By definition, every one of us exists in first-person present tense. Yet it's one of the most difficult tenses to write, and one in which it's very easy to make mistakes of logic. Perhaps this is because in some respects, the act of storytelling is in opposition to the act of simply being. Storytelling is invention, re-creation, the replacement of what is immediately around us with an artificial alternative. The storyteller is always a filter between us and the world, whereas true first-person present is essentially direct experience. Thus to write genuine first-person present, the author must become invisible – if you like, a filter that is entirely transparent.
"Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing."
– Stephen King, On Writing
All of us, at one time or another, have probably sat through the same English class. You know: the one where the teacher got you to write a paragraph describing an everyday object in new and unusual ways. The one where the difference between similes and metaphors was hammered out as laboriously as your homework on a Sunday afternoon.* The one where you had to come up with better synonyms for overused adverbs like 'quickly' and 'loudly'. (No-one told you that in ten years' time you would come to look upon all adverbs as a thing of evil.) At the end of the lesson, you left with a head full of purple prose and the vague feeling that you'd never be able to look at a cloud again without seeing sky-sheep grazing on an endless field of cornflowers, but you'd also absorbed one key message.
Description is Important.
What you probably didn't learn at school – or at least, I certainly didn't – was when and where to use these new-found skills in a piece of fiction. Personally, back then I was under the impression that the right thing to do was start a chapter with a nice long description to set the scene, before launching into the action. And indeed, I can remember reading plenty of books at the time that followed that kind of structure. If the description was too long then I'd skim it (being more interested in plot than beautiful words in those days), but nevertheless I thought it was the convention. Write the opening description, write the following action, then stitch the two together.
Whether that was true or not (and I think it becomes more so as you look further and further back in time), things have now changed. The move away from third-person omniscient and towards third-person limited – the tendency to stick to one character's viewpoint for the course of at least an entire scene, rather than hopping from person to person – means that this kind of description is usually no longer appropriate. The omniscient narrators of the past would describe a scene from their own perspective and with authorial asides to the reader; they had no problem intruding upon their own narrative. Today's writers, with close POV as their mantra, don't have that option. It feels artificial for a character to stand around describing the landscape for several paragraphs before getting on with whatever they're doing. Description has to be integrated into the character's other experiences and perceptions – and it has to be specific to that character.
Of course, this doesn't mean being able to write good descriptions is no longer important. In fact, it means the exact opposite. Authors can no longer indulge themselves in two pages of clever wordsmithery about exactly how dark and stormy the night was. Rather than being separated from the characters, description becomes part of them. In a close third-person or first-person novel, good description is both brief and idiosyncratic. It gives the reader a mental picture of what's being described, but it also reveals something about the character whose viewpoint it's written from. And that's actually a lot harder than the kind of description we learned at school.
These days, we can no longer treat description as being distinct from a character's thoughts, dialogue or actions. When writing close POV, all these things stem from the character herself. Anything that's described is described for a reason: because it's what was important or noticeable to that character at the time. Someone who's in a strange place will observe all kinds of details, particularly those that differ from his previous experience. Someone who's afraid for her life will focus on what might have an impact on her chances of survival. Someone who's deeply upset may very well be more caught up in himself to the exclusion of the world around him. And so on. As for comparisons, take this: there was a metallic scraping sound, like a sword being drawn from its sheath. All well and good, you may say … unless the POV is that of the archetypal farmboy who's never seen (or heard) a sword in his life. In that case, even if you know it's a sword, he'd be much more likely to compare it to a chinking bridle or a piece of machinery.
In short, to all questions of description – what makes a good description? how frequently should I add them to my writing? how do I know if my descriptions are too florid or too sparse? – there is now a single answer: it depends whose viewpoint you're writing from. Know your characters inside out, and everything else will follow.
* See what I did there?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Take a short descriptive scene that's written from one character's point of view, and try writing it from the POV of another participant in that scene. How do the descriptions vary? Do the two people notice different things, or the same thing in different ways? Are the descriptions appropriate to their personalities and previous experiences?
I'd better start with a proviso: I'm not one of those people who thinks films and books are essentially the same thing and therefore require exactly the same set of skills to write. I'm well aware that the two media have different abilities, conventions and limitations. All the same, there are useful lessons that writers can learn from the movies – and here are some of them.
1. Show, don't tell
Yes, I know it's the most basic 'rule' we as writers have. Yes, I know it can sometimes be usefully broken. But if you're struggling with the concept of showing rather than telling, it might be helpful to think about film as a medium. Because 'show, don't tell' is precisely what a film does.
How do we know a character in a film is angry? By how he looks, what he says and what he does. How do we learn what someone's personality is like? By seeing her in a series of situations and getting to know how she reacts. You'll never hear a character who's experiencing a strong emotion yell 'I'm so angry!' or sob 'I'm so unhappy!' And (most of the time) you'll never see a character turn to the camera and tell you who they are, what they like doing and what's their greatest flaw. So if you want to show rather than tell, imagine your character in a movie. If they wouldn't naturally say a particular line out loud in that context, don't write it as part of their POV.
Incidentally, writers can go one better than filmmakers here – because we can describe a character's situations and reactions using all the senses, not just hearing and sight. Get it right, and your scene can be even richer and more immersive than it would be on film.
2. Cut the backstory
A two-hour film leaves no room for lengthy setup or exposition. Most of the time, the audience is thrown into the action and expected to work it out as they go along. This is particularly relevant to sci-fi and fantasy authors, who often feel as though they need to explain everything to their readers up front. In that sense, filmmakers tend to give their audience more credit than writers do. People don't want or need all the details of how a world works before they even get into the first scene. They can figure it out for themselves.
3. What you don't say can convey more than what you do
A good actor can make one speaking glance worth a whole paragraph of dialogue. Likewise, a good writer can say in a single sentence what someone else might have taken a whole paragraph to get across. Guess which one has more impact?
In a way, this is another example of 'give your readers more credit'. People are very good at picking up the subtleties and reading the subtext. And anything has more impact when it's used sparingly than when it's scattered all over the place like confetti.
4. Don't let the special effects drive the narrative
I'm sure we can all think of films that are stuffed full of special effects but have little in the way of plot, realistic characters or emotional heart. There are plenty of ways that this comes up in writing, too. Strings of gratuitous action/sex scenes with little to hold them together, for example. Or details of a fantasy world crammed in for the sake of it rather than because they're relevant to the characters at that moment. Even clever structural devices or a love of flamboyant language can become 'special effects' if they're allowed to take precedence over the story itself. Whether you're dealing with a book or a film, it's the characters' journey that the audience will remember in the end.
5. No-one will notice the deleted scenes
We've probably all been there: agonising for hours about cutting a particular scene from a book. We know it needs to go, for reasons of length or structure or plot. But we're convinced that everyone who reads the book will get to that point and see the gaping hole where the scene used to be.
If you ever find yourself in that situation, just think of a DVD. You've watched the film itself, and now you turn to the extras and start watching the deleted scenes. Did you notice their absence while you were watching the film? Can you even remember where half of them should fit? Probably not – because what you saw was the finished product. You weren't aware that the deleted scenes ever existed, and so you didn't miss them. That's what editing is all about.
That's it from me, but I'm sure there are other lessons that writers can learn from the movies (and indeed vice versa). Please feel free to add them in the comments section!
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Take a scene from your book and imagine it's going to be filmed. Now describe the scene: what happens on camera, what the characters say, details of the setting. Make sure you restrict yourself to only what the audience will experience – in other words, any explanatory or inferential text is out.
When you've finished, read back through the scene. What's it like? Is there anything in it you can use?
OK. Who here suffers from an irrational hatred of something or someone? A hatred so blind and all-consuming that you only have to see the object of it to start foaming at the mouth? A hatred that you can’t explain in logical terms – a hatred that is the exact opposite of love at first sight?
Yeah. Me too.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today. I’m here to talk about my perfectly reasonable hatred of character descriptions in books.
I’ll be gallivanting happily through my latest fictional adventure, caught up in the political machinations of the Zo’aran people or a race across the plains on dinosaur-back, or whatever, and then I’ll come across a sentence like ‘Xyantha pushed her flowing blonde hair back from her face and folded her slender arms’.
In one line, the book has lost all its joy for me and I want to give the author a good smack around the head.
First of all, no-one thinks of themselves in terms of their physical characteristics. An easy way to tell this is to rewrite the sentence in first person. “I pushed my flowing blonde hair back from my face and folded my slender arms.” I’d get some funny looks if I tried telling that story over a few drinks, and not just because flowing blonde hair would look pretty weird on me. As a general rule, the only time anyone ever notices their own appearance is when they look in a mirror. (But please, please don’t let your character look in a mirror. Not unless it’s important to the plot. And maybe not even then.)
Second, it strikes me as both lazy and self-indulgent on the part of the writer. Self-indulgent because there’s no denying that all writers fall in love with our characters. We know exactly what they look like, and we desperately want to share that with our readers so they can appreciate how dashing/beautiful/badass our darlings are. But let’s face it, author comrades: readers don’t give a damn. They’re far more interested in what the characters do. (When was the last time you decided you really liked a character because of his eye colour?) Which brings me to lazy: there are so many better ways of letting your reader know what your characters look like, without boring them with a shopping list of attributes. And the most obvious of these is only to describe a physical characteristic when another character has reason to notice it. That way, it’s a reaction – a character-revealing response – and not just a fact.
The exception, of course, is if the characteristic is a key part of the story – Xyantha wondering why she’s blonde when every other member of her family is dark. But in that case, the description of her blondeness wouldn’t be an intrusion by an author who wants us to know how awesome-looking Xyantha is; it would be a way to show important aspects of her character, her emotions and reactions. And that’s OK with me.
Of course, inevitably, in that particular case it would also turn out that Xyantha is not her parents’ child, but a half-elven orphan who is the heir to an ancient magical bloodline and destined to save the world. But that’s the subject of another rant entirely.