I recently began reading a fiction self-help book called The 38 Most Common Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham (Writer’s Digest Books, 1992). It was on sale and I’m always looking for new ideas and different critical eyes with which to examine my work. This is an entertaining read so far. The chapters are fairly short and easy to digest and most of the mistakes he mentions I have made or am currently making, so the time invested is worthwhile. I recommend it to anyone wishing to improve their fiction. (And don’t we all?)
One chapter in particular captured my attention. It’s entitled “Don’t Describe Sunsets” and deals with something I believe every writer has to fight at some point or another: the siren song of beautiful prose because of the beauty of the prose.
One of the more powerful reasons to take up this frustrating avocation of writing is that most of us love the music of language itself. We love rendering a poignant and poetic description, a memorable turn of phrase, or a metaphor that stops readers in their tracks. It’s only natural. At some point we’ve fallen in love with the power a well-rendered combination of words can have. This is especially true when we are the ones creating those combinations.
Which is exactly what Mr. Bickham warns us about. Why? In Mr. Bickham’s own words:
“…when they stop to describe something at length, the story movement also stops.”
This is not good. One of the central principles in Mr. Bickham’s work is that fiction is about movement, not necessarily physical movement, but the story has to always be moving. The central character is struggling to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of some goal. Every single word has to be depicting some aspect of that struggle, particularly in short fiction.
I can hear someone in the back grumbling: but I need to be able to describe my settings, my characters, don’t I? Absolutely, but Mr. Bickham (and I agree) maintains that description must be in proportion. A hundred words about your hero’s dashing good looks is probably too much.
“But I worked so hard on this,” another complains. “It’s so beautiful.” Absolutely. It’s gorgeous, the rhythm, the metaphors and word choice. It’s a masterpiece of description. It just doesn’t belong in the story because, though beautiful, it brings the story to a halt. It needs to be cut.
Modern readers want you to move the story and move it quickly. They want to know what happens next. They don’t want to stand around waiting while you paint the sunset.
Still, we writers do need to get some information to the readers. There are several ways of doing this and each has a different effect on the flow of the story. They are:
This is the fastest form of all. A gunfight that might take six or seven pages to render moment-by-moment, is summarized in a paragraph. Use this for something to important to leave out of the story, but not important enough to concentrate on.
Characters talking with very little action or interior thought. It can be slow and relaxed, or, when the characters are under stress, extremely taught and fast. Even when relaxed though, dialogue moves the story quicker than the following three.
This is your characters doing things, like on a stage. Much of the story involves narration, whether it’s spies approaching a questionable drop, or two lovers entering a high school dance. Narration moves swiftly and continuously.
Very slow, so be careful. While you’re describing the character’s living room, nothing is happening. While you do need some description, use as little as you can get away with.
The slowest method of all. This is the straight delivery of factual information. Story-wise, nothing whatsoever is happening. It’s like a paragraph from a math textbook, pure data. Some of this may have to go into your story, but there is absolutely zero movement during exposition.
All of us have used each of these techniques at one time or another, I know I have. However, most of my usage has been through instinct, rather than conscious thought. I felt that the story was moving too slow, or too fast, so I instinctively slowed it down or speeded it up by changing the method I used to create the scene.
It’s about pace, the speed at which your reader experiences the story. If you think your story is moving too slow, you can change the method of telling it. If you’ve used narration in the scene, try using dialogue. It will speed up the movement.
In the same way, if you feel your story is moving too fast you can use these tools to slow it down. Say you have a car chase in one scene and a shootout in the next; you may want to insert a short descriptive scene between them, just to give the reader a chance to cool down.
Description is an essential tool for fiction. It is how we ground the reader in the time and place of the story. We can’t usually do it without description. However, it is crucial that the description (or exposition, narration, etc.) be there to serve the story, not the other way around. Description is one way we tell the story. The story is everything.
Keep it moving.