RWA Golden Heart Award Winner TALIA QUINN joins us today, addressing a problem that plagues many writers – description.
My husband picked up a book by a well-known romance author last week. He riffled through it and put it back down. Why? Because the descriptions and dialogue didn’t pull him in. She lost him as a reader before he even got to the story hook.
When we read, we want to fall into a book. We want to be immersed in that world. See what the characters see, feel what they feel. But at the same time, we don’t want pages and pages of endless description. So how do we as writers achieve that perfect balance?
Let’s take a look at some often-used phrases:
His heart beat faster at her words.
His hand brushed against her, and her skin felt electrified.
She swallowed past a lump in her throat.
She frowned, he winced, she smiled, he sighed, she closed her eyes, he nodded his head, she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
How many times have you read those phrases? How many times have you written them? I sure have. We’re told we should write viscerally, that we should show and not tell the reader what the character is feeling, but there are only so many ways to illustrate those emotions. And so our characters frown and smile, their hearts gallop and their veins flow with so much electric current, they can probably power a small town. Our small beats of show-don’t-tell quickly become cliché. The problem with a cliché is that it’s like white noise after a while. The reader tunes it out. It loses its impact. The reader may not know why, but she isn’t feeling as close to the characters.
Instead, why not find other ways to convey the same emotions and reactions?
For example, you can find a fresh way to state the same feeling. If his heart is beating fast, it means his pulse is pounding in his throat, he hears blood rushing in his ears, and adrenaline may be sending him fight-or-flight signals, making him jittery, maybe even sweaty. If she has a sexual response to his touch, she might feel it as a prickle on her skin, it might make the hair on the back of her neck stand on end, it might feel like molten gold instead of electricity running through her veins. For that matter, you could replace the lump in her throat with a feeling of dryness or scratchiness.
Or you can cut the beat completely. A smile or frown might go without saying if it’s implied in the dialogue, and people in real life don’t hold their breath nearly as often as romance heroines do.
Another method is to go with the cliché, but twist it so it becomes fresh. This often involves hyperbole. The lump in her throat feels like she swallowed a golf ball and she may never breathe again. You have to be judicious, or it risks becoming ludicrous and taking the reader out of the story, but a bit of it sprinkled here and there can liven things up.
Alternately, you can show what the character is feeling through action. If she’s nervous, she might pick up objects from a desk and rearrange them obsessively, or run her fingers along the teeth of a comb, or tear a piece of paper into confetti, then sweep it into the trash but miss a few bits, which irks her and she focuses on that instead of the painful conversation they’re having. If he feels sexual attraction he’s not comfortable with, he might abruptly step away from her to the other side of the room. If she’s angry, she might set a tumbler on the table so hard, water sloshes out.
Sometimes the best method is to find a way to stage the scene to provide an excuse for lots of action and subtext. For instance, your hero and heroine could be playing racquetball, slamming the ball back and forth as the tension between them escalates. He can hurt his calf, she can get out of breath very naturally, they can get all sweaty and hot, and even flirtatiously flick towels at each other during breaks. Much fresher than two people standing still in a room smiling and frowning at each other, don’t you think?
And sometimes it’s fine to simply state what they’re feeling. Tell us. Her anger is incandescent, his heart feels tender and raw. It can work well, as long as you don’t baldly state the emotion, unadorned.
What about scene description? How do we help the reader see what we see, create the movie in their minds, without writing huge blocks of text they’ll skim past to get to the good stuff? Two useful things to remember here: point of view and telling details.
Whose POV are you writing the scene in? If your poor, hardworking heroine is walking into her own apartment after spending time with the billionaire hero, she might see how shoddy her scavenged furniture is, with the big stain on the sofa she’s tried to cover with a throw pillow that’s losing its stuffing.
If the billionaire hero is walking into the same living room, though, he might instead see that she’s made the best of a small space with colorful wall hangings and funky patchwork throw pillows on the couch. (Though only if he’s the kind of guy who would notice throw pillows. He might instead just see that it’s colorful and cozy and exactly like her. Maybe he wants to hug the whole room.)
You can also hold back, leave something for later. You don’t have to show us everything at the beginning of the scene. Instead, maybe she sits down on the sofa, all flustered and nervous after they’ve been bantering at the door and she’s finally invited him inside. And when she does, she notices the stain on the couch and hastily covers it up with the throw pillow—or, hey, maybe she distracts him with a surprise kiss.
How much you describe also depends on how important the location is to the story. If the characters are walking down a moonlit beach, you’ll want to set the scene with a few choice phrases capturing the salt smell, the feel of the breeze, maybe the glint of the moon on night-black water, but we’ve all been there. We can picture it. It doesn’t take much. On the other hand, if the scene is Pemberly and Elizabeth Bennet is seeing it for the first time, walking through the hallways and thinking of Darcy, yes, we want to linger there. We want to see it in detail. The house stands in for the man and reflects her changing feelings for him.
In my novella Draw Me In, there’s an empty warehouse room on the second floor of a factory building. This room becomes the center of much of the action of the story: the heroine crashes there, uses at as an artist’s loft, and the two of them do a dance, both figurative and literal, in this space. It’s got huge import. This is how I describe it when my heroine first sees it:
It was an empty room, true, but it held such promise. Sunlight streamed in through huge windows onto the pale gray concrete floor. The ceiling was a jumble of exposed pipes. One wall was exposed brick. The matte tin ceiling had a hint of gleam, with embossed squares in an endless repeating pattern. It was a backdrop fit for a smoke-filled bar, a party in a fancy loft, or an artist’s studio. That stream of sun was delicious. It slid along the floor, licking the room with brightness. Dust mites twirled along the beam of light.
I wouldn’t ordinarily go into such detail, but the room is almost a character in the book. It deserves a proper introduction.
Speaking of characters, this is another arena where descriptions can be tricky. Our heroes usually possess broad shoulders and chiseled features, don’t they? And yet we want them to be drop-dead sexy, so it’s not something you can easily escape. So how do we describe our guys in a way that feels fresh and specific and less like a row of Ken dolls (or GI Joes, for the ex-SEALs and town sheriffs)?
To be honest, this is something I struggle with myself. I come from screenwriting, where it’s better if you don’t mention the main character’s looks because it limits the casting choices. But it doesn’t work that way in fiction, and my beta readers and editor nail me on it every time. So here’s what I do: Once I get past hair and eye color, the slope of his nose and the state of his pecs, I try to find something distinct. One of my heroes has a gap between his front teeth that makes him look incongruously boyish. Another has a perpetually hungry look in his eyes, another has sardonically arched eyebrows. I think I can go farther, though, and describe the physical only in terms of character. I’ll work on that.
It’s a challenge, coming up with new ways of describing things. But ultimately, descriptions are a great opportunity to delve deeper into the specifics of your narrative. The words you use, the metaphors you discover, they all add up in small ways to evoke the feelings of the story you’re telling, the journey you’re taking us on.
JAZZ, PAINTING, AND A DREAM OF LOVE
Struggling artist Raven Porter thought she’d learned to be tough the hard way. Now, though, she’s arrived in New York City from rural Maine, and it’s a whole new world.
With nowhere else to go, she crashes for the night in an empty warehouse. She wakes to the haunting sound of a lonely jazz saxophone. She’s not alone.
Finn McKenna, proprietor of Finn’s Fermentation Factory, needs to escape from his messy, complicated life, if only for tonight. So he flees to his warehouse and loses himself in his music. Until he realizes he’s not alone.
Raven and Finn fit together. Two creative souls, their passions hidden behind sturdy defenses. If they can only let each other in…
Is writing description hard for you? Do you have any suggestions you’d like to add?
Monday’s topic is Dialogue in Historical Fiction with Nicola Cornick .
Talia Quinn began her writing career as a screenwriter but switched to prose after she started writing an online journal for fun. This led to writing fiction, which led to writing romance. She won the RWA Golden Heart Award for Contemporary Romance in 2012 and is a two-time finalist. She chose the indie route for her romances, but her agent is about to go on submission with her first YA novel under a different name.
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