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Grounding Fantasy

Recently I was asked – by a long-time fan of one of my fanfics, which I am re-writing to be published as original fiction, as it was 97% original everything to begin with – how I manage to make the magic in my fantasy so realistic, subtle, and grounded. This had two results.

The first was that I had a moment of panic because the story they had been referring to is gaining some more …obvious and explosive magic in the re-write.

The second was the realisation that I didn’t actually know how I did it. So, I thought about it for a while and I realised the answer was goldfish. (No, I have not gone mad.)

You see, when I watch or read other works, I cannot turn off that part of be that acts like a belligerent toddler or a particularly sarcastic goldfish. Although I suppose I should specify that I mean a pop-cultural hypothetical goldfish, rather than a real one, as science has disproved the ‘fact’ that they only have three second memories. But I digress. Imagine that this stereotypical toddler is forever asking “Why?” and the stereotypical but snarky goldfish is always asking “How?” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what goes through my head when I’m observing other fictions.

For example, back when the Lord of the Rings came out in film, I was watching the scenes in Moria and idly noticed that the characters must have superb balance to avoid falling off because there were no handrails in sight. That set the Sarky Goldfish off. Why are there no handrails? What kind of idiots make giants cities over ravines without handrails? Were they made of wood and simply disintegrated? NO dwarves wouldnt have used wood and if they were stone some of them should have remained. Do dwarves just have perfect balance? No elves are stated to have better balance and THE ELVEN CITIES HAVE FREAKING HANDRAILS. Besides, even if adult dwarves had epic balance skills and never, ever fell, dwarven children (you know, the ones who are always portrayed as rare and precious because ever since Tolkien did it dwarves do not reproduce quickly has been part of the Standard Fantasy Setting) would, because all children, in all species, are reckless idiots. Could it be a point of honour? Honour VS Practicality, City Planning Edition, Round One: TOTAL KNOCKOUT, PRACTICALITY WINS.

And on and on it goes. For every “it is this way” that does not match reality, the Sarky Goldfish in my head wants to know How and Why and won’t rest until it has a solid answer. For every “that can’t happen/be done” the Belligerent Toddler wants to know Why Not and will find a way if a suitably reasonable answer is not produced …or even if it is, because if it took too long the Belligerent Toddler will want to prove the answer-giver wrong. “It’s traditional”, by the way, is not a solid or reasonable answer. Nor are “Because” and “Just don’t think about it”. “Why Not”, on the other hand, is – so long as the question was “Why” and not “Why Not” or “How”.

So, you could say – if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like goldfish – that the answer is really just to think about it. Now, I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads and saying “But it’s fiction! It doesn’t have to be realistic! I shouldn’t have to think about it!” and I have one thing to say to that:

When you played with your blocks as a child you had to think about where to put them or they’d all come tumbling down on your head.  When you paint a picture you need to think about what you’re doing or you end up with a mess of squiggles and badly mixed brown. When you create new music – even if it’s jazz and improvised – you need to think about what you are doing so that you don’t make noises only deaf cicadas would love. And when you write fiction you have to think about the way the world you are creating works or it falls apart on you – but whereas child!You got a bruise when their blocks fell and some adult came to kiss it better, no one is going to tell you it’s okay and not your fault if your fiction falls apart because you didn’t construct it properly. Why? Because if you’re old enough to put it out in public, you’re old enough to take the heat for it.

Writing is hard, guys. Writing is WORK.

 

But I digress.

The reason fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin and Glen Cook (if you don’t know who that is LOOK HIM UP) can produce such high-quality writing, writing which is praised for being top-notch fantasy, is that the ground their fantasy in realism.

“Great,” you may say, “but not all of us have a goldfish living in their heads. What do we do?”.

Well, there are two things that work to ground fantasy – and all fiction, to be honest – in realism. The first is to treat the world you are writing as if it was real. But it’s just fiction? Not to the characters who live in it, I assure you. Not to the readers who want to be immersed in it, I assure you. It’s just fiction is an excuse that those who are too lazy, or too entitled, to put in effort hide behind when their half-assed attempts are not immediately hailed as the greatest thing ever. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort: you shouldn’t be writing. There’s enough crap on the market without you joining in.

The world you are creating may technically be just fiction, but good writing – and good authors – transcend that. Writers are often referred to as the God of their stories’ universe. What kind of evil, stupid god would you be if you created a real world but treated it like it wasn’t real enough to matter? Treat your fictional world as if it was a real one. Imagine you really are a god and you are creating the world. That means that, beyond the scope of the Adventure or Romance or whatever the story you are writing is, your world needs to make sense. It shows when worlds are invented to suit the whims of the plot and add tension. It shows in a bad way. People notice when you, say, don’t add handrails to a place where handrails ought to be in order to add Tension. So, what do you have to do? You have to think about the mechanics.

That’s the first thing. The second thing, which you have to do at the same time as the first thing, is to apply Logic.

I know. I know. It’s a scary Maths thing and it doesn’t seem fair to drag it into the world of Arts where you ran to get away from it, but it does need to be here.

In order to build you own Sarky Head-Goldfish and start grounding your fantasy in realism, you’ll want to apply three specific types of logic: Induction, Deduction, and Abduction (no! Not that kind! Don’t run off with that!). If it makes you feel better about adding something as icky as logic to your creative endeavours, put on a deerstalker cap and try not to think about the fact that, no matter what the original illustrations implied, Sherlock Holmes did not wear one of those.

Got your cap on? Great, let’s go.

Deduction is the logic system in which you reason out the definite specific from the definite general – i.e. Dwarves never build handrails. Moria was built by dwarves. Therefore, Moria does not have any handrails. Deductive reasoning – when used correctly, which Holmes did not because he said deductive when he meant a different sort of logic – always comes to a logically valid conclusion. Use this type of logic to determine what parts of your world must be like (conclusions), based on your previous statements of fact (premises). If they don’t line up, you’ll need to change either the facts (“dwarves never build handrails”) or the result (remove the dwarvish handrails from wherever you had included them).

Induction is the logic system in which you reason out a hypothetical general from the definite specifics. The conclusion reached by properly applied induction is a probable, but not a fact and not a mere possible. The evidence given by the specifics supports the likelihood of the conclusion being correct – i.e. Handrails keep people from falling off high things. Dwarves think the risk of falling off high things is a matter of honour. Therefore, dwarven cities probably don’t include handrails in dangerous places. Again, if these things do not stack up when you look at your work, you need to change something. Or, given that induction is about probability, to show in detail what element logically accounts for the gap left by whatever components failed to pass this reasoning test.

Abduction is the logic system in which your reason out a hypothetical specific from the definite general. It’s basically deduction, but questionable. It is also known as “inference to the best explanation” and is the form of logic we are all most familiar with. Why? Because if it looks like a duck, and it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This, incidentally, is the kind of logic that Sherlock Holmes used – as the conclusions he reached were highly probable but not definite. The sheer complexity of human behaviour meant that Holmes was always speaking as certain (a lady of obviously middling means with callouses on her hands from typing is a professional typist) what was merely probable (she could also be a writer or a journalist, you know). This might not seem like a useful form of logic to apply to your fiction, but it’s actually one of the most important, because it allows you to play out the hypotheticals as you try to explain matters to a realistic conclusion – i.e. Dwarves do not build handrails. Dwarves are facing extinction because their children are few and often fail to survive. Therefore, dwarves are probably going extinct because their children keep falling to their deaths.

Then you apply the realism test to your conclusion. In this case: Would an intelligent species – which dwarves have to be if they’re building cities – really wait until they’re nearly extinct to add handrails? Probably not. All it would take would be one human child falling and, honour be damned, a human city council would be under immense pressure to add safety features. If dwarves are building cities they are probably sufficiently similar in psychology to assume that a similar reaction would occur (see that? That’s abduction again).

At this stage you’d do one of three things. Firstly, you could add handrails to nullify the Plot’s Hole’s cousin: Setting Hole (the adventures just happened to pass through the one place where the handrails have been destroyed and note that in text). Secondly you could make it a point that the dwarves cannot add handrails (or do but they keep being mysteriously destroyed) and are trying to keep their children safely away but they tragically keep slipping away and, er, slipping away anyway – in which case you’ve suddenly developed a new and interesting plot which you can write a story around. Lastly, you can nullify the premise which you find most problematic (for example: dwarves are actually facing an overpopulation crisis and breed like rabbits, so the lack of handrails is a deliberate population curbing method).

 

 

And after all of this you are probably wondering “But what about MAGIC? You said you were going to talk about MAGIC!”.

I did, and I did. Whatever rules you give your system of magic – if it even has a system the characters can understand, given that magic is a liminal force that exists in fiction to make us question what we are incapable of understanding and how to cope with the unknowable – you need to treat magic as if it is just as real in your world as practical things like handrails.

Ultimately, the way to ground magic – the way to make it seem like it actually exists – is to treat it like it actually exists.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Descriptive Specificity

I’m pretty sure I didn’t properly cover this last time. Also, I’m going to be taking a hiatus – yes, even though I was late getting this out – until the start of October, for medical reasons. Sorry?

 

One of the biggest problems I see in a lot of writing is the meaninglessness of the descriptions given. Now, there are plenty of common descriptions which are evocative – or at least meaningful – and conjure an image on their own; everyone, for instance, will be able to picture roughly the same thing when the prose tells them that “Lord Doomdoom laughed maniacally and pulled the lever”. But what about “Princess Prettypink smiled. She had a charming smile”? Different people find different things charming. Saying that a smile is charming, but nothing else, doesn’t actually tell the reader anything (except that the author wants them to root for this character). A wide grin, with all teeth showing, can be charming – but so can a bashful little lift of a corner of the mouth, while biting the bottom lip. Which did Prettypink do? Or perhaps her smile was neither of those. There’s no way to tell, and no way to clearly conjure an image.

Meaningless, vague and cliché, descriptions do not describe the people, places, and things in a specific story. They – at best – conjure up a generic and hazy form. The charming smile on Princess Prettypink is not Prettypink’s smile. It is the same, generic smile that every badly written heroine wears at some point or another. There is nothing of her in it and, thus, nothing of it connects to her.

When you’re telling the readers about the people in your story (i.e. prose) you want them to imagine the people in your story. Not generic people. Now, obviously, I’m not saying you should never use descriptions like these – if every action was described in depth then every short story would be longer than A Song of Ice and Fire (and if you described a thing the same, unique, way every time the thing is mentioned; the reader will eventually tear their own hair out in frustration). The point is that it’s not good to only use generic descriptions. Real people all do similar things very differently. Ask yourself, for example, how your character smiles, not what is considered to be a charming smile.

Specificity, when correctly used, tells the readers far more about who a character is – and grounds the character in a realistic-feeling world – far more than generic or vague descriptions do. For example, there is technically nothing wrong with “Martha put a hand beneath her chin”, but it also doesn’t really describe anything. Palm down will indicate a different mood than palm up, and different again from the thinker-esque position of the chin on the fist and the palm inward – and that’s not even getting into the different ways finger position can be indicative.

If “Martha put her hand beneath her chin, which tilted her head sideways slightly as she listened,” it tells the reader that she’s got her hand slightly to the side – which is a more comfortable position, and the image it evokes (the tilted head and hand beneath the chin) is one of someone getting comfortable to listen to something they’re only half interested in.

But, if “Martha put her hand beneath her chin and tapped her fingernails against her lower lip”, the readers know that she’s thinking about something – perhaps dramatically to make a point – and that she has no intention of remaining in that position for long, because it’s uncomfortable.

Either way; the reader gets a far clearer picture of Martha than the generic description gives. Here’s another example – which version tells you more about the character?

Peony Prettypink lay in the grass, her long auburn hair around her like a fall of autumn leaves; sometimes brushing against her cheek, and her chest rose and fell gently as she slept.

Peony Prettypink lay haphazardly in the grass. Sunlight glinted off her nibbled toenails whenever she flexed her feet – as though she was walking in her dreams. Her nose twitched when the wind dragged strands of her tangled auburn hair across her face.

The first might be the prettier picture, but it’s a description which could apply to any redhead asleep in some grass. It’s not Prettypink specifically who is sleeping there. The second one is clearly a distinct person.

But it goes beyond just how you describe something. Choosing meaningful descriptions can also be about movements themselves. Why, for instance, automatically have someone settling in to listen put their chin in their hand? Why not say “Martha dropped an elbow to the table and made a loose fist behind her ear as she listened”? Then it becomes Martha, not a vague generic, who is sitting there listening. It grounds the character in the reality of their specific behaviour.

There is so much variety in even the tiniest of human behaviours. It’s a shame that so many authors prefer to stick with generic descriptions that they don’t have to think about to come up with.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Dense Descriptions and Descriptive Density

I’m really overworked right now (and it’s not as people are desperately waiting for me to publish these) so I’m switching to putting up new posts fortnightly.

 

We all know the phrase purple prose. (If you aren’t included in “all” it means prose descriptions so convoluted and ornate that they intrude upon the story, render comprehension difficult, and often actually mean nothing or involve malapropisms and contradictory descriptions. In other words: it’s too complicated and fluffy for utility of writing.) Many of us have heard the phrase beige prose. (It’s overly simple prose. In other words: it’s too barren and brief for utility of writing.)  While both of those extremes of descriptive quantity are undesirable in writing, quality writing can be filled with or sparse with descriptions without being either of those unwelcome colours. It’s all about density.

No, not as in: being stupid. Nor as in: being difficult to follow due to being closely packed with ideas or complexities of style. Well, a little like the latter. But mostly as in: mass per unit volume.  Mass here meaning, well; meaning, and unit volume being: per word.

This is because, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, not all descriptive text is created equal. It’s possible to write pages and pages of description which are utterly worthless because they, ultimately, signify nothing, and it’s possible to write one word of description which is so evocative that it gives the readers one hell of a punch in the gut.

For example, which of these descriptions works the best?

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said. She was guilty. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she bewailed dejectedly. There were no words for the crushing anguish of guilt which filled her heart like frozen water sinking a broken ship. (Description word count: 24)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. She blinked rapidly, holding back tears, but held her head high – as if that would prevent drowning in grief. (Description word count: 24)

Okay, so none of them are particularly brilliant, given that I came up with them in under a minute, but they illustrate the point.

Option one is Beige Prose; there is no indication of the feelings until they are bluntly, and emotionlessly, stated.

Option two is Purple Prose; not only does trying to invoke the Titanic and its friends detract from the emotional resonance of the scene, the sentence also mixes its metaphors (something that fills as it crushes), and – worst of all – it tells the readers absolutely nothing about how that particular character feels and acts.

Option three isn’t the greatest sentence in the world, but it avoids both the others’ pitfalls, showing rather than telling and, although it has the same amount of words as option one, the description of action and the inference of pain from it tells the reader more.

Option four, meanwhile, has the same amount of words as option two, but they don’t just sit there looking pretty – each word tells the reader something. The emotional situation option two takes a confused metaphor or two and more than twenty words to explain, option four gives in eight (and adds to it characterisation – she’s drowning in guilt but trying not to and holding her emotions in) which leaves plenty of other words for more information and descriptions.

Both options three and four are reasonable types of description, depending on whether you prefer to write minimalist (the least amount of description necessary to get the story across) or with immersive and lavish description (the most amount of description to paint the world and characters without clouding the story). This is because three and four give the reader more information and emotion per word than options one and two. It is also because, all importantly, options one and two – by their under and over stated natures – don’t actually make sense.

And this is what I’m getting at: it’s not enough to have descriptions – large or small – in a work. You also have to understand why they’re there, what they do, and which ones actually function properly.

 

1) Description has to Orient the Reader: Despite what many people think, description is not an optional garnish for the story. Description serves a very vital purpose. This is because it is impossible to show the setting or characterise the characters without describing them. Without sufficient description – without description serving its most basic purpose – you get meaningless, feeling-less, blather by talking heads in white space. The reason that beige prose is bad prose is that it is insufficiently descriptive prose. Minimalist descriptive prose, on the other hand, still has enough description to orient the readers in both the space and the people. Despite the term “Scrip fic” in fanfiction, even real scripts require description of character and setting. Not as much as prose, admittedly, but still a sufficient amount to allow the set and actors to be made and perform appropriately and orient the audience. If a writer fails to put enough description into a scene, the readers will be quite justified in wondering why these toneless, un-embodied, people are floating around in the middle of nowhere. Tacking a quick description onto the end of the scene won’t help, either, because it either is too late to convince the reader that the character’s aren’t in blank space, or – if the reader has done the writer’s job for them and invented characters and a setting for the conversation – it will destroy the mental image and understanding which the reader has built up. Similarly, shoving a quick description at the start will only serve to make the readers wonder where the setting and feelings went. Without sufficient description to orient the reader, they are left dizzy, confused, and failed by the author who did not take the time to ground them in this new reality.

2) Description has to Suit the Setting: Have you ever had the misfortune of enjoying a typically Medieval-esque fantasy only to have your suspension of disbelief brutally slaughtered when something very loud or very fast was compared to a sonic boom? What about a story focused around aliens which describes the villain as inhumane? Or a story set in Victorian London where the prose (which should match the point of view character) described an airship as “cool” or a love interest’s “cute butt”? If you’ve ever encountered anything like that, you probably already get what I’m going on about here. The ONLY excuse for description to be mismatched with the setting is if the point of view character (or omniscient third-person narrator) is explicitly and deliberately being juxtaposed with a setting to which they themselves do not belong. (A book about a time traveller written in tight-third person or first person smartarse might well use descriptions that reference things which have not yet been invented, while an omniscient third person narrator has the pleasure of being able to tell you exactly how many nostril hairs a dog on the other side of the universe, ten million years after the story, has – if they should choose to wander away from the main narrative like that with regularity – or to discuss why a character’s opinion of something being described is inaccurate. Stories which are told from any other point of view than those do not have this pleasure.) Now, this does not mean that every single word has to be from the time and place in which the story is set – else every Medieval-esque fantasy would be written in Middle English – but the author does have to choose their words with care, and avoid those blatantly inappropriate for the setting but normal for the author’s life, so that they do not disturb the setting.

3) Description has to Suit the Character: The funny thing about prose is that, while it is not as directly form a character as their speech, it is still inevitably the story as told by someone. That’s what point of view is, and there is no way to write fiction without a point of view. It could be the protagonist, or a revolving set of characters, or an omniscient being standing firmly outside of the story (i.e. the author’s voice), but it’s still someone’s take on events. This means that the descriptions should be in tune with the character whose point of view the story is written in. An omniscient narrator, who describes every character’s appearance in a sort of oddball way, focuses on the less common features rather than the obvious, and always starts with each character’s worst features should not begin describing a love interest with a loving and traditional run down of their hair, eyes, and skin. A tight-third person story following a taciturn, plainspoken character who is focused on getting to the cells to rescue their comrade should not veer off to gush over the beauteous architecture and how the castle’s high towers touch the sky like little silver needles attempting to pin blue silk. You might think that’s the best description in the world, but if the character whose point of view the story, even in the third person, is told through wouldn’t even be looking at the sky – let alone considering it in poetic burbling – the prose shouldn’t be describing it. If you absolutely need to include a mention of the tall towers for plot and foreshadowing reasons: make it match the character (he might notice the pattern of shadows the towers cause and think about if that will help or hinder the upcoming escape, for instance).

Likewise, an extremely visual or poetic character – such as a painter or, you know, a poet – would be inclined to more lavish physical descriptions, so blunt and minimalist descriptions would not be appropriate. For instance: a painter or tailor confronted with a “green dress” probably would automatically categorise it by the appropriate shade of green, and possibly the fabric, “dress of jade silk” – but if the generic is always used, it starts to feel like the “expert” doesn’t know jack shit about their profession and trade. And that is also important: a character’s profession – and mood – will decide what they will notice (and thus what the prose will describe) as much as their personality will. Thieves will notice escape routes and the expense (and fence-ability) of items before they notice how beautiful something is. Visual artists will give more vivid descriptions of appearances, but chefs and perfumers will take note of how things taste and smell first. A detective will be more inclined to catalogue things factually, while a writer will be more inclined to describe things with indefinite language (it might be this, it could be used for that, why does that person have that, etc).

4) Description has to Suit the Plot: The balance between keeping prose true to the person (that is point of view) from which it is told and keeping your audience from strangling you for seemingly pulling details from nowhere, or constantly dragging their attention away from what is important to focus on décor, is a difficult one. Generally speaking, you need to introduce all the details – that is, describe the things – that are vital to the plot before they become vital to the plot. Or, to reverse Chekhov’s famous point, if you want to take a gun off the wall and shoot it in act three, you had damn well better mention that it’s there in act one. Likewise, if you want to take a gun off the wall and fire it in act three, you have to make sure – back in act one – that the wall is not so cluttered as to render the gun un-findable. To put that in plain English: any detail relevant to the plot must be described sufficiently for its relevance(minimum: a passing note that it exists, so that it does not seem to have been pulled out of the writer’s arse thin air when needed).

In beige prose the problem is that a thing will not be mentioned at all until it is suddenly needed – whether this is a gun on the wall, the fact that the characters are human, or even the location something is taking place in. This is how some, badly written, pieces have characters suddenly and dramatically falling down the stairs and dying, when so far the prose has given no indication that they are embodied and in a building, let alone near sufficiently fatal stairs!

In purple prose, meanwhile, the problem is that the author misbalances the amount of attention each thing described is given – thereby still managing to make the readers feel that they have pulled plot convenient things from their rectums. In these cases the author will give long and complex descriptions about just about everything – except those things which actually matter (location, things that are going to affect the plot, etc). This is how some stories (which will remain nameless) end up with a vague mention that the character is walking down the street, then give paragraph upon paragraph on what they are wearing, only to suddenly have the character nearly run over by a carriage – leaving the readers to wonder why the hell it was not earlier mentioned that there was a carriage racing down the street or, at the very least, that the setting was pre-automotive! (For the record, if a carriage were racing down the street so wildly that someone could be hit, the character should at least notice the sound of hooves and the yelling of people trying to get out of the way that would accompany it.) Likewise, if a character – especially if it is the introduction to them – is described performing some action that is not usually performed while armed (renovating a house, for example) and then when other characters sneak up on them, they suddenly pull out a pair of guns from nowhere; the prose damn well should have mentioned that they were armed before that point.

5) Description has to Suit the Pace: The wonderful thing about prose is that it does not – for all that the overarching feel of a piece should be consistent – have to stay at the same level of description the whole way through. The downside of this is that you have to match the amount of description to how fast the story should be moving at any given point …and many, many authors fall into the trap of assuming that the more important and climactic a scene, the more description it requires. This is how some epic, “fast paced” battles wind up with a paragraph’s description of the light shining off the swords, or the fighters’ clothes and faces, or the picturesque surroundings between every slash and parry. Descriptive prose is not a video camera, dear authors; what the camera tells us in a millisecond takes a page in the prose. Slow and steady, or interaction focused, scenes can bear the load of large descriptions because they have the time and breadth to do so. Fast, or action focused, scenes cannot because they are thin, wiry things and the weight will crush and halt them. This, for the record, is why it’s so damned important to describe what exists before you get to those fast scenes. If the prose describes the winding alleyways, slippery rooftops, and secret escape routes while the thief is on their way to steal the crown jewels, it saves the readers from being rightly pissed off when – later – the thief is apparently chased through white space which morphs into convenient escape routes as needed.

6) Description has to have the Correct Meaning: Vermillion is a kind of red. It is not green. Although livid can mean reddish, when someone is livid with strong emotion it means that they look strangled by it (discoloured and blanched – that is, pale – with a bluish tinge). Tenebrous is dark, gloomy, or obscure – it has nothing to do with being tentative. Greaves means lower leg armour. If your character is wearing their greaves on their arms, they should be both uncomfortable and looking for a new squire. I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this than: don’t just assume you know what a word means. Check and make sure that your description does not describe something different than what you thought you were describing. Very few words have exact synonyms. More often they mean something very similar, but not precisely the same – be that slightly different shades of colour, or intertwined but distinct feelings, or other gradients. Don’t just look up synonyms in the thesaurus: check the dictionary to see if the words the thesaurus gave you actually describe what you want to describe.

7) Description has to have the Correct Implications: Serviette and napkin both mean napkin. However, in Victorian London (and even, to a far lesser degree, today) which you chose to use would reveal whether you were upper (napkin) or middle (serviette) class. (Long story short: the new middle class tended to use fancier words to sound more posh, while the upper class – secure in their pedigrees – used plain English.) Now, that sort of distinction is going to be more important in dialogue than in prose, but it is important in matching the prose to the point of view the story is narrated from. This fun game, however, is not limited to class-distinctions. Two words with the same meaning can have different implications. Laid off and fired both mean fired, but the general understanding is that laid off wasn’t personal and fired was, not because they have an official difference in meaning, but because people generally use them that way. Fired is evocative of swiftness, anger, and the personal touch. Laid off brings up feelings of mass action, inevitability, and depression. And this, this, is why you can’t just decide to be a writer one day – why not everyone can be one – and why it is actually very difficult. Writing is about knowing the value – the implications, the mass density – of every single word, and knowing how to evoke the deepest and most accurate feeling from them. Implication is to writing as the affects of atomic weight is to science: it is not enough to know what the mean or weigh; you have to know exactly what they can and will do.

8) Description has to be Understandable: Despite what the writers of beige prose think, minimalism does not mean the smallest number of words. It means the smallest number of words necessary to clearly convey the meaning and story. Likewise, writers of purple prose tend to assume that vivid writing is cramming in as much description as possible and highlighting the descriptions, when it is – in fact –using more description in order to give more clarity, realism, and oomph to the story.

 

Don’t be described as dense, know the critical density of your descriptions.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Less is More

The advice, especially to writers, is so common that it has been reduced to a meaningless cliché. Nevertheless it is, in certain cases, good advice – the key is to know when having less is more for your story and when having more is less (work) for your story. This time we’re going to focus on the first of those (I’ll explain the second another time).

 

1. When you use the right word, not its second cousin. The funny thing about writings is that, oddly enough, you have to love words as well as stories. All words carry connotations with them – subtle things that are used and noticed subconsciously by most people, but which can totally alter the way something is viewed. It also has a huge effect on how smooth or clunky a work is, as a writer who chooses wisely can drastically reduce the amount of words they need to say something – which in turn allows them to include far more information (depth, characterisation, plot, setting, etc) in a work of the same size. Writing is about making every word count. It might seem like a good idea to describe the universe as being a light, creamy, white-brown, but it is much easier for readers to know what you mean (and for your word count) to just to admit you’re not describing a particularly exciting colour and just use beige. If you’re willing to expand your vocabulary a little – and trust that your readers are not gibbering idiots who cannot understand if they ever have to look up a word or two, provided that its place in the text makes its approximate meaning clear – you will find that just about everything does have a word to describe it in English (and other languages). Why waste time and reader patience with a cliché like brightly coloured flowers when you can say zinnias? The key here is that using the right word rather than a less accurate word (why say someone is very irritated when they are actually wroth?) and specificity together allow an author to use very few words to create a deep and complex image for the reader, rather than something which is generic.

2. When you have people plotting. Real manipulators know better than to use many-stepped plots. (Also, caveat, not all manipulation is negative – we just tend to use other words for it or avoid admitting to what’s involved when we talk about keeping people away from surprise birthday parties, talking down the suicidal, etc.) If you’ve ever heard the quote “no plan survives contact with the enemy” you’ll know precisely why plots should be kept as simple as possible. Yes, readers might be able to follow something as complex as “To gain the throne [motive] I will: [plot] convince my lover to murder her husband so that we can be together [1] and to send a warning to her sister to make them suspicious of [other people] so that my lover’s family and [other party] will go to war [2], so that I can gain the rank needed to marry my lover [3] only to kill her because it was her sister who I got killed I really wanted and she’s delivered me her niece who’ll do [4], and who I’ll marry off to my (now late) lover-wife’s heir’s heir [5], and then have the heir killed so the heir’s heir and my lover-niece can inherit [6], and then take them to war [7] since the war I started exhausted everyone else’s armies, then – once that’s won – place heir’s heir and niece-lover on the throne [8], kill off heir’s heir once heir’s heir has an heir [9] and marry grieving niece-lover [10], then kill off heir’s heir’s heir [11] and inherit throne”. Each step there has, on average, twenty things that could go wrong, easily five potential witnesses who would need to be silenced, and enemies to come into contact with every step of the way because each manipulated person’s freewill and potential to do the unexpected is an extra enemy (and no true manipulator claims to be always able to know what someone will do, true manipulators just know to keep on their toes so that they can compensate when someone inevitably goes off the rails). A wiser plan than the above would be “Step one: sow political chaos in realm so advancement opportunities arise, Step Two: ???, Step Three: Profit”. This is because you really do need to re-evaluate every step of the way, so every plan should essentially be one step, because then people and coincidences and random pebbles that cripple horses (for want of a nail, etc, etc) alter everything and you need to start planning again.

The first of those plans is a theory someone gave for what Littlefinger is up to in A Song of Ice and Fire, but the second is likely a much more realistic version of his plans, because Littlefinger is canonically a good manipulator. See, here’s the thing: to an outsider, when a plot seems to have finished and reaped its rewards, it can seem like the manipulator planned it all out carefully from the start. But it just isn’t so – it looks like that because the non-manipulator only sees the final product, so if you’re going to write about a character explaining their plot it’s best that they have something very simple and then improvise and re-plot the rest of the way. Writers and tacticians often use chess metaphors to describe plotting, but here’s the thing writers tend to forget: your manipulator is not playing chess against themselves. Real chess players re-evaluate and often change strategies during play. This holds true whether you’re trying to win a political victory or ensure your prophesised child hero/sacrificial lamb permanently kills the Dark Lord you never managed to permanently kill (that Dumbledore’s plotting succeeded was sheer dumb luck; it’s an excellent example of a plot that shouldn’t have worked but somehow, due to author meddling and ignoring all the highly probable things that could have screwed it up from the beginning, it did – which is a BAD THING, by the way). It holds true regardless of whether you’re trying to talk down a suicidal person, trick a confession out of someone, take over the world, discredit an evil rival, or just about anything else where having to plot or manipulate can be involved. Oh yeah, and it also holds true if you’re planning to have a situation where something was made extremely convoluted so that people be unable to do something – for instance, the wisdom of people who lock things with fifteen special keys that all must be turned at once to open the door to the secret temple might seem like a cunning plan, but a wise manipulator would know that eventually someone’s going to come along who thinks the best solution to everything is TNT.

3. When you’re describing a person. Most people who go looking for writing advice already know better than to describe – especially as an introduction – someone’s physical appearance in lurid detail. Some people still do block-dump physical descriptions at the start of their work, for instance most of the Potter books give a block-dump description of what the titular character looks like (green eyes, glasses, messy black hair, knobby knees/small build, and plot-important scar) near the start, but they are typically wise enough to confine it to a line or two and then not really bring up appearances again for the rest of the work. This is the “give a clear indication of what they look like so readers can imagine it and then get on with the plot” method of describing characters. It’s hardly the only, or even the best, method – although it gets points for treating a physical description as an unfortunate necessity rather than an important event to be lavishly and time-consuming-ly covered from every angle.

Here’s the thing: giving a physical description of a character as something separate from describing the way they make people feel and their own nature isn’t obligatory – or even a good idea in all situations. This doesn’t mean you should fall into the good looking = good fallacy of clichés, but you can say a hell of a lot more about a person by mixing them together. Here’s the other thing: you need to choose what is important to describe – that which is interesting or of note – rather than just describing the standard description items (hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, fitness level/body shape, occasionally face general shape and nose type). I mention them one after another because it’s easier to show them as they work together. Which of these gives you more of a feeling for the character?

“She had dark brown hair, which fell to her shoulders. Her brown eyes were set in a narrow face with high cheekbones. She was tall, thin, and beautiful. She was also cruel.” (32 words)

OR

“The dark woman would have been beautiful if only her nature were not so obvious in the coldness of her sharp features.”(22 words)

The one tells you the typical things about what the character looks like. The later tells you something about who the person is and what they look like. Things like eye colour and hair colour can easily be slipped in at other points (“she brushed a stray lock of brown hair away from her face”, for instance). When giving description it always helps to make them do double duty – to make them give both appearance and personality, or backstory (or triple duty). Everyone has hair and eye colours. Not everyone has nibbled nails or lines from frowning regularly. A few less common descriptors can give a far better impression both of the appearance and nature of a character than a lot of common descriptors.

4. When you’re giving backstory. Backstory shapes behaviour. This means that the best place to show backstory is in behaviour. For example: if you have a character whose little sister died, you don’t need them (especially if they’re taciturn by nature) to go into a long spiel about how it happened; you can imply in the way they mention that they had a little sister who died. A character who smiles sadly, trying not to cry, when they bring up a late little sister and who seems irrationally concerned with car safety is already telling the readers the salient points of what happened without need for the character, or prose, to stop and talk about what a good relationship the characters had and the tragic vehicular accident which took the younger’s life (most likely recently). The character who bitterly brings up their dead sibling often and seems dissatisfied when they mention them is already telling the readers that they have unfinished business and bad blood with the sibling, but that they miss them and probably weren’t involved in the death. The character who surprises people by sympathetically giving their first mention ever of a dead little sister when pulling out a kept child’s toy, and who has a sort of grim satisfaction when they mention that it’s what got them into disease research, the character is already telling the readers that their little sibling was terminally ill and was probably given a mercy-kill. And so on. If you have an ex-slave character you don’t need halt a chapter to give a long explanation of the horrors they faced as a slave if you can convincingly have them rub their scarred wrists and mutter a lot number to themselves as they pass some auctioneers in a slaving city during the chapter. After all, most people in reality do not tell their life stories in detail to others – strangers would think they were creepy if they did and non-strangers already know or pick up the important bits as they go.

5. When you are showing how people feel. Show; don’t tell is a rule which is often correctly applied to the portrayal of emotion, but too much showing gives you melodrama. Unless you are deliberately writing a melodrama you do not want to be writing melodrama. This is because of escalation – every time you give an overly lavish description to how someone is feeling, then when you have to describe a stronger feeling you have to describe it even more lavishly. For example, if you write “HOW. DARE. YOU!!!!!!!” he exclaimed, roaring then the response or when you show that character more upset than that you have to add even more to make it clear. While if you write “How dare you?” he roared you don’t have to worry about starting to sound silly when the emotions run higher. Admittedly that’s a slightly exaggerated example, but it works.

VI. Wen u’r beeing kriateive wif speling nd naymes. Funnily enough, naturally occurring languages have shaped themselves to be easily understood – and are what the readers will understand easiest. This also means that you can only go so far with altering or creating names before your readers will no longer be able to pronounce them as you desire because the spelling and pronunciation rules are so alien from the readers’ language. Books like JKR’s Potter series work well with old but real names to give a feeling of a strange new world without tripping up readers terribly, while books like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series manages to get creative with naming without tripping anyone up by changing one letter in otherwise normal names – and by applying a standard rule of spelling of pronunciation, rather than changing things willy-nilly.

 

And on a final note, if you want further reason to view less is more as a good idea in general: consider how much more readable the later points in this post were than the earlier ones.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2016 in On Writing

 

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