Friday, March 2, 2012

Pacing and Description

When I asked on the Go Teen Writers Facebook group about writing fears, I expected things like, "That I'll never get published" but I didn't expect this response, "That I don't have enough description, or that what I have stinks."

There were several in that same vein - that I have boring sentence structure, that I'm using too much dialogue - and as I mulled over how to group the responses I had received, I realized those are all pacing issues. And pacing - allowing your story to unfold at just the right speed - is one of the hardest things to master. I never get it right in the first draft, and even after three drafts there are usually a handful of scenes that my critique partner tells me are "off."

Description can really drag down your story. And yet your reader wants to be able to see what's going on. What's a writer to do?

Use Specific Nouns and Verbs

In Out with the In Crowd there's a scene where Skylar comes home and her mom is making cookies. I wrote about the heavenly smell of the cookies, how it made Skylar feel to see her mom behaving like a "normal mom," how good the cookies tasted, and so forth.

But you know what my agent said when she read the draft of that scene? WHAT KIND OF COOKIES ARE THEY???

My natural writing style is to shy away from specific nouns and verbs. Know why? Because I'm lazy in a first draft. I'm more focused on getting the scene done than I am on thinking through what kind of cookie Skylar's mom is making, the color of her apron, or how flour dusts the soapstone countertops.

While being specific take more work, it pays off big time. Those specific nouns and verbs are what anchor your reader in the storyworld, and they keep your sentences from getting bogged down with adverbs and adjectives.

This is an excerpt from The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. The main character's mother just had an open house gathering for people interested in the subdivision she runs. This is the opening of the scene directly following. I've used red text to mark where Ms. Dessen gives us specifics:



The last person at the party, a slightly tipsy, very loud man in a golf sweater, left around nine-thirty. My mother locked the door behind him, took off her shoes, and, after kissing my forehead and thanking me, headed off to her office to assemble packets for people who had signed the YES! I WANT MORE INFO sheet she'd had on the front hall table. Contacts were everything, I'd learned. You had to get to people fast, or they'd slip away.

I think the details in this are wonderful. The man isn't drunk, he's slightly tipsy and very loud. The golf sweater makes me picture a completely different type of person than if she had dressed him in a blazer or turtleneck.

I love the mother locking the door behind him, then immediately heading to her office to work. And because this is in the main character's POV, we understand that this is routine, that she knows her mother is going to go assemble those packets, and she even knows why, without being told.

My favorite detail is the YES! I WANT MORE INFO sheet, which I can see sitting there on the front hall table next to a mug full of Bic pens.

And while this doesn't fall under description, it's worth pointing out. Sarah Dessen is a master at this, I think. Those last two lines relate to what she's observing in her mother, but also to the father who died during a time when the main character was supposed to be with him, and also the current turmoil she has with the boyfriend who is about to break up with her. Ms. Dessen isn't just describing what's going on, she's weaving it into the main character's worldview.

By opening her scene with those 2 sentences, Ms. Dessen gives the reader a great overview of what's going on and what it looks like before launching into the action of the scene. And she does it by using specific nouns and specific verbs.

But what if you're writing an action scene? Can you speed up the pace, but still describe the character's surroundings? This passage from Julie Klassen's The Apothecary's Daughter is evidence that you can:

I sprinted across the village green, around the enclosed church-yard, past the Owen's farm, and up the lane to Marlow House. Once there, I darted around the stone garden wall, ducking to keep out of sight as I ran toward the closed garden gate. Fear gripped me, but I had only to imagine Mary, writhing in pain, and I pushed the gate open, wincing at its high-pitched screech. Rushing across the path to the gardener's shed, I threw back the door and grabbed the first spade I saw. Dashing to the cluster of staked peonies - the late Lady Marlow's prized peonies - I swallowed, realizing I had no time to be neat or exacting.

This description of Lily running to an (unfriendly) neighbor's yard in need of a peony syrup to save her dying best friend puts specific verbs - sprinted, darted, gripped, dashing - to work. Lily isn't just running fast or running quickly. She doesn't just open the door, she throws it back.

My favorite part is there at the end, these aren't just peonies. They are staked peonies. Prized peonies. And not just any prized peonies, but the prized peonies of the dead lady of the house.

It's a perfect mix of what's happening and what is going on in Lily's mind, fear for her friend and the knowledge that she was going to get in big trouble for what she did next.

What books or authors come to mind when you think of great descriptions?

35 comments:

  1. Maybe this one is a little obvious, but the first that comes to my mind is J. R. R. Tolkien. I was telling my brother a few days ago, "No wonder these books are so long, because of all the descriptions." I mean, some of his sentences are so long that there are only 2 in a paragraph!

    Great post!

    Abbie /// XOXOX

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    1. Tolkien is a wonderful example! Good one, Abbie.

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  2. A few books that come to mind that I love the descriptions in are "There You'll Find Me" by Jenny B. Jones, and "FreeFall" by Kristen Heitzmann. Both books are set in exciting exotic places, in Jenny's book it's placed in Ireland, and Kristen's is set in Hawaii. For someone like me, who has never been to either places, I really felt like I was there. That I was in the know with the locals. That I wasn't just on a tourist trip, but I was living and breathing Ireland and Hawaii.
    They accomplished one of my favorite parts about books: they let me explore exotic and far away places without leaving my bedroom. :)

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    1. Clarebear, I completely agree. I love books that take me to places I'd like to go :)

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  3. Two books specifically come to mind. One modern, one written decades ago. The first is June Bug by Chris Fabry. Half of it is written from the pov of a nine year old. Her perspective is amazing. The second is Melody, The Story of a Child by Laura E Richards. Melody is blind, so the descriptions tend to focus around sound and touch. It was originally published in 1893, and recently republished by Lamplighter Publishing.

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    1. I still haven't read June Bug, but I've heard great things. I haven't heard of Melody, The Story of a Child, but what a unique perspective. (Both to write and to read.) Great recommendations!

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  4. I think R.M. Ballantyne is incredibly descriptive. I always connect with his characters and feel like I'm traveling, or freezing, or DYING, or marveling with them.

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  5. Bodie Theone describes her books like I want to be there. LOVE her books.

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  6. Okay, my to-read list is seriously growing. I hadn't heard of R.M. Ballantyne, and I haven't read any by Bodie Theone, though I have a couple on my shelf.

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    1. Ballantyne is 19th century novelist. People either LOVE his books or *cannot* get into them. If you do read one of his, I would start with Gascoyne or Fighting the Flames. They're really good :)

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    2. Oh! Bodie and Brock Thoene are great authors and their descriptive language shines through their work. Add wonderful suspense/action and you got a killer story!

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  7. When you say "What books or authors come to mind when you think of great descriptions?" I automatically think- Martha Finley. She wrote the Elsie Dinsmore series and the A Life of Faith group took them and split it into three series called- The Elsie Dinsmore Series, The Violet Travilla Series and The Millie Kieth Series. These books are A.M.A.Z.I.N.G!

    Brings me to tears/sobbing every time I read it- Elsie, book 2. Her dad rejects her, she's younger then 10, she has to chose between living with her estranged father who she wants so badly in her life or Jesus. She ends up getting deathly sick. I bawl like a baby every time.

    Cracks me up- Millie Kieth, all the books, but especially her brother Cyril. He's that brother that gets into trouble ALL THE TIME. He's the "black sheep". But oohhh so cute (as in really cute, as in adorable. Like that little rebel child that makes mud pies on the back porch).

    Each book is great. Set in the 1830's - 1890's :D I feel like I'm right there in the midst of it all when I read these books. I recommend them to all. My mom started reading them to me when I was 10 and quite a few years later I'm re-reading them (often) and still enjoying them :D I can honestly say that I've fallen in love with the series.

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    1. RandomThinker, MORE books I haven't heard of. Loved your detailed review! Adding to my list...

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    2. http://www.alof.com/elsie_dinsmore.html

      That's great! :D I'm posting the link for all who might be interested.

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    3. RandomThinker1....how totally cool that you posted about this! You see, quite a while ago my friend loaned me the first Violet book. I very much enjoyed it. Lately I've been trying to remember the name of the book for rereading purposes, but failing in recall. And then you mention this...so awesome!! Thanks!!!
      ~Whitney

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    4. YOU'RE WELCOME!!! :D That's so neat! :D I hope you read the rest of the Violet books. I loved all the books in all the series, but Vi is my favorite :D

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    5. I absolutely "adore" Martha Finley! I have the original Elsie classics (all 28 of them) and the original Mildred classics and have really enjoyed them. Her writing is very descriptive... sometimes too much so:)

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    6. For description i'd certainly recommend H.G Wells or Arthur C. Clarke ( if your into hard science fiction)

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  8. Well, there are very few books where I can actually picture the setting, even if they describe it to death, but I always knew what was happening in Hunger Games, and where they were. I mean, every detail was vivid in my mind, and there aren't many books that do that for me.

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    1. Becki, YES, I'm so glad someone mentioned Hunger Games. I'm really excited to see the movies and see how they compare with the images in my head :)

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    2. Yeah, I don't know if I really want to see the movie, though. I don't like seeing movies of the books I love. I mean, I love that enough people liked them for it to be made into a movie, but I always end up disappointed. :/

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    3. It's definitely a tough order, trying to live up to popular books. I can't keep from being excited, though :)

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  9. Thanks for the mention! Super sweet! Gonna have to check out some of these books listed now.

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  10. Lydia Grace HartMarch 2, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    Inkheart and Inkspell are magnificent! I love the pictures Cornelia Funke can make with words!

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  11. I love how Shannon Hale manages to give vivid pictures of everything even while the plot steadily clips along...her books are so fun! And I agree about The Hunger Games. There's so much going on, but they're written in easy to see moments. Altogether lovely. :)

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  12. Thank you so much for this post! It was such a help to me! I've been feeling stuck with my writing lately, and reading this was a huge encouragement.

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  13. Great post, it helped me a lot =] When I think of descriptive books, the Jungle books, Redwall series, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings all jump to mind. Man, I wish I could write like those authors c:

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  14. Yet again, another great post! "Using specific nouns and verbs" is something I'll have to keep in mind. :) Personally, I think that Markus Zusak has incredible prose, including description. I love his writing!

    Thanks for all of the great subjects you post on, Stephanie - all of your tips are fantastic, and so helpful!

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  15. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books. He compares the extrordinary things/creatures his characters encounter to things we (and they) see in every-day normal life (often in a very funny way), which helps me to get a very vivid picture. He also keeps things moving - his descriptions seem to speed the story up instead of slow it down. Now if I could only figure out how he does it...

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  16. Dune by frank herbert is a great novel if you want description...

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  17. By the way, are there any more 100 word writing contests?

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    1. Yes! We have them every couple weeks, so stay tuned!

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  18. A book that I doubt anyone will have heard of, but when you say "description" I immediately think "JOY PREBLE - Dreaming Anastasia trilogy". I think I may have commented about this book once before, but anyway. The main character, Anne, is so funny - and her best friend Tess even more so! But there's this one part in book 3 where Ms. Preble describes sound warping the way a siren does as an ambulance streaks by, and the world folding like pieces of origami art. I love those two similes sooooo much, I think they're perfect for the moment, which is something quite tricky to describe. How does one relate being dragged back through time??

    But I digress. Really good trilogy, if anyone likes fantasy/romance/historical stuff. How one woman managed to write a thrilling story about a witch, a normal girl (or so she thinks) with a bipolar rusalka grandma, featuring an immortal-but-looks-18 monk hottie and the destruction of more than 1 Chicago landmark, I will never know.

    Oh, and did I mention the not-so-dead Princess and the house that walks on chicken feet??

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