Tag Archives: * Writing tips

Got a problem? Talk to someone!

Have you suddenly noticed a big plot hole that you don’t yet know how you’re going to fill? Have you realized that your main character is deadly flat, and you’re not sure how—or if—you can fix the problem? Do you need some quick information on, say, how you’d destroy a gigantic killer robot, because you have to get rid of that sucker within the next two days or your whole story falls behind?

Plot hole

You need to talk to somebody—and fast! I’ve talked before about how you can get help of this nature by talking to friends, being part of some group whose members are all doing the NaNo together (or who are at least cheering on the people who are), or signing up at the official NaNoWriMo site and visiting the discussion forums with your problem. So I thought I’d take a quick cruise through the official forums and give you an idea what sorts of help people are getting.


Statue of AthenaSay you need to establish that your main character isn’t alone in the world but has some family. So you write a couple of scenes in which a family member appears—yet those scenes contribute nothing at all to the plot. Do you really have to choose between 1) including useless scenes just to show that there is family and 2) letting the reader think your character sprang full-grown and solitary from the head of Zeus? Is this really an either/or situation?

Not necessarily. If you pose that question at the NaNo forums, someone’s going to respond with possible ways around the issue. Is there any way to make those “useless” scenes somehow contribute to the plot? What if the family member who appears for a page or two just happens to casually mention something she saw on the news or something her coworkers were talking about on a break, and that tidbit of information is the last piece of the puzzle your main character was wrestling with? Or what if the family member says that a stranger asked him to deliver an object to your main character, and it turns the whole plot around? (And then you’d have to find out who the stranger was, and you might involve the “extra” family member in that search, making his scene less “useless” than you thought it was.)

Or say you needed a way to smuggle something into a building, but you’ve got some extra vigilant security guards at the loading dock, one of whom actually suspects that something is going on? How do you get that character into the building unscathed and without creating a big uproar, even if that second security guard tries to take some action? There isn’t supposed to be any alarm raised either. How do you do it? I don’t know what I’d suggest, myself, but other helpful NaNo writers and moderators are sure to come in and make suggestions.

There are NaNo writers in the forums asking questions about soap opera plots. Or pirate politics. (Let me say that again: Pirate. Politics. Just trying to figure out what that might involve would be a story in itself!)

fairy with a wand, surrounded by flames

Even magic has to follow the rules

There are, of course, the obligatory fantasy plots where you really need to figure out how to solve a problem with magic, but you also need to keep the magic consistent with the magical laws of that world. And yes, there had better be laws and things you can and especially things you can’t do with magic, not even because it will get you out of a fix. If you’ve never heard of the phrase, “deus ex machina,” now would be a very good time to look it up. (Just as an aside, my younger brother and I went through this sort of exercise together, many years ago. We were both writing fantasy stories, and we would read them to each other. And then we’d pick apart the magic, showing each other where something seemed to contradict a rule that was previously established, or where something suddenly appeared and became important that had never even been mentioned before. Both of us made our magical worlds consistent and plausible as a result of these sessions, and our stories were very much the better for doing this. So as I’ve said before, as long as you can brainstorm with someone, it’s going to help you get out of sticky problems.)

Back to the forums, though, and the plot issues. One thing I’ve seen in plot discussions as well is where someone comes in and says, “I’ve got these various elements floating in my head, but they aren’t pointed in any direction.” And they list elements such as a mysterious object, a demon-conjurer, three little scenes that don’t seem connected, a woman who can’t remove her silver bracelet without dire consequences, and a dog. And a couple of other people come in and say, “This suggests this sort of plot to me” or “I see a character facing this particular type of situation” or “Add a magic quill in a wall safe in a tycoon’s office, and you’ve got a plot that goes like this…”

Remember that people who are standing outside the situation might see patterns that you are oblivious to. Or they have imaginations that run along quite different lines, so two objects might suggest something to them that might never have occurred to you. It’s a good thing to ask for help if you have a plot that you just don’t know what to do with. There are many people out there with brilliant suggestions, and you can just take your pick and run with it.



Who is your character?

This is another really tough one, and I think I’m going to go even further into characters in a later post. But this is another place where the official NaNo forums really shine. For example, you can get opinions on how many characters you should really have. Or you can ask for advice on how to write specific types of characters. If you are male, can you write plausible female characters? And vice versa?

Some writers aren’t even sure whether they need an antagonist for their main character. Is that absolutely necessary? If you were to ask that question, you would likely get people asking questions about the type of story you wanted to write; the direction you wanted to take your story might perhaps determine the types of characters you should have. For example, if you didn’t want an antagonist, as such, should the story even have conflict? What if, instead, you created a story where there was a struggle, but it was not so much a “conflict” as it was an attempt to reach a difficult goal? In that case, the “antagonists” might be more along the lines of the obstacles to the goal rather than people or a person resisting and working against your main character.

You might need advice on how to make a seemingly bad character be likable to your readers. Or you may even be finding that a character who is supposed to be liked is turning out to be quite detestable. I had a queen like this in a story once. She was supposed to be the main character’s love interest, but the more she acted in the world, the more dislikable she was. I was eventually able to turn his marriage to her into a kind of tragedy for both of them, with all sorts of consequences that actually made a very good story, even if it had a sadder ending than I had planned. But this was after I had tried to reform the young woman to make her more likable, and it just didn’t work.

HelpPeople you ask for advice might be able to suggest ways of writing a character that can change the direction they seem to be going. So you might be able to salvage that character and take them in the direction you originally wanted them to go after all. Or, like my queen, who just got worse and worse no matter what I did, your character may be unsalvageable. But as people make suggestions, you might find that this is kind of a godsend, because it makes you take your story in a new direction. With some help, you might discover a whole new subplot or an even richer main plot, despite your character refusing to be fixed.

What if your main character dies unexpectedly, and it’s a surprise even to you? It’s an understatement to say that that’s sure going to affect your plot. So what do you do? First off, you run to your cheering section or your fellow writers or the “Character Café” forum on the official NaNo site and yell, “Help! My main character just died, and it’s November 14! What the heck am I supposed to do now??”

And into the fray leap several of your fellow writers or some of the NaNo moderators, and a discussion ensues about how you need to handle the plot from hereon in. Perhaps you will need to use flashbacks now to keep your main character as part of the story, at least until the end. Perhaps the role of the main character must now be passed, like a relay torch, to someone who’s been playing second fiddle to the main character up to this point in the story. Or perhaps—and you knew this had to be one of the possible options—perhaps your main character isn’t “really” dead after all. And if that’s the case, how are you going to work the plot so that this person can eventually—and plausibly—come back again? Was this death deliberately staged for the main character’s secret purpose? Or are you writing a story in a world where resurrection is possible. Or—again an inevitable question—is this a world where your character might return as one of the undead?

TalkYou might just want help with making your characters more realistic. Some people are great at writing scenery or developing a plot, but they are lousy at writing plausible characters. Other people can craft characters so real and plausible and lifelike that they feel like they’re going to leap off the page, but they can’t think of anything for these characters to do that would constitute a plot.

Don’t try to go this alone. If you don’t do it on the official NaNo forums, then talk to somebody, at least. You don’t need reminding, but I’ll do it anyway: you’ve got just thirty days to get this all completed. So if you have a major plot problem or character problem, you need to get these issues sorted as quickly as possible. Don’t be afraid of the NaNo forums; they are full of experts, fellow writers, and people with rich imaginations that can help to supplement your own. And if you see someone else with their own plot or character problems, you might be able to help them too.

Leave a comment

Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing fun, Uncategorized

Mr. Ian Woon meets you halfway

And here we are! By the end of today, we will all have come to the halfway point of the NaNo. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Or have you run into some snags that you really want to get out of? We’ll talk about your status at the halfway mark. But first of all, you may be wondering, “Who the heck is Ian Woon and what does he have to do with the NaNo?”

Thoughtful man in shadow

Who is Mr. Ian Woon?


Have you ever heard of an anagram? An anagram is the resulting product if you rearrange the letters of one word or set of words to create a brand new word or set of words. Take the word “stop.” If you rearrange the letters in that word, you can make the words “pots” or “spot” or even “opts.” Those are kind of mundane examples, though. The page, “Anagrams: Some of the Best,” has some more interesting, funny, and sometimes rather pointed examples such as “Debit card” being rearranged to read “Bad credit” or “Election results” being turned into “Lies—let’s recount!” But while that’s all well and good, what does this actually have to do with the NaNo?

Take a look at the letters of “Mr. Ian Woon.” Can you think of anything they might be rearranged to say? Or how about doing this backward? If you take the letters of “NaNoWriMo” and rearrange them, what do you think you might get? Yep.

Recognize it? [Europajugend CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Recognize this one? [Europajugend CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Mr. Ian Woon as an anagram of “NaNoWriMo” goes back a long way, in fact, right to the beginning of NaNoWriMo itself. It was the tradition, at least for the first few years, for NaNo writers to include Mr. Ian Woon somewhere in their stories. I suspect that this tradition no longer really exists, because I haven’t seen it mentioned for a long time. I think it was already falling out of practice when I did my first NaNo, back in 2000 or 2001. So it won’t be surprising if you haven’t heard of it yourself, especially if you’ve started doing the NaNo only in the past three or four years.

But I’ve always tried to maintain the practice, and friends who are doing the NaNo, from the forum I hang out on, have often tried to do it too. I believe that he might have been some kind of lizard in one of their stories one year. In one of my stories, he was kind of the equivalent of a Zen master. We never actually saw him, but my main character had just returned from three months of studying with him, so he was referred to. In two of my other stories, Mr. Ian Woon was the owner and head of an entire school of brilliant students working on virtual reality simulations. We saw him several times in those stories, because he played a fairly important role.

And look at this! Here I am, not even writing a story this year, and yet look who has shown up! So I’ve managed to get him into at least four of my stories, and I think he showed up, at least briefly, in a couple of others too. Mr. Ian Woon gets around.

It’s probably no longer necessary to try to fit some guy named Mr. Ian Woon into your story, because he seems to have dwindled in importance in NaNo circles. But you might consider it, if there’s some way of sticking him in. Maybe he’s the proprietor of a store your characters go to. Maybe one of your characters gets a misaddressed letter that should have gone to Mr. Ian Woon, and simply shrugs and returns the letter to the sender. Mr. Woon doesn’t need to take up much space, though of course he’ll add a few more words to your total.

I just think it’s nice to recognize that NaNoWriMo has been going for quite a long time now; I believe I’m on my fifteenth try, and it existed before I started. We’re already part of a longstanding tradition. And Mr. Ian Woon has been there in spirit with all of us, even if we weren’t aware of it, from virtually the beginning of this whole exercise.


Word count?

Word count - 22,000But now for the checkup. We are halfway through the NaNo by the end of today. In theory, we should all have at least 25,000 words at the end of today, and if we’ve been smart and/or lucky, we’ve built up a cushion of even more words than that, you know, just in case. For Americans, especially, there’s a busy time coming up in the final week of November, so it’s a good idea to have piled the words up a little bit in the early weeks.

If you haven’t managed a cushion, or if perhaps you don’t even have 25,000 words by the end of the day, don’t worry too much yet. You can make them up. Have a look at your upcoming schedule to see whether there’s any day when you can take some extra time. After today, you’ve still got two Sunday afternoons that you might use to bash out several more paragraphs than usual. Or if you do most of your writing by sneaking in a few paragraphs in between other tasks, maybe add another paragraph or two each time you flip over to the NaNo, and they’ll start to add up.

And speaking of American NaNoers and their Thanksgiving events…remember Black Friday? Maybe you, like so many others, have decided that you really don’t want to promote the crass (and occasionally violent) commercialism of that day, and you are not going to go shopping that day. But maybe you can’t convince everybody, and you’ve got family members who still want to go out to buy stuff. All right, if they’re going to go, they’re going to go. You can stay behind, fire up the ol’ computer, and spend a few hours getting caught up with your characters. That’s a good day to write, and I’m sure you can fit in a few other tidbits of writing in the rest of the next fifteen days. Don’t give up yet on your word count or your story! A lot can happen in another half month.

How’s your plot?

Whiteboard and weekly plans

Stick to the basic plot plan

Let’s remember how we decided we could pace our plot, back on November 4: Plot: Pace yourself through the month. Week One introduced the characters and, by the end of the week, introduced the main problem of the story. Week Two was to be the early phase of problem-solving, with hints of the problem possibly being more complex beginning to show up by the end of the week. This was also where the subplot began to surface in earnest. And this was meant to be the week where any conflicts between the characters, even if they were working together, began to be revealed. (These interpersonal conflicts could even be part of the subplot.)

So how are you doing? You will definitely need to have gotten past the basic “get to know the characters” stage by now. Of course there will be more things revealed about the characters as you go along, but at the very least, their basic temperaments, inclinations, and skills should be well-known to your readers at this point. Have you got the main problem in the plot completely established now too? Have your characters had the chance to deal with it to some extent and try to figure out how to solve it?

If you haven’t quite gotten there, you can speed up the process in the coming week. Have your characters get down to the serious business of working on the main problem of the plot. Since Week Three is supposed to be the week when big complications in their proposed solutions start showing up, you can just have the problems come in immediately rather than phasing them in gradually. The week to come is where your plot doesn’t just get complicated but all sorts of other unexpected glitches show up. Something could happen, in fact, that makes the characters have to devise totally new solutions.

The same thing might even happen to your plot; surprises could occur that make it veer off in another direction entirely from what you had anticipated. If this happens, go with it. But be sure that you can rein it in fairly quickly, because by the end of next week, you need to get your characters right on the verge of discovering the final resolution of the big problem and starting to implement it and having it actually begin to work. You are approaching the week around which most things in your story revolve, in fact, because the week after that will really just be the resolving of the problem and the wind-down. So rather than the halfway point (today and tomorrow) being the pivots around which everything turns, it’s really Week Three that is the pivot point. So if you need to speed things up in your plot in the first day or two, to get to where you need to be, do your best to do that.

Remember that you do have two extra days at the end, after the end of Week Four, so there’s just a teeny bit of leeway. If you need to extend the work of Week Two into tomorrow and the next day, go ahead and do that. But you will still need to do what you can in the five or six days after that to bring your plot to where it’s supposed to be at the end of Week Three.

We’ll check in again, this time next week, just to see how you’re doing with the pacing.

Meanwhile, I hope you’re still at it. If you have kept up with the daily word count and stand where you’re supposed to be by the end of today (with at least 25,000 words), and if you’ve managed to pace your story so it’s about where it should be if you want to complete it within the month—well done! You have already accomplished a great deal!


Take some time to very briefly pat yourself on the back this evening, once you’re finished today’s NaNo work. Then get back in the saddle tomorrow and start the work of Week Three in earnest. And if you’d like to carry on a long tradition and feel connected to NaNo writers from the beginning of its history until now—take Mr. Ian Woon with you for a brief stroll too.

Leave a comment

Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing fun

Show, don’t tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, where people are advised not to tell the reader that a character feels a certain way. Instead, the writer is told to write the character in such a way that it will be obvious to the reader how the character feels. This is great advice. This is a way to inject some real life and vividness into your story. And guess what! It actually adds words, even when you’re not doing it just to try to be wordy for the NaNo. Bonus!


Sad girl sitting on a bench

I’m sure you’ve seen (or even written) a description as basic as this: “He was sad” or even “He had a sad look on his face.” Of course if your character is sad, you want to convey that to the reader; it’s part of a story. But doesn’t it kind of sound like you’re writing a dry history book, and not a very good one, at that? “When his brother died in 1917, he was sad.” Sure, it’s a fact, and it happened. But seriously—big deal. Is this some character whose story is really so boring that it merely needs a few facts pointed out? Or is this a character whose living, breathing actions and feelings should be leaping from the page so that the reader is living that sorrow right along with him?

If that’s the case, then show the reader exactly what the character does and looks like as he is sorrowing. Don’t make your characters’ actions into just a mere recitation of stark facts. (“And then he did this and then she felt that and then she looked this way and then he felt like this…”) Make those characters live!

You have to ask yourself certain questions. What does a person do when he’s experiencing great sorrow? (And that’s a better word, by the way, “sorrowful” instead of “sad.” The word “sad” does have its place, but your selection of nouns and adjectives is as important as the showing of your character’s actions.) Let’s brainstorm about what a character might look like and behave like if he or she is sorrowful.

Sad young man sitting on an empty floor

How does he or she look?

Here are some things about the sorrowing person’s appearance that you might draw from when you are trying to convey how sorrowful your character is.

  • The person’s shoulders might slump.
  • The person might have downcast eyes, not really lifting their eyes to look too directly at anybody, as though it’s just too much effort even to do the work of simply raising their eyes, let alone anything else.
  • Naturally, there might also be tears in those eyes. But do they simply roll down the person’s cheeks? Might they possibly be retained, unshed, giving the eyes a moist sheen?
  • Are the eyes red from weeping? Are they even a bit swollen?
  • Is the person pale from grief? Are their cheeks slowly reddening, as though from fever or as though the redness of their eyes almost appears to be leaking out?
  • Is the person’s hair dishevelled?
  • Did the person get dressed this morning? Or are they still in their pajamas or jogging sweat pants? Did they get some bad news just as they came out of the shower, so that either there’s still a forgotten towel wrapping up their hair or the towel is gone, but the hair dried in kind of lank, uncombed ringlets?

How does she or he behave?

What does this person do that might make an outside observer look on and say, “Oh man, that person must really be grieving”?

  • The person might also drag his or her feet when walking across the room.
  • Perhaps the person sits kind of stiffly, as though trying to hold himself or herself together.
  • If that’s the case, the person might not respond to comforting acts or gestures, because to respond in any way might be to open up to much and finally lose all control.
  • The person might also be holding something tightly—a handkerchief, a tissue, a set of keys, a small memento of the person who has departed, something like that—in kind of a tight grip, for a similar reason as above—to hang on and not lose control.
  • The person’s speech might also be very terse and clipped, again for the same reasons as above. Or he or she might be unable to speak more than a few words at a time without needing to dab the eyes, blow the nose, or swallow and take some deep breaths. There might be short moments of weeping in between sentences. And if there is weeping, then the redness of the eyes would of course gradually increase.


Not using THE word…

You’ve got a lot of detail to work with there. Now, here’s an example of the sort of paragraph I often give to the people whose stories I edit, to try to illustrate how you can convey your character’s sadness without once using a word that relates to sadness, sorrow, or grief.

He closed his eyes, the unshed tears bright on his lashes, and stumbled blindly across the room, shoulders slumping, until he met the edge of the table. He bent to press his hands flat on its surface, head hanging between his spread arms, the fringe of dark hair falling over his eyes, and he rasped, “Did…did she suffer?”

Sad manNotice that I never once told you he was sad. Or did I? I never used that adjective or any other adjective like that at all. But this character’s whole demeanor gave it away, didn’t it, from the blind stumbling to the raspy voice? That may still not be perfect writing, but I bet that if some random reader looked at that little paragraph, she would know instantly that this character, whoever he was, was pretty darned sad for some reason. (And by the way, did you notice how many more words it took to make that scene come alive than it would have taken just to say, “He had a sad look on his face”? Like I said—bonus!)

And remember my previous post about working descriptions into the action rather than making the reader pause to read a solid block of descriptive text before you finally get on with things again? The same thing applies here. Some of the character’s sadness was shown by the actions he took. The actions might be more subtle in a scene where you are trying to convey the character’s emotions (stumbling blindly over to a table is not quite as active or as dramatic as racing down a dark alley and skidding to a stop on the gravel), but you are still conveying action. The story is not standing still, waiting while the reader is filled in that the person is sad and then moving on again.

If you wanted more dramatic action, of course you could have indicated the character’s emotions with stronger actions too. If the unseen companion answers “Yes” to the character’s question about the woman or girl’s suffering, there’s nothing like showing wild grief by having your character suddenly sweep all the little glass bottles off the table and then cry over the many shards after the bottles all shatter on the floor. And you still won’t have to use the words “sad” or “sorrowful” or “grieving.”

…but choosing evocative words

If you’re not going to use “sad” or “sorrowful” or “grieving” (or other words that outright tell the reader the emotion that’s supposed to be felt), that means that you have to use the right descriptions and adjectives that will convey the emotion without talking about it so directly.

I mentioned the word “rasped,” which was how my character, above, asked his question. Just choosing that word instead of the mere word, “asked,” made an immense difference in how the question came across. This person can barely speak. In fact, he can barely walk—hence the word, “stumbled.”

Sad in abbeyOne of the keys to “showing” the reader the emotions of a character is choosing the right verbs to indicate the action and choosing the right adjectives to describe both the person and the action. What are some other words that might demonstrate just how gloomy and grieving this character is? One example is the word “choked,” which people often use to show that a grieving person can barely get her words out around the sobs in her throat. (I think that one is getting a bit overused, though.)

Other words that suggest or at least hint that a person might be sad: slumped, dismal, listless, shuffling, unseeing, somber, downcast. Mumble, gulp, quaver, tremble.

If you’ve done a fair bit of reading, you’ve come across a whole host of great words for all sorts of situations. Often, when you come to an emotional situation in your writing, one of those words will just spring into your mind as being precisely perfect for the action or description you want to convey. Or if you just can’t find a word that’s appropriate, well, that’s what a thesaurus is for. Pull down the old Roget’s and look up “speak” or “walk” or “eat” or “sad” or something else you want to show your reader—not tell—and you’ll run into such a rich resource of appropriate words that you might have trouble choosing just one.

One final thing to keep in mind is that when you show the reader what is going on in the story rather than telling him or her, you are actually paying the reader a compliment. He isn’t someone who needs things spelled out for him in stark words. She is not a reader who doesn’t recognize body language and social cues. Instead of feeding all the basic facts in a plain, dry way to your readers, you are trusting them to be capable of recognizing a basic human situation and the actions of a real, living, breathing character who is experiencing his or her life right before your readers’ eyes. So this is a strategy that will honor your readers while providing them with a story that is very much alive.

So not only can the “show, don’t tell” strategy build up your word  count while you’re doing the NaNo, but even more importantly, for the days after the NaNo when you are simply trying to write a good story and not be wordy for the sake of being wordy—this strategy brings your story to rich, vivid life. Your readers will thank you.

Woman in red leaning on a table

Leave a comment

Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing fun

Descriptions inserted into action

Yesterday’s post about using a party or other types of crowd scenes to add to your word count made me think of other ways that you can do the same sort of thing—add to your word count, that is. But rather than adding entire new (and perhaps unplanned-for) scenes full of people, just so you have an excuse to go into detail about those scenes, you can add words in other ways, within existing scenes. The main way is by writing descriptions, either of characters or of the setting in which they find themselves.


Word cloudDescriptive writing tends to raise a great deal of dread in a lot of people. I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve been writing stories since I was ten (this was some time ago, I assure you), and I’ve always had a great many problems, myself, with descriptions. I’ve never been all that interested in reading gobs and gobs of description, because I frequently find them boring—though that may in fact say more about the skill of certain writers than it says either about me or about description itself. And I’ve always had to labor hard to write good descriptions in my own stories. It doesn’t help that I have trouble picturing scenery in my own mind to begin with. (I’m great at imagining people, but not so great with their settings.)

Remember that the NaNo, for some, is about word count as much as it is about writing good stories. But here are some ideas about writing descriptions that might help you add value to the story itself, without just adding blocks of words for their own sake when you describe things.

ConversationSay you’ve got a character whose appearance you need to describe. It’s very likely that your first impulse will be to write two or three paragraphs doing just that, mentioning how tall the person is, what color his or her eyes and hair are, what the person is wearing, who he or she is related to or how the person relates to what’s going on in the story (why does this person appear right at this moment?), and so on. You might want to add another paragraph about extra distinguishing characteristics or quirks, whether those involve appearance or character traits. So you might mention that the man has a high, squeaky voice or that the woman’s deep eyes hint at an unacknowledged sorrow. She might have a lock of hair that wants to stand up, and he might constantly jiggle his keys in his pocket. On and on you go, for what might seem (to your reader as well as to you) to be hours, reciting a list of descriptive points.

But what if you could work some of that description into the action itself? Don’t lay out a big block of description all at once. Give just enough to provide a context or at least an entrance into the story for this new character, and then weave tidbits of the rest of the description into the story as it unfolds. Here’s an example of how you might do that.

He was met at the door by a small, brisk young woman who barely gave him a glance through her blue-tinged metal-framed glasses. She pulled down the white cuffs of her shirt peeping out from the sleeves of her navy power suit and said, “You would be Garth, I presume?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “I was wondering—”

“I don’t know how much help I can be,” she blurted, shoving a stray lock of short black hair back behind an ear. She straightened the hair for a second as she looked past him down the hall, her red-painted nails glimmering in the sterile light of the hall lamps. “I’m not very familiar with the field of study you mentioned over the phone.” Then she focussed a pair of disconcertingly direct blue eyes on him and added, “But do come in. I can at least hear you out.”

And there you have some important details already: this woman is short; she is also young. She wears glasses (whose frames are made of blue-tinged metal), and she’s wearing a navy power suit with a white shirt under it. Her hair is short and black, and her eyes are blue. And she paints her nails red.

Now look at the paragraph I just wrote, summarizing the description of the woman, and compare it to the conversation I wrote above it. Wasn’t the conversation more interesting than the block of description? One common approach would be to write all the description first and then start writing the conversation between the two people. But when you can work some of the description into the conversation itself instead, you get the conversation accomplished (which you wanted to do anyway), but you did not have to pause in moving the story along while you gave a lot of description first.

Remember the issue of using language that does not make the story drag? This is another way of doing it, even while you’re providing the description necessary to reveal someone’s appearance. The action keeps moving without a pause, but you work the snippets of description one by one into the action itself.


Dark alley

You can do the same thing with descriptions of scenery. You can add descriptions of locations in the same way that you can add them into conversations. Take, for example, that chase scene I was mentioning in the post when I was talking about using a party or other crowd scenes to add words. Here’s an example of how you might insert some description into one part of the chase.

They burst out the rear door, hardly noticing as it banged flat against the wall of worn, grimy red bricks in the alley. They clattered past several dented garbage bins that had been set out for pickup overnight, barely managing not to tip them over, and fled the short distance to where the alley came out onto the street.

“Slow down!” gasped Susan as they neared the streetlight at the alley entrance. “Try to walk normally, at least till we get around the corner.” She slowed her wild flight to something resembling a walk as she approached the alley exit, glancing casually but cautiously at the myriad little two- and three-person groups of people strolling down the wide sidewalk. She recognized the blazing lights of the theater marquee across the street and realized that the lightly milling crowds must have just left a performance—she peered at the sign—of Phantom of the Opera.

“Where to now?” panted Jason, skidding on the gravel at the alley opening as he slowed down, moving to her side.

A taxi sped by, raising a light spray from a couple of puddles along the curb; the light from the streetlights sheened on the surface of the road, telling them that there had been a light rain while they were inside. Susan could feel it as she breathed, in fact, that freshly washed air and cool humidity that misted the skin.

“This way.” She jerked her head in the direction of the corner to her right. She glanced back over her shoulder into the darkness of the alley, watching the faces of their other three companions gradually materialize out of the murk.

Before Lori appeared, her disembodied voice reassured them from the rear of the group, “No sign of pursuit yet.”

“Good. So let’s get out of here while they aren’t sure where we are.” Susan slipped around the corner of the building at the alley’s end and marched quickly down the sidewalk, weaving her way among the groups of people, trusting the others to follow her and thankful for the cover.

Jason pulled up to her side again, and she saw him glance past her at the warm interior and welcoming light of a wine bar as they passed its wide windows and walked under the swinging wine bottle that hung over the sidewalk. “I’m thirsty,” he muttered.

Here you have the five characters getting away from their pursuers (for the moment, anyway), but you’ve also established that they came out into a dark alley, at least some of whose walls are made of red brick. There are also some metal garbage bins set out there, just outside the rear door of whatever store or other establishment they’ve just run through. (And the pickup is tonight.) The alley opening, which has a bit of gravel in it, faces a theater with a big marquee, and the theater is currently featuring an old favorite. Many people have just left that theater, in fact. There is a rather inviting wine bar near the corner, and its sign hangs over the sidewalk in the form of a big wine bottle. It has also rained enough to form at least a couple of puddles and to film the road and sidewalk with moisture. It has made the air fresh but kind of damp.

But all of these facts have been established while the action was happening. You didn’t pause at all in these characters’ dash to freedom just so you could make the reader wait while you recited some descriptive facts, as I just did in the kind of boring paragraph I wrote after writing the action. You wove the descriptions into the action itself, and we noticed the details along with the characters, as they ran or walked past those places.

Wine bar

And you might have noticed that the addition of these descriptive details didn’t just let us know what sorts of surroundings the characters now find themselves in. These details also made the action itself a little more active—more vivid—more real and alive. These characters didn’t just “run out the door and run quickly down an alley.” They banged the door and almost overturned a bunch of garbage bins as they ran.  The fact that they almost overturned the bins does more to indicate the swiftness of their running than just saying the word “quickly.”

Remember that descriptions, of people and of scenery and locations, does not have to be boring even if it is a necessary part of your story. You do want to establish what your characters are like, and you want your readers to be able to picture at least some of what the surroundings are like. But you do not have to introduce this information in big, dead, boring blocks of text. Work descriptive details into the story more gradually, bit by bit as part of the action itself. When you can do this, not only will your description be more interesting and palatable, but the action itself will come to much more vivid life.

Leave a comment

Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing tips