Readers need description in the stories they read to visualize settings and people - really "get into" the action. But sometimes writers get carried away and go too far in trying to provide such descriptions; they stop too often to describe such things as sunsets, thinking that pretty prose is an end in itself-and forgetting that when they stop to describe something at length, the story movement also stops.
A friend of mine, the late Clifton Adams, was an enormously gifted writer of western fiction, short stories and novels. In one of his prizewinning western novels, he devoted several pages to describing a sunset. It was an amazing departure from established norms in professional fiction.
Yet in this isolated circumstance it worked. Adams had set up the story situation in a way that told the reader of a dire threat: as soon as total darkness fell, a band of desperadoes planned to attack the hero's lonely trail camp and do him in. For this reason, every word of the sunset description was relevant -and painfully suspenseful.
Only in such a special situation can you devote great space to description, no matter how poetic it may seem to you. One of the standing jokes among writers and publishers is about the amateur writer who devotes precious space to describing a sunrise or sunset. All you have to do, in some publishing circles, is mention something like "the rosy fingers of dawn" and you get smiles all around. Such descriptions usually are a hallmark of poor fiction writing.
If you've been reading this book straight through from the front, you already see why this is so. Fiction is movement. Description is static. Trying to put in a lengthy description of a setting or person in fiction is a little like the dilemma facing physicists when they try to describe the nature of the electron. As one distinguished scientist once put it, "You can describe what an electron is at a given moment, but if you do, you don't know exactly where it is; or you can try to describe where it is, but then you can't say exactly what it is. "
Part of what he was saying, I think, was simply this: to describe something in detail, you have to stop the action. But without the action, the description has no meaning.
Therefore, whenever you try to inflict on your readers a detailed description, your story stops. And readers are interested in the story-the movement-not your fine prose.
Does this mean you should have no description in your story? Of course not. Description must be worked in carefully, in bits and pieces, to keep your reader seeing, hearing, and feeling your story world. But please note the language here: it must be worked in, a bit at a time, not shoveled in by the page.
I am certainly not the first person to warn about "poetic" descriptions and how they stop a story. And yet they continue to appear again and again in amateur copy. Such segments prove one of two things: either the writer has no understanding of the basic nature of fiction, or the writer is so in love with her own words that she allows arrogance to overcome wisdom. "Fine writing" almost always slows the story's pace and distracts readers from the story line itself.
And note, please, that description can be something other than writing about a tree or a sunset. Beginning writers sometimes make the mistake of stopping everything while they describe a character's thoughts or feelings. This often is every bit as bad as the rosy fingers of dawn.
Of course you should and must look into your character's head and heart. And some of your insight must be given the reader, so she can know about the character, sympathize with the character, identify with the action. But in good fiction-even at novel length-such descriptions of the character's state of mind and emotion are usually relatively brief. The accomplished writer will tell (describe) a little, and demonstrate (show in action) a lot.
Modern readers want you to move the story, not stand around discussing things.
In this regard, you may want to think about your fiction delivery systems. There are different ways to deliver your information to your reader. They have characteristic speeds:
• Exposition. This is the slowest of all. It's the straight giving of factual information. Nothing whatsoever is happening. You're giving the reader data -biographical data, forensic data, sociological data, whatever. Some of this has to go in your story, but there's no story movement while you're putting in your encyclopedia info.
• Description. Almost as slow. Again, some is necessary. But watch it.
• Narrative. Here we have characters onstage in the story "now", and their actions, give-and-take, are presented moment by moment, with no summary and nothing left out. This is like a stage play, and much of your story will be in this form, as we'll discuss in a later section. This kind of storytelling goes very swiftly and provides continuous movement.
• Dialogue. Story people talking. Very little action or interior thought. Like a fast-moving tennis match, back and forth, point and counterpoint. When the story people are under stress and talk in short bursts, this is tremendously fast and forward-moving.
Dramatic Summary. The fastest form of all. Here you have dramatic stuff happening, but instead of playing it out moment by moment, as in narrative, you choose to add even more speed by summarizing it. In this mode, a car chase or argument that might require six pages of narrative might be condensed into a single light-speed paragraph.
If your stories seem to be moving too slowly, you might analyze some of your copy, looking at what form of writing you tend to use. It could be that you are describing too many sunsets (in one form or another) and never using any dialogue or dramatic summary. On the other hand, if you sense that your stories whiz along at too breakneck a speed, perhaps you need to change some of that dramatic summary into narrative, or even pause (briefly!) now and then to describe what the setting looks like, or what the character is thinking or feeling.
In this way, you can become more conscious of your tendencies as a fiction writer, and begin to see which tendencies help you, and which tend to hold you back from selling. You can learn better to call your shots in terms of pacing your yarn, selecting the delivery system that's needed for the desired effect, and keeping the yarn moving.
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