Today, I thought I’d share one of the handouts I made for the creative writing class I taught during March and April. It’s mostly a basic list—good for beginners, but perhaps a nice reminder for experienced writers as well. (I know I benefit from reviewing the basics every now and then.) Hope there’s something you can take away from it!
DESCRIPTION, EMOTION, AND WORD CHOICE TIPS FOR WRITERS
According to Donald Maass in The Fire in Fiction, in popular fiction, description is what most people skim. Why? Because frequently, description is inactive. Nobody is doing or feeling anything. Good description: a) comes from the character’s—not the author’s—point of view, and b) creates emotion or opinion—and some degree of conflict—within the character. It must matter somehow, even if only in a small way.* Examples:
A sickly green that makes the character feel nauseated
A lemon scent in the air that reminds the character of a happy summer memory
So good description is character-specific and opinionated, but how do you choose what to describe? You can’t describe everything. If we were to describe a living room, would we mention the couch, chairs, tables, lamps, carpet, walls, curtains, light, etc.? Why would we need to describe all of that? Does your reader care? You want to choose specific and telling details. For example:
You wouldn’t need to describe an ordinary couch, merely tell us that your character sits on it. But if that couch is upholstered in crocodile skin, I want to know about it. It tells us about the person who lives there. You character’s reaction to it (do they think it’s awesome or ugly or cruel to poor innocent crocodiles) tells us something about them.
If the ordinary couch has marker scribbles on it, that’s a telling detail as well—it tells me that a child probably lives in the house. Does it make your character frown (”what undisciplined brats”), smile wistfully (”I remember when I was that little and life was so much better than it is today”)?
Description is also much more palatable in small bits rather than big chunks. Sprinkle details slowly throughout the scene rather than dumping three paragraphs on the reader at once.
Look at any section of a scene that you have written. Do the characters feel anything? They should. Humans experience nothing without some emotion attached to it, even if the feeling is simply boredom. Two important things to remember about conveying emotion in writing:
Find a way to show the emotion without telling what it is. Use body language, tone of voice, or body reactions (flushed cheeks for embarrassment, etc.—although that one gets overused, so maybe it’s a bad example) to show how characters feel.
Give your characters conflicting emotions—conflict is what makes fiction interesting. (The credit for this bit of advice also goes to Donald Maass.) Your character is angry at her sister for flying off the handle, but also proud of her for standing up for herself, for example.
In writing effectively—in fiction or any other kind of writing you do in life—your words must have power. Powerful words can stand up on their own, without a lot of adjectives and adverbs propping them up. Observe. Which sentences are more powerful?
The large, strong, and angry man threw his cup across the room.
The brute threw his cup across the room.
The black and white spotted dog ran across the wide stretch of tall grass.
The Dalmatian ran across the meadow.
Adjectives and adverbs are incredibly useful, but they aren’t props. Use them only when necessary.
Good word choice is also about not using the most obvious word. If you want to communicate well and in a memorable way, don’t settle for “the first words that slither through your fingers onto the keyboard.” (James V. Smith, Jr., The Writer’s Little Helper) At the same time, you don’t want to be so obscure with your words that your reader is tripping on them. You want to convey something in a fresh way, not an obscure way