This is a bit of advice I’ve never heard specifically from any writing instructor.
The nearest even good writing instructors come is when they say your readers can’t see what’s in your mind. They can see only what you put on the page.
To expand and clarify that a bit, readers can sense only what you put on the page. They can see, hear, smell, taste and feel only what you put on the page.
But I learned Take Your Time from reading for pleasure.
One thing my favorite authors seem to have in common — whether they write magic realism, SF, westerns, thrillers, mystery or suspense — is that they take their time when they write description.
You’ve all heard me say it’s necessary to ground your reader at the beginning of each major scene or chapter.
Each time your character walks into a new setting, the situation, the character’s mood and background, and other factors determine what he or she will notice.
What one POV character senses, another would sense in a different way, or not at all.
And whatever the POV character senses, you must allow that character to convey to your reader.
Notice I didn’t say you must convey it to the reader.
This isn’t about author intrusion. It’s about allowing the POV character, through your fingers on the keyboard, to provide his or her opinion of the setting as revealed through his or her physical senses.
And the best way to do that is Take Your Time. In other words, don’t rush through it.
Allow the character the time (appropriate to the scene) to see, hear, smell, taste and feel the setting.
In one of my novels, the POV character is a homicide detective and she’s just walked into a bedroom where a particulary heinous crime occurred. Dd she go immediate to describing the body and the woundsy?
When she arrives at the front door and the on-scene officer greets her, the sight of the officer and the smells of the crime scene are the first things that hit her.
So I let her describe the officer. I let her notice the smell of blood (it smells like the taste of a copper penny in your mouth) and the stench of discharge from the corpse.
(Many writers go only to the sense of sight. That makes for shallow writing.)
Back to the POV character. The smells she encounters make her a little tentative. (You don’t say that, of course. But she chats a few seconds longer with the officer. Lets him “run the scene” for her.)
When she’s ready, the officer leads her to the actual crime scene: a bedroom at the end of the hallway.
He moves aside. She steps past him and stops in the open doorway. The stench is stronger. She glances at the body, then begins checking out the room.
She notes the position and state of the furniture.
Is there a dresser? Drawers closed or open? A jewelry box? Same questions. Windows? Blinds? Same questions. A closet? Same questions, along with why or why not.
Is there any evidence on the carpet? Boot or shoe prints, detritus from outside, blood? Maybe the killer grabbed the door frame. Hand, thumb or fingerprints? Or the light switch. Same questions.
She checks the ceiling. Light fixture? Overhead fan? Walls? Blood or other evidence?
And she conveys all of that (through your fingers, but her opinions) to the reader.
Finally to the victim. The position on the bed. Clothed? If so, in what? Rips or tears or stains? Naked? Note any unusual characteristics (now, finally, including the wounds).
I’m sure you get the idea.
Lest you think this is “too much” description or that it will slow the book down, here’s a trick for you:
When you’ve finished writing a scene, Read It Aloud.
If it bores you, if you find yourself just wanting it to end, chances are it isn’t filtered through the POV character’s physical senses and delivered as the POV character’s opinion. Chances are it’s author intrusion.
In that case, yes, it’s lard. Gooey, gummy, slick gobs of fat.
But that doesn’t mean you should strike it. It only means you need to give the scene back to the character. The characters, not the writer, are living the story. Let them tell it.
If the description of the setting is delivered by the POV character — if the reader is seeing, hearing, smelling etc. through the POV character’s senses and opinions — it won’t be too much. It will hold the reader’s interest and pull the reader deeply into the story.
And best of all, it’s a ton of fun.
A disclaimer and a final word: The scene described above is in a police procedural. The genre requires meticulous (and correct) description.
Another book or scene would require less. Especially in action sequences. And people notice different things during a high-action sequence.
For example, during a gunfight in a saloon there’s a lot going on. Nobody involved will notice the color of the walls or what the floor’s made of or how many bullet holes are in the ceiling.
But how many gunfights have you read where all the wounds are through-and-through clean, the guy is killed instantly, there’s no (or little) blood, no smoke or smell (or heat or cold) in the air, no overturned chairs, no shattered glasses or bottles or bar mirrors, etc.?
How much better might the scene have been if the writer had added even one or two of those details?
So go with the flow, as we used to say. But let your characters tell the story. That’s a sure track to an exciting book the reader won’t be able to put down.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
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