In order to get our readers’ attention, writers not only have to make readers feel like they are present in the scene, but we also need to entice them to stay and continue reading. Personally, I love it when I sit down to read a book and find myself transported into another world, and my own around me vanishes as I turn the pages.
How does this happen? Perhaps it is a matter of conditioning: avid readers may have an easier time being captured by words and passing into a fictional dimension. But writers have to ensure all readers- from avid to dabbler- can be held and even arrested by the world of the story.
The necessary ingredient is vivid description. It’s not enough to talk about a character or a setting. Readers need to be able to identify personally with a situation in a story, to actually see themselves in it, an unnamed extra, standing on the sidelines and hearing and seeing firsthand what is happening or developing in the plot. Here is where skillful crafting comes in: by choosing the right descriptive words to form subconscious pictures, like a movie of the mind, we can create sensorially vivid environments for the reader to come inside.
It’s a fine line between too much and too little detail. Sometimes in an effort to provide all the sensorial information necessary to put our readers into our headspace, a writer can go overboard with description. Painting the verbal picture is more than pulling out your dictionary of adjectives and stringing a series of them in front of every noun in your book. Consider the image above. There are several things going on. How would you go about describing so much detail?
“The red, pink, white, and orange beds of exotic flowers mixed among the dark green, chartreuse, emerald leafy grassy background of the garden was a testament to the expert, meticulous, obsessive dedication of the caretakers of Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C. who plant and maintain such a wonder of splendid beauty.”
Oops! I think I just exhausted my reader. Excessive use of adjectives or other modifiers are not the answer. Choosing your descriptors is particularly important when you consider what your story is about and how much weight to lend to each detail. This garden could be the setting for an intriguing plot. Yet while it is important to make the setting as vivid as possible, the actual landscape is not a part of the developing story.
Now consider the image as a place where an encounter with a villain is about to take place, the protagonist having been lured by a text message from a stalker to a specific spot for an exchange of information… or worse.
“Standing at the top of a staircase that led down to the noose-like pathway flanked by a patchwork of flower beds in full bloom, Tamara scanned over the exotic specimens laid out over Butchart Gardens for signs of her stalker. She paused before descending into the colorful valley of plants and shrubs. Beyond the gardens, the mountains were framed by a misted sky. She shivered despite the warm morning sun while she verified the message on her cell phone. “Meet Maurice by the Sequoia grove just past the totems.”
When a setting has numerous components and a lot to look at/hear/smell, it’s easy to get excessive with adjectives. But adjectives alone don’t do the trick. Without the photo, you might have understood the visual content of the scene, but that pile of adjectives that focuses on the visual robs the reader of learning what the mood of the moment is. Which version moves the story forward? Relevance is what is at stake.
When describing a setting, adjectives are less important than capturing the essence of the setting through the context of the moment in the story. In “…pathway flanked by a patchwork of flower beds,” the metaphor is more descriptive than had the colours of the flowers been defined. Also, “the noose- like pathway” is foreshadowing that this encounter might not be entirely a casual or friendly meeting.
Dialogue can also have a descriptive component to it. When you read a line of dialogue, can you hear the speaker’s tone? Does the dialogue support the description of the character? In my novel, Finding Ruby, my villain betrays his creepy inner demons through innuendo. What better way to “show” his evil character? Consider this example:
“Retired,” Felix huffed. “You and all the others are traitors. You abandoned the agency and you betrayed your country. You’re all cowards leaving before our job was done. Now I’m going to make sure you’re all going to pay for abandoning your country – and for abandoning me.”
Ahem. Do you think this guy might have issues? Great dialogue enhances descriptive content.
In my next blog post, I’ll talk about using adverbs in dialogue tags. Are they really needed? It’s more than just what your characters “say.” Indulge me, please. Adverbs are highly controversial. Watch for my next post for a great debate.