I went visiting today over to the Word Whisperer and dropped off a nice blurb on character description. Do you believe your readers need to know everything about a character including their shoe size? Unless it is pertinent to the story, who cares? Take a walk over to Shakirah’s site and learn how to fit the description into the context of your story. Then pop back over here and read about how to set the scene.
No matter what kind of story you’re writing, you need to set the scene. Have you ever read a book and felt like you were really there alongside the characters? That author set the scene so it became real to you. This is what you want to do, no matter if you are writing a fantasy, a horror novel or a romance.
Add a dose of reality. Sure, your fantasy world may have purple flying unicorns, but even the unicorn has to eat. Creating places in your story that your readers can identify with and then tweaking them to become fantastic, horrific or romantic will go a long way to making your world come alive. Describe the field, garden or house where the action is taking place and use words to make it out of the ordinary.
Take a look at the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone outside of the U. S.), Harry and Ron take on the twelve foot tall mountain troll inside a girls’ bathroom. We can all picture that easily; the row of stalls, the line of ceramic sinks and the metal pipes going into the wall. This scene uses a very common, utilitarian setting for a very unusual situation. How many mountain trolls have you met in the girls’ bathroom? Yet, it seems very believable to the reader.
J. K. Rowling didn’t spend several paragraphs describing the bathroom in minute detail, either. Small details appear throughout the action, like “The troll was advancing on her, knocking the sinks off the wall as it went.” That’s really all we need to know to picture the usual row of sinks in a public bathroom. The detail becomes a part of the action as the troll knocks the sinks off the wall.
Of course, there are times when it pays to spend time with a full description, but this is only appropriate when you are showing your readers the scene unfolding before your character’s eyes. In a later chapter, Harry, Hermione and Ron are trying to solve the puzzles to get to the stone. When they get to one of the puzzles, J. K. Rowling describes the scene that meets their eyes:
They reached the end of the passageway and saw before them a brilliantly lit chamber, its ceiling arching high above them. It was full of small, jewel-bright birds, fluttering and tumbling all around the room. On the opposite side of the chamber was a heavy wooden door.
In three sentences, the reader gets a vivid picture painted for them. Nice, tight writing gives the information required and no more. Don’t be afraid to jot down everything in your first draft; tighten it during your rewrites. Set the scene, but don’t let it control the scene.
This is my first guest post by my terrific Twitter buddy, Taqiyyah Shakirah Dawud. Enjoy her words of wisdom and take them to heart. Be sure and check out her site: Word Whisperer
8 Tired Words & How to Retire Them
by Taqiyyah Shakirah Dawud
Here’s a list of words we use a lot without thinking. And that’s the problem. Given a little thought and respect for the usage of these words, our writing (and speech) can gain vocabulary, clarity, and an expressiveness uniquely our own.
Great is a lofty little word that has lost so much of its significance. Something great used to be treated with honor. Now it’s a trite thank-you add-on at best, and the grown-up version of “cool” at worst. Try mixing up positive exclamations to include “wonderful,” “incredible,” “thought-provoking,” and more as appropriate.
Very is an empty filler word, like the air-pouches used in shipping. Comparing a big dog to a very big dog doesn’t convey the same sense of scale as a tiny bug to a microscopic parasite. But we can’t get enough of it, so go ahead and write it in. Just be sure to remove or replace it before publishing. Plenty of unemployed adjectives do a leaner job.
Cool is a cheap, thoughtless word that says nothing about the attached noun. “Cool book!” could refer to amazing literary attributes and creative genius or stand in place of “I read it, already, get off my back!” It’s a positive word, but that’s all it’s got going for it. Dig deeper for an adjective that will convey a truer impression of the noun.
Really is a filler word, too. Actually, it often fills in for another filler word: very. A “really big deal” had better be, but I’d have to see it to believe it, and I’d rather stay home. Better to use language that’ll make me stand up and take notice, something like “It was a historic deal.”
Issue is a word that describes things we don’t want to go into too many details about… at the moment, anyway. The plumbing issue. The war issue. My personal issues. Don’t be afraid. Call it what it is: the backed-up toilet, the international disaster, the cranky editor. No hard feelings.
May and might are wishy-washy. We as readers of the modern age are increasingly intolerant of wishy-washy language. It keeps humble opinions humble and your preliminary conclusions backstage. Maybe they needn’t have been mentioned at all.
Pretty is an adjective that means pleasant-looking, usually in the feminine sense. It’s also borderline wishy-washy and often sarcastic. Try using “rather” instead when about to say someone is “pretty” harsh.
Like is a word we all love to hate, but we can’t seem to keep it in the correct place in our lexicons. But remember, it does have a full-time job as a verb and doesn’t have time to fill in when we can’t, like, find the right words—not even say, “um” or “uh.”
A senior customer I used to attend years ago would come, pick up his items, and then say, “Have a sparkling day.” I always felt sparkly after that exchange, and appreciated his replacing the “good” or “great” day for something that made me feel so special. And that thoughtful expression made him special, too.
This one is a personal pet peeve of mine. I see people use alright all the time. Technically, it is not a word. It is a misspelling of all right. Every time I see it I want to scratch it out and write it correctly.
For language geeks like me, it is with great trepidation that I learned that alright is mildly acceptable in British English along the fringes. Eeek. Thank you to Grammar Girl for enlightening me on this one. According to her site, the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says it is unacceptable in one place, yet in another states that it means satisfactory. Huh? Looks like we’re in for a gradual change here in America, too… though I don’t have to like it.