writing, Writing advice

Using Color in Fiction

Years ago, when my discovery of The Lord of the Rings seduced me into reading almost nothing but sword and sorcery fantasy (something I eventually got over) I remember noticing how often the good guys were described as wear white while the bad guys were always in black. This wasn’t limited to fantasy either. How many classic westerns over the years portrayed the hero in a white hat and the villain in a black one?

It has become such a standard that hackers are deemed “white hats” or “black hats” depending on how their efforts related to the law.

I’ve always questioned this motif. What does a young reader, who happens to be black, think of the color black always signaling evil? Does it mean that they are also, by definition, bad? Why can’t the good wizard wear black?

The problem here is that color is highly symbolic and the symbolic values differ from culture to culture. Thus, in western cultures, those left behind wear black to funerals to symbolize loss and mourning, while many Buddhist cultures will wear white to a funeral. Different cultures will often associate different emotions or traits with different colors.

Why is this important for us as writers? Because colors and the emotional traits we associate with them are important tools we can use to illicit responses in the reader. We can use color to manipulate the reader. We can reveal character through the colors they choose to wear, the colors they choose to decorate their home, the color of their vehicle.

And what is good writing, but a successful attempt to manipulate the reader’s thinking and emotions?

But, in order for this manipulation to work, we have to be accurate in how we use color within the culture at large. For if we don’t use color correctly, like any tool, the result will not work in the mind of the reader. They may not even know what is wrong. Something just didn’t set right with them. For instance, if you describe a character as meek and lacking in self-confidence, then describe him coming to work in a lemon yellow suit, the reader will have trouble believing it. Bright yellow clothing, for the most part, is not the sort of thing a shy man would pick out for himself to wear. (But he might buy it intending to come across as more assertive, then never have the guts to take it out of the closet).

So it is vitally important that, as writers of fiction, we get the symbolic color correct for the trait we want the reader to see. How do we do that? A large part is instinctual. We, after all, are writing to our own culture most of the time, so we know these associations in our gut, to one extent or another. But it can be dangerous to rely too closely to our own intuition, because sometimes our intuition is wrong.

So we research. Or, to be more accurate, we turn to the research others have already done. And, not surprisingly, most of the research on the emotional and cultural values embodied in color has been done by marketing firms. After all, marketing is really the science of manipulating the public into feeling better about your product than that of your competitor. So marketers have done all sorts of research into how people react to various colors and color combinations.

Below is a summary of various values associated with some of the colors (for this article, white and black are considered colors too. Yeah, yeah, I know).


Is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, and power, as well as passion and love. In heraldry, red is used to symbolize courage and is found in many national flags. Widely used to indicate danger.

A very emotionally intense color. It increases viewers’ respiration rate and blood pressure.

Light red represents joy, passion, sensitivity, and love.

Pink represents romance, love, passivity, feminine qualities

Dark red vigor, anger, rage, courage, malice

Brown stability, masculine qualities

Reddish-brown associated with harvest and autumn


Combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. Represents enthusiasm, happiness, creativity, attraction, success, encouragement. In heraldry, orange is the color strength and endurance.

The color of harvest and fall.

Dark Orange can mean deceit and distrust

Red-orange indicates desire, passion, pleasure domination

Gold means illumination, wisdom, prestige, and wealth


The color of sunshine. It symbolizes happiness, intellect, and energy. In heraldry, yellow indicates honor and loyalty. Later it came to mean cowardice.

Men often perceive yellow as a very lighthearted, childish color.

Dull yellow represents caution, sickness and jealousy

Light yellow is associated with freshness and joy.


The color of nature, it symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility and is strongly associated with safety. It can sometimes indicate lack of experience, as in “greenhorn.” In heraldry, indicates growth and hope.

Dark green often associated with money, greed, and jealousy

Yellow-green can mean sickness, cowardice, and jealousy.

Aqua associated with healing and protection

Olive green the traditional color of peace.


The color of the sea and sky, it symbolizes cleanliness, trust, loyalty, faith, truth, and stability. In heraldry, blue symbolizes piety and sincerity. A masculine color.

Light blue associated with health, healing, tranquility

Dark blue represents knowledge, power, seriousness.


Combines the stability of blue with the energy of red. Is associated with royalty, symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition, as well as dignity and magic. A very rare color in nature.

Light purple evokes romance and nostalgia

Dark purple suggests gloom and sadness.


White is associated with light, innocence, purity, and cleanliness. In heraldry, white depicts faith and purity. It is the color of snow.


Black is associated with power, strength, prestige, elegance, and formality. But is also the color of night, so is also associated with fear, the unknown, grief, death. In heraldry, black symbolizes grief. Often has a negative connotation: black humor, blacklist, “black death.”

By reading the list above, you can see that nothing is written in stone. It is a guideline and nothing more, a place to begin. And sometimes, in your effort to manipulate the reader, you can mislead them by giving them false clues. A man approaches a woman wearing a bright yellow dress. She looks happy; she’s wearing yellow. Only he finds out, after talking to her, that she’s a widow, mourning the death of her husband. The yellow dress was the only thing clean she had to wear. Or maybe she was consciously trying to cheer herself up.

Or you can have your hero, the good guy/girl always in black because he/she thinks it makes them look more slim.

Color is just another tool you can use to give information to your reader. Like all of us, it is up to you, the writer, to decide how best to use it.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Write Descriptions like Raymond Chandler

Lately I have been reading Raymond Chandler again, specifically Farewell, My Lovely. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Chandler and his work, he writes what is called the “hard-boiled” detective stories. In fact, Raymond Chandler and his colleague Dashiell Hammett, pretty much invented the genre. Hammett had Sam Spade, of The Maltese Falcon fame, and Chandler had Philip Marlowe. Both are cynical, world-weary detectives without a tract of romanticism between the two of them.

But even if you don’t particularly like the hard-boiled detective genre, Raymond Chandler is still worth reading, just because he is so good at what he does. He’s a very good writer who is often overlooked by those who don’t consider him a “serious” writer.

Why do I consider Chandler so good? Because of the prose he produced. Yes, it might have been pulp fiction and is still considered (by those who spend way too much time sorting novels into particular boxes) “genre” fiction. And yes it is genre fiction, but it is very good genre fiction. There are a couple of reasons for this.

His description is uniquely interesting.

Part of the tradition in hard-boiled detective fiction is that the narrative is told in the first person, ostensibly by the detective. In Raymond Chandler’s case, Philip Marlowe. Part of that narrative is to portray the detective as jaded, cynical, and world weary, reflecting the detective’s low expectations of the world around him. Chandler does this better than anyone else and does it with nearly every single word he puts on the page.

Consider his description of a showgirl:

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. (The High Window)

Or a building:

The Belfont Building was eight stories of nothing in particular… (The High Window)

The very descriptions give the impression of a narrator who is more than a bit of a smart ass and not impressed by much anymore.

Another building, this time a mansion:

The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. (Farewell, My Lovely)

As a person who enjoys sarcasm myself, this is someone I would enjoy spending some time with. Chandler uses sarcasm to great effect, as well as understatement, and exaggeration. Each working double duty, telling us what is going on as well as Marlowe’s attitude towards what is going on.

Perhaps Chandler’s greatest gift though, is in the use of similes. They are unique, surprising, and yet perfectly in character. When describing the aftereffects of being knocked out:

My stomach took a whirl. I clamped my teeth tight and just managed to keep it down my throat. Cold sweat stood out in lumps on my forehead, but I shivered just the same. I got up on one foot, then on both feet, straightened up, wobbling a little. I felt like an amputated leg. (Farewell, My Lovely) (the bold is my own)

The passage not only conveys what is happening, it conveys the narrator’s attitude toward what is happening with a wonderful economy of language. The narrator reports what is happening in a unique voice, then comments on it in a way that intensifies the characterization.

And he does this throughout the novel, with impressive consistency.

A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day. (Farewell, My Lovely)

There was a cornflower in the lapel of his white coat and his pale blue eyes looked faded out by comparison…he had the general appearance of a lad who would wear a white flannel suit with a violet scarf around his neck and a cornflower in his lapel. (Farewell, My Lovely)

And this is all fine and dandy for those who are writing hard-boiled detective fiction, where the narrator or main character is supposed to be cynical, expecting the worst from humanity because that’s usually what he sees. But I’m writing a romance, or a historical family drama; how does this help me?

Because every scene you write, is written from someone’s point of view. It is narrated in someone’s voice, usually the voice of the main character. Having that voice obviously change as the point of view changes goes a great way toward showing your reader the character.

A room described by a Marine Corps Gunnery Sargent is going to be different than that same room as described by a twenty-year-old kindergarten teacher and animal rights activist. They will each notice different things. Their vocabularies will be different. The aggression (or lack thereof) will be different. It’s an extreme example, but the principle is there. Use your description to help create the character’s voice.

Reading Raymond Chandler’s novel is one way to see just how a master does that and does it well.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

After Rereading Hemingway

Last week I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I had read it at least once before, during my pursuit of a University degree in Literature and it had impressed me, primarily because its style was so different than most novels that had come before. However, it had been a while, like (I hate to even say it) thirty years.

It would appear that I have changed a bit over those thirty years.

Why? Because as I read what is often considered Hemingway’s best novel, the work that almost single-handedly changed the way the modern novel is written, I found problems. They weren’t major problems, mind you. But there were problems. Often the very same problems I work to eliminate from my own writing.

Thirty years ago, as a young student and writer, I had read the novel in something like a religious awe. This was HEMINGWAY. This was a master. Everything about his novel had to be—by definition—perfect. I dedicated myself to reproducing his style.

Apparently, I have grown some, both personally, and as a writer.

So what problem did I find in The Sun Also Rises? Nothing terribly earth-shattering, but a problem nonetheless, in my opinion.

Hemingway is reknown for his spare, understated prose. He often tries to employ innuendo and nuance to tell the story as much as he does verbs and objects. And he pulls it off very well. Most of the time.

For example:

“The road came out from the shadow of the woods into the hot sun. Ahead was a river valley. Beyond the river was a steep hill. There was a field of buckwheat on the hill. We saw a white house under some trees on the hillside. It was very hot and we stopped under some trees beside a dam that crossed the river.”

Very simple, but effective. Compare his description with anything by Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. He uses no similes or metaphors, just simple, declarative sentences.

But sometimes it falls short, as in this conversation between Jake, the narrator, Mike, and Brett:

“I’m a little tight, you know. I wouldn’t ask you like this if I weren’t. You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“Oh, shut up, Michael,” Brett said. “How can the man say he’d mind now? I’ll ask him later.”

“But you don’t mind, do you?”

“Don’t ask that again unless you want to make me sore. Bill and I go down on the morning of the 25th.”

“By the way, where is Bill?” Brett asked.

“He’s out at Chantilly dining with some people.”

“He’s a good chap.”

“Splendid chap,” said Mike. “He is, you know.”

“You don’t remember him,” Brett said.”

What bothers me about this passage is the question of who, exactly, says: “He’s a good chap?”

At first reading, I wasn’t sure who is saying it. I’m still not absolutely sure, but think it’s Brett. In my opinion, this is a mistake. If someone has to pause to figure out who is saying what, the writer has not properly done his job.

Anything, that bumps the reader out of the flow of the narrative, is, in my opinion, a problem for the writer. This happens a handful of times in The Sun Also Rises, always in the dialogue. Mr. Hemingway occasionally writes so sparingly that we are left trying to figure out who is speaking.

Other than that, I thought it flawless.


An Exercise in Description

A couple of months ago (November, to be precise) I was invited to teach a mini-writing workshop for several middle school classes in one of the school districts near my home. I accepted readily; it offered a new challenge; I would gain local exposure (assuming that kids talked to their parents and teachers to each other); and perhaps most important, it would give me the chance to encourage and maybe inspire the next generation of writing talent.

I firmly believe that all children are, by nature, artists. They love to draw, paint, sing, and compose stories and poems. Sometime around the onset of puberty, this love of artistic expression goes away, whether because of time limits, distractions, or because they are told they are no good and even if they are, there is no way to make a living with their art. In short, they’re wasting they’re time.

I disagree. Obviously, I don’t think artistic pursuits are wastes of time.

So I devised my workshop to be encouraging what they are currently doing and, perhaps, give the students a hint at how to develop their craft.

The subject was writing description, because that is usually what the neophyte writer first attempts and so often gets wrong. I used the device of the senses as a way of crafting vibrant descriptions. All humans experience their universe through the various senses, so it can be a readily available common language.

In preparation, I made three lists of senses: the primary physical senses, secondary physical senses, and what I call the social senses.

For the first exercises, I gave the students the list of five physical senses:






Among most humans, sight is the strongest sense and that is usually reflected in description. Asked to describe a room, most people will describe what they see. That can seem cardboard and contrived. Which leads to exercise 1.

Exercise 1

Write a short paragraph—three or four sentences—describing a room, using at least three of the five primary senses.

Exercise 2

Write another short paragraph describing a room, but this time don’t use the sense of sight. How would a blind person experience the room?

After discussing the results of the first two exercises, I then introduced (by having them think of them) the secondary senses:



Where your body is (hands, feet, nose, etc.)









The students seemed to enjoy coming up with the list of senses as much as they did the writing. Next comes exercise 3.

Exercise 3

Write another short paragraph, but this time, use only one from the primary physical senses and two from the list of secondary senses.

Finally I introduced the list of what I call social senses:





Being watched

Déjà vu






Exercise 4

Write another short paragraph describing a place or situation, but use a sense from all three categories to describe it.

The whole point of these exercises was to get the students to think outside the zones they were used to thinking in. From their reactions and the paragraphs they wrote, it seemed to work. They were suddenly thinking in ways they hadn’t tried before.

And to all those who tell us that young people today are not interested in learning, or working to improve their skills, I can tell you every student wrote in my workshops and most shared their efforts with the rest of the class. I was impressed and pleased.

Whether I encouraged any of them to continue writing is a different story, one whose ending has not yet been determined.

Writing advice

Setting in Fiction

Recently—this morning, actually—I finished a suspense novel by Stephen White titled The Best Revenge. It was a solid novel, good, though not great. I gave it three out of five stars primarily because it didn’t awaken in me that sense of urgency I look for in a good suspense novel. It was interesting and well written. I had no trouble reading it through to the end. But I never felt that sense that everything was on the line. That if the characters didn’t make the correct decisions, everything would be lost.

I haven’t quite figured out why that sense of urgency never appeared in Mr. White’s novel. I’m still mulling it over. My instinct tells me it’s in the way Mr. White handled the point of view, but I’ll have to think it over some more. I’ll let you know.

However, one technique Mr. White used wonderfully did catch my attention and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. That technique is his use of setting to add depth and richness to his narrative.

The Best Revenge takes place in and around the city of Boulder, Colorado and by the time I finished the book, I felt as familiar with the environment as someone who lives there (probably more because locals tend to ignore the sights around them out of familiarity). I love that feeling. It’s one of the benchmarks I have for a well-written story.

Why? Because it’s realistic. Where ever we are we are surrounded by scenery. So are the people we interact with, our friends and our enemies. While we may not consciously notice it, subconsciously we all do. Personally, where I live, you can see the Pacific ocean to the west from most places in town. To the east are steep ridges covered with a thick forest of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock. Alder graces the edge of the forest. The river empties into the ocean just north of town. Its valley cuts through the ridges to the east.

Everyone in town, whether they are aware of it or not, is influenced by the landscape around us. It affects the climate. It affects the direction the wind blows (almost always from either the north or south). It affects the job market.

Setting grounds the story, anchoring it to a particular place and time.

The Best Revenge takes place during the end of a hot, dry summer. Every person in town is watching the mountains to the west, hoping for relief in what they call the monsoon season. Every character in the book does it. Characters talk to each other about it. It adds a layer of realism. Where I live, we’re in the middle of a fairly serious drought and it’s a regular topic of conversation.

Setting can provide yet another hurdle the hero must overcome to achieve her goal.

Mr. White didn’t use this aspect as much the he did grounding, but I recently read another book where a massive thunderstorm erupted just as his enemies entered a trap he’d set for them. Within moments, he is blinded by torrential rain and deafened by the wind and the noise of the rain itself. Now, he not only had to overcome the enemy’s shooting skill and intelligence, but he had to deal with the weather too.

Setting will affect how the characters interact with each other, their environment, and how they go about their quest.

In The Best Revenge, the dry heat is an ever-present force. Characters pause to let their cars cool down before climbing in. They seek air conditioning. Feel self-conscious if out in the heat too long. And always is the longing for the arrival of the monsoon rains. Everyone seems to spend some of their down time searching the western mountains for a sign of storm clouds.

So now that we’ve looked at some reasons why we should expend some serious energy on creating the setting, let’s take a look at how to do that.

Less is more

As in most things fiction related, a quick, evocative sketch is much more effective than a lengthy portrait. Most readers don’t have the patience anymore for long descriptive settings. They get bored. When they get bored, they tend to go away. Not what we want.

Long, descriptive passages also bring the pace of the story to a grinding halt. While you’re waxing poetically about the beauties of that mountain stream, absolutely nothing is happening. Your hero is merely standing where you left her, waiting for you to finish.

So is your reader.

Details are everything

In The Best Revenge, Stephen White has one character tell a second to take one route instead of a second because she’ll “miss the commuters.” That’s a detail that speaks of local knowledge. Looking at a map, or a Wikipedia article won’t tell you the back routes the locals use to avoid traffic log jams. It’s a detail that evokes much more than the words express.

Use as many senses as possible

We, as a species, are visually oriented, but that isn’t the only sense we use to experience our surrounding. Don’t forget to include what your character hears, whether it’s the sound of traffic on a nearby freeway or the roar of planes coming into the airport. What about smell? Can your character smell the rotten egg stench of the paper mill? The pines of the nearby forest? What does your character feel? Is it humid? Can she taste salt in the air? What about some of the more ephemeral senses? Does the character feel isolated and alone out on the family ranch? Crowded and claustrophobic amid the city crowds? Frustrated with traffic?

The setting description must be integral to the story

Don’t make a character walk over to a window just so you can describe the mountain vista. If she walks over to the window, it should be for some other reason, such as looking for someone watching her. The description of the mountains should be—should seem anyway—incidental. Remember, locals don’t really revel in the scenery they see every day. It’s just there most of the time. It’s the tourists, those who are seeing it for the first time, who revel in it.

It’s best to know what you’re talking about

Unless you’re a better writer than I am, you cannot fake a good setting. Sure, you can identify the primary landmarks from reading articles and checking maps. You could even find out some local color by interviewing people who have lived there. But, in my opinion, you cannot do justice to a location without actually visiting the place at least once. All the research in the world cannot tell you what it feels like first thing on a spring morning. It can’t tell you what landmarks your lead character could see from his bed room window.

An example, I used to live in Oak Harbor, on Whidbey Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. Now the travel guides will tell you that you can see two volcanic mountains—Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier—and the Olympic Range from Oak Harbor. Mt. Baker is roughly to the northeast, Mt. Rainier to the southeast, and the Olympics to the west. All this is true, but inaccurate.

The truth—and only actually being there would reveal it—is that Mt. Baker was visible probably ninety percent of the time. Mt. Rainier was farther away and could only be seen on the clearest days, probably less than ten percent of the time. The Olympics were fairly close, but since they were to the west and Oak Harbor lay on the east side of Whidbey Island, could only be seen from high ground.

If you had faked the view your character sees from Oak Harbor and got this part wrong, it would ring untrue to everyone who had ever been there.

It’s better to actually know what you’re talking about.

Test it

Take your story (or a portion of it) and change the location. If your original setting is in Manhattan, change the place names to some small town in Kansas (or Yorkshire). If it works just as well in either place without a major rewrite, I’d maintain you need to go back and firmly anchor it in place. Changing location should change the story. The story you write needs to be the story that can ONLY take place where it does. Otherwise it will come across as superficial.

Go back and adjust your setting.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Describing a New World: Exposition in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

I was chatting the other morning (real chatting, in person, no technology involved) with a fellow writer and friend when an interesting fiction problem came up. How so we, as writers, give the reader the information they need without sounding preachy or like a textbook?

In other words, how do we do exposition without destroying our narrative?

Gary’s choice of genres (sci-fi and fantasy) offers what is perhaps a unique situation for exposition. He is still in the planning stage of his sci-fi story, which means he’s creating an entirely new, alien universe with its own political and social systems, as well as its own technology, all of which is unknown to a potential reader. All these systems must be created and tested before he even begins to write, because even the most strange and fantastic systems still need to have logical consistency. Believe me, if you forget and have something in your story that does not follow your world’s internal rules, your readers will find it.

For instance, if your fictional world involves the casting of magic spells for either good or bad, there must be rules about how this is done and consequences if these rules are broken. The same holds true for interstellar or time travel, vampire hunting, or international espionage. (Haven’t you ever wondered how James Bond ever got any work done, since he was so famous? Every intelligence agency should be plastered all over him as soon as he set foot in the country.)

However fantastic your world might be, it has to have logical rules governing how things work. There must be rules and there must be consequences if those rules are broken.

Which brings us full circle to the original question: how do we explain the rules in the strange world our story occupies without being preachy or interrupting the narrative with encyclopedia entries?

From where I’m sitting I can think of four techniques or ways of addressing this issue: expositional passages sprinkled throughout the work; limited explanatory statements woven into the narrative itself; having one character explaining or instructing another; or we can simple offer no explanation at all.

Expositional passages. Think of these as short to medium length articles inserted into your narrative at various intervals. This is an efficient way to deliver information to the reader (after all, textbooks and reference materials have used factual articles for decades); the biggest drawback is that we risk losing the reader because for the duration of the article, the narrative comes to a screeching halt.

Many readers also pick up a book because they want to be entertained, not instructed. This type of exposition will not win you fans among this group.

Nevertheless, if done well, this technique can be very effective. Herman Melville uses it in Moby Dick, alternating passages of dramatic narrative with almost encyclopedic entries about the business of a whaling vessel. Doing this, frees him to proceed with his story without having to wonder whether the reader will understand what’s going on.

Douglas Adams uses a similar technique in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He uses the entries in the fictional Guide to explain (usually in a very humorous manner) what was happening in the story.

Limited explanations woven into the story. This is probably the most common technique and is usually used for filling in backstory. It can often be used to explain environmental laws we aren’t familiar with, but are important to the story.

A good example of this can be found in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Several times in the various novels of the series, Harry Dresden (the first person narrator) makes the statement in his narration that he doesn’t have a television, computer or other household electronics because electronics have a bad habit of blowing up around a wizard. In the pace of an entire novel, it is a very short sentence, but gives the reader a concrete example of the rules governing Dresden’s world.

Because they’re short they do not interrupt the story as much as even a paragraph of exposition does. However, for the same reason, this technique cannot do justice to anything very complex.

One character explaining to another. Think mentor with rookie. Someone familiar with the situation or technology is tasked with instructing someone else who doesn’t know it and through them, the reader. Gandalf does this with Frodo in Lord of the Rings, especially in the beginning, explaining the significance of the ring and the purpose of the hobbits’ quest. We learn about it as Frodo does.

Again, the problems in this method is that the story really doesn’t move while the instructions are given. It’s like sitting in a classroom while the teacher answers another student’s question. It can be interesting, but it isn’t really exciting. Worse, if the mentor isn’t a character integral to the story, it can come off as artificial. (Wow, look, so-in-so shows up to tell Johnny how warp drive works, then disappears forever. How convenient.)

No explanation at all. This, along with the “limited explanation” option above, is the one I lean toward using the most. This one is simple. To keep with the science fiction motif today, think back to any Star Trek episode you might have watched. (I know, Star Trek is primarily television and film, but storytelling is storytelling. The media is less important than the technique.) One of the standard technologies of the franchise was the “transporter.” Yet I cannot remember a single episode explaining exactly how it worked.

There are explanations out there, but I believe those originated with the series’ fans more than the creators or writers.

The example I used when talking with Gary the other morning, was speculating an alien life form reading a story about us in the present. Suppose we decide to go down to the Mexican restaurant for lunch. We climb into our car and drive to the restaurant. We don’t spend any time explaining how an internal combustion engine works. It just does. (Or it breaks down and we have to find someone who know how to fix it.)

We also don’t explain how modern paper currency works when we pay for the meal, or the distribution system that provides the products the restaurant uses to make our food. Most of the time, people don’t pay any attention to the systems that surround them at all until they break down. Cars just work. You flip on the switch and the lights come on; turn on the television and a program is there to watch. Most of us don’t really know, or care, how the system that creates it works. It just does.

Why should we think someone in the future or an alternate universe would be any different? Joe Smith in 2234 has a portal that takes him instantly from his home to work. Does he know how it works? Maybe. But it’s just as likely that he doesn’t give it a second thought. It’s just a part of his daily life, like a car or electricity is to us.

A story about Joe Smith in 2234 should reflect that attitude, shouldn’t it?

The problem with this method is that if the world described is very alien, the reader will not know what’s going on. Nothing drives away readers quicker than having to wade through jargon to find the story.

We all have to seriously examine our work, both as we’re writing it and as we revise it, and decide what exactly our readers need to know. Do they have to know precisely how our world’s political structure works? Possibly, but possibly not. If they do need to know something, what is the most unobtrusive method we can use to give them that information?

That’s the method we should use.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

“Don’t Describe the Sunset”

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:

Narrative Summary
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.