1500 words.)
And during cycling too, after the scene has ended and the smoke has cleared, I might remove things (descriptions, opinions) that didn’t matter to the scene in the aftermath.
By the way, you can call this “editing” or “revising” or “orange marmelade” if you want. What you call it doesn’t matter as long as you stay in the creative, subconscious mind while you do it. Don’t allow yourself to be critical. You aren’t in the story. The POV character is.
When I cycle through what I’ve written, I’m usually what Stephen King calls a “putter-inner,” but occasionally I’m a “taker-outer.” (grin) In some stories I’m both.
It’s all about balance for the reader. You want to draw the reader deeper into the scene, but you don’t want to include things that are not necessary to the scene.
But be careful. Do most offices have an I-love-me wall? Yes. So it should be there, even if it’s only a quick “smattering of pretentious certificates.” Because otherwise your reader will see a bland, blank wall.
Of course, if the POV character notices the walls are “oddly bare,” that’s fine too. But put it on the page. Because that too is part of the setting.
To further enhance this topic, see James Scott Bell’s “Smell the Story” in “Of Interest” today.
Finally, by way of personal example, here’s the beginning of a scene I wrote yesterday from my current Blackwell Ops novel:
I approached Mr. Robbins’ doorway as if I’d lived there all my life. Without breaking stride, I grasped the dark, cast-iron handle, worked the thumb latch and pushed the door open.
The first thing I saw was through an open, arched doorway to my left front: the blue-white square of a ribbed a-frame undershirt stretched over a broad back.
A television set I couldn’t see cast that odd blue light as what sounded like a male news commentator rattled on in Arabic.
The man in the undershirt was broad but appeared to be a little less than six feet tall, so a few inches shorter than I am. He was standing in front of a small wooden table situated next to a dingy brown, cloth-covered recliner in the otherwise dim room. Against the wall to his right was a couch covered in the same fabric. He was hunched slightly forward, his elbows, hairy upper arms, sloped neck, dark-clad legs and sock-feet in view in the eerie light.
Only his forearms and hands were missing from that initial image. They were in front of him as he held and manipulated something.
I hoped it wasn’t a pistol. But if it was I’d feed it to him.
Apparently the sound of the television blanked out the noise of me working the latch on the door. The house was warm, too, and apparently the rush of cooler air I admitted hadn’t reached him yet. He hadn’t reacted to either one.
The initial instant over, I shoved the door with my right heel and strode through the arched entrance. As the door slammed, I said, “Hello there.”
He ducked instinctively and pivoted to his left.
In his right hand was a pistol. In his left, a magazine.
As he brought his left hand toward his right, the magazine clacked against the butt of the pistol and I hit him in the center of the face.
As I hope you can tell, this entire excerpt happened in the space of a second or two of real time. This is how you slow time down to provide the description the reader needs to pull him or her into the setting and scene while establishing a basis for what’s about to happen. Maybe most importantly, it puts the reader into the place of the POV character. (grin)
‘Til next time, happy writing (and publishing)!
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2 thoughts on “Take Your Time: Part 3”
Yes, taking the time to sit beside a character gazing through a dirty window as clouds meander by in shapes of stories past allows (often begs) for descriptions that set the scene of the story you’re currently in. But then, I’ve been warned about being too descriptive. Your thoughts?
Glimpses of a character’s character (ha!) or mood, as in opinions, body language, or attire go a long way toward achieving reader connection, “Hey, that’s me!” or “I know that guy!” However, I’ve found that the line between showing and telling is terribly thin. Is there a rule of thumb?
I much prefer the term “Cycling” as it suggests progression, rather than being stuck back at Exit 48, fixing a flat tire.
I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Harvey. Thanks!
Excellent question, Diedre. And yes, I have an answer.
Each reader determines what is “too much” (or “too little”) description, though they don’t notice the latter. They just close the book. If they have a thought at all about why, they might utter that it’s “too thin.”
I’ve had readers say I add too much description. But the action pulls them forward through the book.
I’ve had many more reader not mention description specifically, but say they “feel like I’m right there with the character.” Which of course goes to the POV character’s description of the setting and the events in the scene.
Here’s your rule of thumb, and really it’s more of a hard, fast rule:
If the description is coming from the writer, it’s too much. Period. Never describe a setting or scene yourself (even through the senses of a “narrator”).
Every word of setting or scene description should be filtered through the POV character’s physical (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) and emotional (dread, fear, joy, etc.) senses. If it is, then it can’t be too much. Also every description of setting or scene should contain not only the description itself, but the POV character’s OPINION of the setting.
One POV character who walks into a library in a mansion might write “I was practically overwhelmed by the stench of tobacco smoke.” That POV character obviously doesn’t care for pipe smoke, or maybe any kind of pipe smoke, and we can tell through his opinion.
Another POV character walking into the same library might write “The faint aroma of cherry pipe smoke reminded me of my grandfather.” For that POV character, the smell evoked a fond (or maybe not fond) memory.
As a final note, I recommend working all five physical senses (again, through the POV character) into every major scene, preferably near the beginning.
Or “The scent of pipe smoke seemed to fill the air. I was surprised there weren’t clouds of the stuff.” This is more of a vague non-opinion. If it’s followed by something like “I smiled. It made me think maybe my grandma was in the next room over baking cookies” maybe it’s a fond memory. If it’s followed by something like “Wow. The smell alone cause me to remember the stench of alcohol and feel my father’s belt across my back.”
BTW, any of those could have appeared in exactly the same story. Everything depends on the POV character and his/her opinions of the setting. And of course, those descriptions also tell the reader something about the POV character.
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