Tag Archives: descriptive writing

Imagining Places, Imagining Spaces

I’ve been doing a lot of hacking away at ‘Emmeline’ this week – in other news, I think I may have come up with a better title for the story, but more on that anon – and I’m right up there within, I’d guess, 5,000 words of the Grand Dénouement. However, nothing ever runs easily in my world.

I feel a bit like this guy. Image: lookandlearn.com

I feel a bit like this guy.
Image: lookandlearn.com

I’m finding it tough going these past few days – maybe 500 words here, one thousand there – and I reckon there are a few reasons for that. One of the main reasons (besides a few plot issues, which I’m pretty sure a rewrite will take care of) is the fact that the ending of the book takes place in a part of the world I’ve never been to, in a space I find hard to imagine, and in a setting so unfamiliar and different from my everyday life as to be completely alien.

I’m learning that one of the most important things you can do for yourself when you’re writing is this: Believe in your settings.

If your book is set in our world, and you have the means to travel there, then I suppose nothing can beat the experience of seeing it for yourself. But, however, if you’re like most people and your means are feeling pretty mean, travelling to far-flung parts of the globe isn’t really an option. The internet can help, of course, with images and inspiration and handy phrases in the local language and first-hand testimony of how it feels to scale Everest or survive an earthquake or visit Pompeii, or whatever it is you’re writing about, and it’s a good tool to use if you can’t see your setting with your own two eyes. But something as important as all that – and something I am currently finding difficult – is the necessity to believe, wholeheartedly, in the setting you’re writing about. Write about it with as much confidence as if it was the view you can see out your bedroom window. Write about it with as much pizzazz as if your fictional setting was somewhere you know intimately. Open your imagination up, and make sure your settings – your landscape, your climate, your vegetation, your animal life, your transport networks, your geographical anomalies, your people, your language(s), whatever – are all as clear to you as the reality around you, whether or not your imagined landscape is strictly true.

Now, obviously, you don’t need to describe all this detail to the reader. All the story needs is what’s necessary to make it happen. But it helps you to know your setting in all this detail. In a lot of ways, depending on the book, the setting is as important as another character. You know your characters inside-out – their backstory, their dreams and hopes and loves, their motivation – so why not your landscape, too?

Image: minigardenshoppe.com

Image: minigardenshoppe.com

My story, right now, is suffering because of my own fear of the setting I’ve put it in. It’s a vast canvas, an empty and howling landscape, a frozen and barren expanse. I don’t know what it’s like to live and work there – and I don’t know what it’s like to breathe its air or walk on its surface or exist in its embrace. I’m trying to imagine it, and it’s hard. I lack the confidence in myself and my own ability to just trust myself to write it well, even if it’s not entirely geographically and/or climatically accurate. This particular landscape is important to the plot insofar as it’s a challenge, and an obstacle, and it’s home to certain creatures who do not have anything good to say about the heroine and her brave band of comrades – but I’m not writing a natural history of the country, and so I feel I’m getting hung up unnecessarily, in some ways. I’m allowing myself to be derailed by doubts – ‘could that actually happen?’ ‘There’s no way the landscape would look like that,’ ‘This is stupid! None of this could actually take place!’ – and I have to keep reminding myself that this is my book, my world, my story, and anything I dream can happen within it.

If verisimilitude of setting is important to you, or to your story, then by all means get your work checked over by someone who’s familiar with that part of the world, or do some more intensive research, or whatever you need to do once the words have been written. If, however, you’re not writing a book whose plot hinges on whether a particular type of flower grows at a particular altitude or whether a certain wave pattern brings specific weather effects to a defined part of the world, then perhaps it’s not as important to be absolutely accurate, in a geographical or scientific sense. What matters is that your landscapes and settings are real to you, and that they make sense in the world of your book – without, of course, taking liberties like placing a sandy desert in the heart of Antarctica (without having a very good, and logical, reason, at least!)

It’s hard to write without a backdrop against which to place your characters – at least, it is for me. But, equally important as having a clear, skilfully described landscape (not too much detail, and not too little) to place them in is having the confidence to say ‘this is my story, and this is my world. These are my rules.’

Image: covermyfb.blogspot.com

Image: covermyfb.blogspot.com

I’m going to tackle ‘Emmeline’ with a different mindset today. I’m not going to let my fears that I’m writing something ‘wrong’ derail my desire to finish this story, and I’m going to stop letting the backdrop run the whole show.

And I’m going to start trying to believe in myself a little more.


I read a great blog post yesterday guest-written on Lorrie Porter’s blog by Marcus Sedgwick, who is an author I admire. I find his books are punchy and action-driven, intelligent and ‘wordsmithy’, dark and thrilling, and – more than anything else – short. He says as much himself in the blog post,  where he writes about something he believes is vital to a good story – judicious and sparing use of description in order to bring a scene alive.

Marcus Sedgwick Image: cam.ac.uk

Marcus Sedgwick
Image: cam.ac.uk

This is contrary to most people’s expectations: surely, a scene cannot come alive in the mind of a reader unless every tiny thing is described minutely?


Consider this paragraph:

Jeremy ran, full pelt, hearing the thundering boom of the dragon’s footprints crashing down behind him. It felt so close – close enough to breathe right down the back of his neck, or to step down – splat! – on his head. He had never been so terrified in his life, and he knew he had to run fast, or he was done for. He looked around, but there was no clear line of escape. The far-away sky above was hazily blue, looking down on him disinterestedly, the occasional cloud streaking over it like a veil. The walls to his right and left were crumbling red-brick, with ivy scattered through them like icing on a cake, and the ground beneath his feet was studded with small rocks, like tiny grey eggs made of stone. Then, finally, he saw a corner up ahead; he turned it at speed, without looking, and found himself smacking right up against something – something that said ‘Ouch! What’re ye doin’, ye great…’ followed by a splutter. Jeremy bounced back, and saw that he’d almost knocked someone over – an older man, with hair like silver yarn that tangled up, almost exactly like a messily-made bird’s nest on top of his shiny pink head. Right beneath the hairline were dotted small constellations of freckles, and a thick bulging vein rain down his temple where it was lost in the bushiest white beard Jeremy had ever seen. The man’s face was red, tending to purple in spots, and his moustache was so big Jeremy wondered why it didn’t need scaffolding to hold it up. His nostrils were huge, and flaring, so wide and deep and dark that Jeremy wondered if another dragon lived up each of them. He shuddered as he looked at them. Tiny hairs waved inside each one as the man’s breath burst in and out, in and out. Then his teeth, square and white and strong, appeared in the centre of his beard as the man started growling his anger at Jeremy. ‘Tell me what ye’re playin’ at this minute, child!’ he said, his voice like someone heavy walking across a gravel pathway.

So, clearly this is something I’ve just made up, and it doesn’t hold a candle to a properly polished and edited section from a published book; I hope, though, that it makes a point. I have read paragraphs like this, at action-packed junctures like this, in books, and it drives me mad. Surely everyone would agree that the point of this paragraph is that Jeremy is running from a dragon. Does the reader need to know about the crumbling red-brick walls and the distant hazy sky and the number of waving nose-hairs displayed by the man into whom he crashes in his haste to get away?

Count the nostril hairs, now... Image: medicalobserver.com.au

Count the nostril hairs, now…
Image: medicalobserver.com.au

I don’t think so.

Jeremy’s heart thundered in his chest as he ran. His legs burned with effort. Risking a glance back, he saw there was no sign of the dragon yet; all he could see behind him was this endless brick-lined corridor, this weird place he’d somehow woken up in. He almost turned his foot on a rock, then; they were dotted all over the ground like cobblestones, slippery and treacherous.

‘It’s coming,’ he thought. ‘It’s coming!’ Just then, a roar from behind made the skin all over his body shrink, and terror pumped through him. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his ankle, he ran faster, desperate to find a place to hide.

Then – a turning! A break in the brick wall. He flung himself to the right, taking the turn without looking.

‘Ouch! What’re ye doin’, ye great…’ Jeremy skidded to a halt, realising he’d crashed right into someone – someone big, and white-haired, and strong, if the grip he suddenly felt around his upper arm was anything to go by. He looked up into a pair of runny blue eyes, scrunched up in suspicion. White teeth flashed at the heart of the bushiest grey beard he’d ever seen as the man spoke again, his voice raspy and rough.

‘Tell me what ye’re playin’ at, this minute, child!’ Jeremy didn’t think he had the breath, or the courage, to reply.

I think this second paragraph – which says much the same thing – is a lot stronger. It does a better job of keeping the action going, and keeping Jeremy’s momentum alive. We get the same sense of place and character, I would argue, and enough description is given for a reader to imagine where Jeremy is, and who he meets. Interestingly, paragraph 1 is 359 words long; paragraph 2 is 231.

I know that time passes differently in books, in a sense. In reality, if you or I crashed into an elderly white-haired man, we would take in a lot of physical description instantly, through our senses; it takes a lot longer to write all that information out. I just wonder, sometimes, whether any of that description is needed. A scene shouldn’t carry too much extra weight, I think: the description should serve a narrative purpose, as well as a scene-setting one.

And yet – description is vital to writing, of course. Without description, all a writer would do is recount endless reams of dialogue between characters who exist only as words on a page, and not fully fleshed, rounded ‘people’ we can see in our mind’s eye. Having said that, if your protagonist is running for his life from a dragon, we don’t need to know how many liver spots are on the forehead of the man he runs into, or how many stones are in the ground at his feet. Give the reader enough to put the puzzle together themselves, and always allow them space to use their own imagination.

And go and read that blog post by Marcus Sedgwick. He says all this much more briefly and in a far more interesting way than I’ve done here.

Happy Thursday. Happy writing. May all the dragons pursuing you be slow and clumsy ones.

The Long Game

I’m starting to realise that writing is one of these ‘lifelong learning’ things, and that peskily, it’s something at which it’s always possible to improve. At the same time, it’s something most people will never perfect, not because they’re not talented, but because writing can never truly be perfected. Due to its very nature, and the subjective reality of its reception by readers, I don’t think there’ll ever be a piece of writing that is considered the definition of sublime accomplishment by every single person who comes across it.

In some ways, this is comforting. In others, it’s infuriating beyond measure.

The more of it you do – writing, that is – the better you get. At least, this is the slender hope upon which my existence hangs. This means that, while your chances of writing success are pretty poor at the beginning of your writing career, it’s possible to imagine that your best work is always ahead of you. There is, undeniably, something exciting about that.

Image: coaching-journey.com

Image: coaching-journey.com

I am learning, every day, what writing is all about. I’m learning that having an idea is a vastly different thing to making something out of it, and I’m finding out the truth of the maxim ‘an easy read is a difficult write.’

So. Here follows a short list of some of the things I’ve learned recently about writing, and how I do it, and what works for me.

Don’t be overly descriptive

This might seem strange, and wrong, and horrifying to some people, readers and writers alike. What makes a work come alive more keenly than acutely observed detail, you might say? What’s the point of reading a book if nothing is described? Would it be a book at all?

Well. Let’s think about it a bit more, shall we?

Descriptive language is something that can turn me off a book, without a doubt. I am all for describing just enough to give the reader a sense of something, and then letting their imaginations fill in any gaps. Books, in some ways, should be interactive: they shouldn’t be a closed system, complete in and of themselves, and completely sealed off from a reader. How alienating is that? I think a book should give a reader’s experience enough breathing room to bring a story to life, and overdoing description can kill that vitality in its tracks.

Also, it depends on what you’re writing. If your book is set on a distant planet seven centuries from now, then you’ll have to think carefully about your descriptions, and also about your comparisons. There’s no point in saying ‘her hair was the colour of a beautiful sunset’ in a book like that, for instance – while ‘a beautiful sunset’ might mean something to a present-day reader, it might mean nothing to a character in the year 2813. Do they live underground? Is the sky full of a steel-grey cloud from centuries of pollution? Do they even have eyes, or do they navigate their planet using sonar? Do people even have hair any more? You get the drift. If you describe something in terms that would be meaningless to your character, then you’re dragging your reader out of the world you’ve created and ruining the spell of your novel.

This is really easy to forget and all too easy to do, and it can be disastrous for your writing. Of course. Nothing in this game is ever easy.

Also, don’t describe everything in exhaustive detail, particularly not things which can safely be assumed to be familiar to a reader, like the smell of grass or the taste of a common foodstuff or the feeling of sand underfoot or whatever. There are things which need lots of elaboration, and things that don’t. If you describe everything to the nth degree, a reader’s eye will start to skip, and they’ll get bored. You don’t want that.

Don’t be overly proscriptive

This is the flip-side of the first point, in some ways. If you over-describe, then you close off a host of ways of thinking to your reader. Don’t prohibit your reader from bringing their own experience and reality to what you’ve written, and don’t deny them the ability to make it real for them, in their terms. Once you make a piece of writing public, you allow a reader to make what they want of it, no matter what it is you meant by it, or what your artistic vision intended.

Make clever use of dialogue and exposition

Something which irritates me in books is exposition which isn’t handled properly. This can happen when a character explains something to another character in a way which is clearly designed to do nothing but give information to the reader, or when a character simply addresses the reader to give them a Vital Plot Point. When I read dialogue between characters in which they tell one another things which they really shouldn’t have to – i.e. things that, in the world of the story, they should know without having to be told – it really makes me grind my teeth. This is clearly a ploy to bring the reader up to speed, and it should, where possible, be avoided. I also hate characters describing themselves to a reader by looking in a mirror or at a photograph of themselves and bemoaning their freckles/curly hair/straight hair/lack of teeth, or whatever the case may be; I’d much rather not know what a character is supposed to look like, and bring my own imagination to bear on the matter, than have it described to me like this.

Until yesterday, I had a whole chunk of clumsy exposition in ‘Tider’, at a point where our heroine is explaining to the reader what, exactly, her father does for a living (hint: it’s bad); it existed as a big monstrous lump of direct explanation, and it had always bothered me. Yesterday, I turned it into a piece of dialogue between our heroine and her best friend. Now, not only is there a hint of humour in there, but also a sense of the depth and importance of their friendship, and a subtle pointer towards the development of the best friend’s character, too – which came to me, naturally, as I wrote their dialogue. Conversations have a tendency to do that, I guess – develop organically, and go in all manner of unforeseen directions. This is why they’re brilliant, if they’re used properly in fiction. Make sure to have the characters ask one another questions which are sensible and intelligent, and which they wouldn’t already know the answers to; not only will this help to advance your plot, but it will also add another layer to your characters.

Oh, and – I managed to get as much information about my heroine’s father across in this piece of dialogue as I had done in the big, ugly, clunky, irritating paragraph that had been there before. It just looks and reads a whole lot better now.

As a writer, you’re always learning how to improve, and the beauty (and pain) of the job is there’s always improvin’ to be done. The only thing a person really needs to be aware of as they’re starting out in this wordsmithing game is that improving enough to please yourself can take a lifetime.

If something's worth doing, it's worth doing right... and for the rest of your life. Image: sodahead.com

If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right… and for the rest of your life.
Image: sodahead.com