Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Writers Aren’t Set Decorators

You don’t want to create a generic world. You want to include some visual details that make your world unique and interesting. So you create a very unique-looking world in your mind, with fascinating costumes, props and set decoration.

But now it’s time to describe that world, and anxiety sets in. How can you get your audience to see what you see? You’ve created these great non-generic visuals in your own head, so how do you show them all to your audience? The answer is that you can’t. You can only suggest what you see, in a few broad strokes. There simply isn’t time, whether you’re writing prose or a script, to describe the beautiful world in your mind.

Whether you’re writing prose or a script, you are not the set decorator, you’re not the costume designer, and you’re not the prop designer. You’re the writer. You can, and should, give us a few salient details about the objects, the room, and the clothes, and then let each reader imagine the rest, even if that means they’ll never see all the great details you see.

If you’re writing a script, once they buy your script, they’ll hire other professionals to create those details. If you’re writing prose, then it’ll only ever be up to the reader, so let’s hope they have a good visual imagination.

Are you picturing a fascinating tapestry behind the throne? Well too bad, because unless it’s super-necessary to the plot, you don’t have time to describe it. Your reader wants the plot to get going and keep moving, and they have no time for your tapestries.

J.K. Rowling was lucky.  When they adapted her books, they revered her vision, which means that they asked her to help them fill in the rest of the details that she kept in her head and never had time to set down on the page, so that she could finally make her world come alive the way she saw it.  For most of us, we just have to trust our readers and/or the filmmakers who eventually adapt the work.


James Kennedy said...

You always present your writing advice as though it's a universal truth!

But it's just your taste!

This piece of advice is particularly fascist.

You like terse stuff. Got it. But there are pleasures to be had in the long, lush description. Not everyone has to be a laconic, punchy Elmore Leonard. There is more than one way of writing! I wouldn't want to stop future writers from creating verbose wonderlands like (just off the top of my head) the richly bizarre descriptions of planet Venus in C.S. Lewis' PERELANDRA, or the similarly generously-proportioned descriptions of Gormenghast Castle in Mervyn Peake's TITUS GROAN and GORMENGHAST, or the decadent labyrinthine prose describing the interior of Des Esseintes' house in Huysmans' À REBOURS . . . in fact, I wouldn't even change a line of Proust going on and on about hawthorns!

Go read SWANN'S WAY, go read David Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, go read James Joyce, go read Dickens, go read Tolkien even. You seem to think that everything has to zip along at the same modern American speed. What a bore that would be.

You have given useful advice for someone who wants to write a tight, zippy caper. But there are many, many other forms of writing. And their charms would be weakened and probably destroyed by this advice...

... and in fact, even the tight, zippy caper might be weakened by your advice too. I know you've read and admired Chesterton's THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. Go re-read the first couple pages. It just luxuriates in description, and what description! But it definitely doesn't pass your test here. So what would you cut from the beginning of THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY?? The correct answer is "nothing," but it definitely runs afoul of your advice here, so what would you cut?

James Kennedy said...

TL;DR Novelists aren't screenwriters, don't falsely import the lessons of screenwriting into novel-writing.

Matt Bird said...

Down with fascism! Down with Bird!

James Kennedy said...

No! I'm trying to free you! You should greet me as a liberator!

Matt Bird said...

You accuse me of suggesting that books proceed at a "modern American speed". Horrors!

Steve said...

Hey man great article as always. Just wanted to let you know that I bought your book! Super excited. :D

Anonymous said...

@James Kennedy:

Why would anyone write “in my oppinion” after every sentence? Obviously bloggers, like anyone else, just state their oppinion. Nothing fascist about that.

About the supposedly great books you enumerated: English not being my first language, I haven’t read any of them, so I can’t tell how good they are, but if they are any good the bloated generic racist rambling without even a plot earns no spot in that list.

James Kennedy said...

On reflection, "fascist" is a bit much, but bear with me as I try to manufacture a peppery Gore Vidal vs. William F. Buckley-esque feud between Matt and me...

James Kennedy said...

@Anonymous Which one of those books that you haven't read is the "bloated generic racist rambling without even a plot"?

Jonathan Auxier said...

When I started reading James' response, I thought "Of course he thinks that--he's a Peake fan." And then he name-checked Peake! Thanks for the chuckle.

Also, I think that the Anonymous commenter might be referencing Lovecraft.

I suspect Jame's real problem with this post is that you haven't gone deep enough. Your best observations push past the truism to actual Truth. (See: your "show, don't tell" revision.) I bet your aversion to wordy scene description is pointing to a more valuable and subtle writing rule. It's obvious that there are moments when lush description is helpful and other times when it is harmful. It makes me wonder what the difference is between the two.

Emily said...

It's obvious that there are moments when lush description is helpful and other times when it is harmful. It makes me wonder what the difference is between the two.

I think description has to go beyond letting you know what a place or a person looks like.

Descriptions can give you subtext and atmosphere. They can give you information about a person's personality or class or social position. They can give you information about the viewpoint character - how do they judge or evaluate others? When character A describes character B's outfit, we learn something about the outfit, but more importantly we learn something about character B, and about A's perceptions of B. Harry Potter has his mother's green eyes, and gets bullied by Snape as a result; he has a scar that means everyone treats him differently because he's The Boy Who Lived; he has taped-together glasses because the Dursleys neglect him.

Good description is description that pulls its weight in terms of developing plot or character or atmosphere or emotion - you can get away with more than you think if you can do that (although not an infinite amount, if we are impatient contemporary Americans!)

James Kennedy said...

I think Emily is on to something here. Descriptions can go on for longer if they are enmeshed in the subjectivity of the character. I could cite longer examples, but in the interests of keeping it short, and focused on something everybody has read, I just looked up the first description of the Great Hall in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE:


Feeling oddly as though his legs had turned to lead, Harry got into line
behind a boy with sandy hair, with Ron behind him, and they walked out
of the chamber, back across the hall, and through a pair of double doors
into the Great Hall.

Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place. It was
lit by thousands and thousands of candles that were floating in midair
over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting.
These tables were laid with glittering golden plates and goblets. At the
top of the hall was another long table where the teachers were sitting.
Professor McGonagall led the first years up here, so that they came to a
halt in a line facing the other students, with the teachers behind them.
The hundreds of faces staring at them looked like pale lanterns in the
flickering candlelight. Dotted here and there among the students, the
ghosts shone misty silver. Mainly to avoid all the staring eyes, Harry
looked upward and saw a velvety black ceiling dotted with stars. He
heard Hermione whisper, "Its bewitched to look like the sky outside. I read
about it in Hogwarts, A History."

It was hard to believe there was a ceiling there at all, and that the
Great Hall didn't simply open on to the heavens.

Harry quickly looked down again as Professor McGonagall silently placed
a four-legged stool in front of the first years. On top of the stool she
put a pointed wizard's hat. This hat was patched and frayed and
extremely dirty. Aunt Petunia wouldn't have let it in the house.

Maybe they had to try and get a rabbit out of it, Harry thought wildly,
that seemed the sort of thing -- noticing that everyone in the hall was
now staring at the hat, he stared at it, too. For a few seconds, there
was complete silence. Then the hat twitched. A rip near the brim opened
wide like a mouth -- and the hat began to sing.


Sure enough, although the description is one of the longer ones in the book, most of the details are rooted in Harry's subjective experience of the moment, whether physically ("Feeling oddly as though his legs had turned to lead") or in terms of his expectations ("Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place"), or in terms of what is being done to him at the moment ("Professor McGonagall led the first years up here") or in terms of what he can see from his particular point of view ("The hundreds of faces staring at them looked like pale lanterns in the flickering candlelight") or in terms of how the description changes according to his in-the-moment actions ("Mainly to avoid all the staring eyes, Harry looked upward and saw a velvety black ceiling dotted with stars"). The description is also buttressed by information whispered by other characters ("He heard Hermione whisper, 'Its bewitched to look like the sky outside. I read about it in Hogwarts, A History'") or in terms of how Harry thinks other people might react to it ("This hat was patched and frayed and extremely dirty. Aunt Petunia wouldn't have let it in the house").

I think the lesson is, a novel's description can go on for quite a long time as long as it's rooted in the main character's subjectivity, sensibility, and in-the-moment ruminations.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Yeah, this advice is much more applicable to screenplays than prose. That said, I'm more with Matt here than against. Description has its own delights but it has dangers not to be taken lightly. To make an inappropriate parallel, dialogue is like drama and description like comedy -- bad dialogue can still be functional or provide inadvertent comedy, but bad description brings nothing but boredom and frustration.

Just as writing dialogue is a particular skill, so is description. One of the most famous writing exercises derives from the need to fuse character with description. John Gardner asked his students: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” "Writer as camera" is very seldom a good idea; "writer as painter," making judgments and inflecting personality or ideas onto a scene, is a very good idea.

Also, I'd wager that the extent of description varies with genre. Fantastical worlds require a hefty amount of it, so the reader understands the differences between our world and the story's world (Tolkien). Historical fiction demands it, to evoke the long-ago era (Dumas). Fiction set in unusual places demands it to expose the reader to an unknown part of their own world (Fleming, Melville). But if you're working in a contemporary setting in a locale that won't be exotic to the anticipated readership, then lengthy description only should be included if it's heavily inflected with emotion or character. Though let's be honest, you should inflect your descriptions with emotion or character no matter the genre.

Matt Bird said...

Subjectivity definitely helps. In the scene I was thinking of, nobody was seeing the tapestry for the first time.

Nick said...

On a related note, I'm curious: how is this sort of creative control divided for picture books? For something like The Gruffalo, say: who has more input on what should be in the pictures--writer or artist?

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I can't speak to picture books, but I'd imagine it works much like it does in comic books. Which is to say it varies wildly. On one extreme is Alan Moore's scripts for Watchmen, which would run to over a hundred pages of text per twenty-page issue, discussing everything in exhaustive detail. On the other extreme is Fantastic Four in the late Sixties, where Jack Kirby would come up with the story and draw it, then Stan Lee provided the dialogue and narration. (Lee used to be more involved but Kirby took over more and more of the story crafting himself as they went on.)

Creative teams work out the approach that's best for them. If the writer and artist get to know their preferences early on, they can tailor the workloads to fit their strengths and needs. It's a relationship, with the uncertainties and quirks that entails.

McL said...

Nick, picture book are almost always a writer working without contact with the artist, and very rarely supplying a description, just the text as it will be printed. They might give a description if, for instance, the image contradicted the text. Otherwise they are often surprised (for good and bad) by the final product. The illustrator has the freedom (with input from editorial, to decide on character's appearance, the colours used (or not used), the backgrounds, the framing, everything. The exception is if the writer/artist are a team because they are related/married/the same person like Helen and Thomas Docherty of Snatchabook fame. The industry is changing a bit towards more communication and collaboration between author and illustrator, but it's the exception, not the rule.