Friday, August 7, 2015

Leaving Room for the Imagination

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Before I settled into writing, I did a little theatre. One of my favorite roles was as Emily Webb in Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

The production itself was a blast--gah! I miss the theatre--but it was in preparing for the show that I learned something about storytelling.

For the first few weeks or so, we were unable to practice in the actual theatre. Another show was playing--You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, if I remember correctly--and the stage was set for that production.

When we were able to move into the theatre, the first thing we did was repaint the stage. It went from something much more lively to solid black. All of it. The stage floor, the back walls, everything. When we were done, we had a blank canvas to work with.

And, as Wilder's script called for, we didn't add much. It's a play done without a set, very few bits of scenery and absolutely no props. In one scene, Emily and her future husband, George, discuss their feelings over an ice cream soda. We used two folding chairs topped with a two-by-four to simulate the counter.

Strange, you say?

I thought so, at first. But you know what happens when you watch a play like Our Town? Your imagination kicks into overdrive. It fills in the blank spaces, the unembellished corners. Your own experiences, your own memories--the stories you have tucked away in your own mind leap into action and they build a set around the characters and their words. And in a subtle way, you, the audience member, are now part of the show in a way you wouldn't have been had we told you exactly what the town of Grover's Corners looked like.

When it comes to writing, readers and writers argue their preferences back and forth over this issue. If we're going to err, should we err on the side of too much description or too little?

And when we say description are we talking scenery or backstory or prose? How do we know what to trim and where to elaborate?

I like this quote by Thornton Wilder.



This too can be our guide when we write. When we create worlds, we should color them with the kinds of things that bring hope and despair to our characters. Yes, we should set the scene, but when we begin to elaborate to the point of excess, when it becomes about indulging ourselves to the detriment of our character's story, maybe we've gone too far. Maybe we should pull back a bit and leave a few dark bits for the reader to fill in on their own.

When I think back on that show, on the amazing cast and crew, that little stage is full of life and color and I have to remind myself that we did it all without the help of a fancy set and rooms full of props.

The characters colored that story. Their conversations and their flaws. The way they walked and fought and worried. The way they loved. The actions that filled their days and the motivations that moved them from one scene to the next. These things compelled scenery to spring into existence where there really was none at all.

So, perhaps this is me, giving you permission to not get every detail right. To leave a few shadowy corners in your fictional town up to the imagination of those flipping the pages. I bet it will serve you well. I bet your readers will find themselves on the streets of your little town, wondering why it looks so familiar and convinced they've been there before.

Tell me, do you wonder if you're being too descriptive when you write? Do you wonder if you're not filling the stage enough? 

***Also, if you have any writing questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments section and if I haven't gotten to your question yet, feel free to ask again.***

46 comments:

  1. I totally remember feeling this. When I was younger, like ten, I used to worry I was either not describing enough or I was describing too less. These days I do end up messing up a little, but I like to think that my description is just right. :)

    Also, I had a writing question. I'm gonna finish my first novel soon (yay!) and it's been worrying me that it's not good enough. Seriously, it stinks. Then I tell myself that it's only a first book, but I still can't get it out of my head that it could have been way better, and it's stopping me from writing. What do I do?

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    1. My advice is, just finish it. You always have editing!

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    2. I guess you're right. Thanks!

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    3. I second that, Jonathan! Keep writing! And also, do you remember this post: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2015/03/how-to-know-if-youre-any-good.html

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  2. Often I describe too much as I have no idea where my characters are, so I figure it out by writing. This usually ends up in long chunks of random details, but I try to fix that later on in editing.

    I have one writing question also. How do you convey a character's thoughts without dumping backstory and putting huge amounts of text in italics? I often feel like I write too much action and dialogue, and not enough of how the character responds to a situation with thoughts. Sorry if that was a bit confusing, and thanks for the great post!

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    1. Oooo! A question about internal monologue. Very awesome. We can definitely talk about that. I'm jotting it down.

      And yes! We trim it all in editing, right? We don't try to get it right while we're drafting. Something I ALWAYS have to remind myself of.

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  3. I love this. :)

    Here's a question:

    Once you're finished with your book, how do you tackle editing? In several drafts? In layers? One time through?

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    1. It depends. Usually, though, people go through many drafts of editing. The first draft you just write everything, the second you edit it all, and the third you try to make it perfect and touch up all the editing.

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    2. EVERYONE has their own style. Stephanie Morrill did a series on editing in layers though and that might help you. http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/05/how-to-edit-your-novel-in-layers.html

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  4. Great post! I have a short question that I've been wondering about. What is your editing process? I have just started editing my first book, and I'm kind of lost on where I'm going. So, if you could answer, that'd be great!

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    1. My personal process? I don't remember if I've blogged about that or not. Hmmm. I'll jot it down and do some searching. If I haven't, I'll try to plan a post for the near-future.

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    2. Hey Emma! I wanted to get back to you on this (seriously hope your email tells you this is here!). I had this on my TO DO list for blogging, but when I sat down to write it, I felt like I was regurgitating everything Stephanie said in her Editing in Layers series. And honestly, she's so much more comprehensive than I would be in a single post. You can find the first in her series here: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/05/how-to-edit-your-novel-in-layers.html

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  5. I think I probably tend to be on the more descriptive side. When I picture something in my head, and I know exactly how it's supposed to look, I want the person reading it to know exactly what I have in mind so we can be on the same page (no pun intended ;). The idea of a reader coming to me and, drawing from the description in the book, describing something exactly as I had pictured it is satisfying. Buut, I suppose the fact is no two people are going to think exactly the same way, and leaving more up to the reader could make them a little more connected to the story, rather than hanging onto one part trying to make sense of how this one place or animal is described.

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    1. I'm glad you're thinking about it! That's the whole point! You may be doing it JUST RIGHT, but it's good to think it through and stew on these things.

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  6. This is such a good post!

    I've always felt as if too much description weighs down a story. I love including significant details in my scenes, details that magnify the tone or emotion or characterization. But as for the rest of the backdrop, I like to leave that available for my readers to imagine it themselves. Not only does this help them to stretch their imagination, but I've noticed the story seems to flow much more like a movie as well. It isn't being interrupted for the narrator to describe every detail of the backdrop. =)

    Thank you for this!

    Tessa Emily Hall
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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    1. I agree! I LOVE description. Love it to pieces actually, but it can drag the pace to a standstill if it's overdone.

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  7. This was such a great post! Thanks for sharing.

    I did have a question. I'm just starting to get back into a story that I put off for a few months, and I don't necessarily have writers block, yet I can't think of writing anything. I know my story from the back of my head and I just really want to write SOMETHING in this book, so I can get it along. But I don't want to shove tons of information in the second chapter (because that's the chapter I'm on. :3).

    What should I do to get back into loving this book like I use to a few months ago?

    Thank you in advance!

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    1. Hi! I've been in the same place. I still loved my story, but it was just blah. I didn't want to write, I didn't want to do anything with the story.

      Try writing anything, just to get your writing going. Then keep writing every day. That's what worked for me-- I got a few days in, got on the curve, and kept writing (faster and better) afterwards.

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    2. Thanks for the help, I really do appreciate it. :D

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    3. Blow something up! Seriously, the blowing up an actual piece of your set may not work for your story, but drop some kind of emotional bomb into your tale. Surprise your readers. Surprise your characters and watch how they respond. One of the things I do when I reach this place is to sit my protagonist and antagonist in a room and force them to have a conversation. I may NEVER, EVER use it in the story, but this bit of writing usually gives me hints about where to go next. I know it seems like you're wasting time, but you're not. This kind of fleshing out is important.

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    4. This is great help, thank you! :3

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  8. I think often I have too LITTLE description -- or, at least, I like to tell myself that. When I was younger I read a ton of fantasy books and, while they weren't the worst ever, they were terrifically info-dumpy and full of long descriptions, so I got it into my head that you needed those. Now, I'm starting to figure out that you only really need the vivd details, and the imagination fills it right in as you read. (I'm still working on it, though. Description is hard.)

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    1. It varies by genre and author, I've found. It varies by audience. And there is no ONE WAY. But perhaps freeing yourself up to not get it all right, will move your story forward. You can ALWAYS add more description in the editing process.

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  9. Hi,
    I have a question if anyone will answer for me. :)
    In my book, a lot of these teens fight each other during training, to get better. Do I write those like a regular fight? It happens quite often, as they need to get better. I understand I can just reflect on the day saying that my character had a full training day, but how should I write one between friends who need to practice, but don't really want to hurt each other?
    If anyone could give me any tips on this, thanks!
    Great post today!

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    1. I think it would be good to describe a full training day as your protagonist goes through it, including the fighting and emotion and feeling during it. That way as the story moves on, the characters will be able to comment on important details and you wouldn't have to show that fight again. The character would be shown growing more uncomforble with fighting her friend and the readers ould know it went down simular to the first fight.

      When a fight is different from the rest or has a turning point in it or something, thats when i would suggest you show a fight scene again. Good luck on your book!

      ~K.A.C.

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    2. Thank you so much! That's really helpful. :)

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    3. I absolutely agree with Anonymous up there. Show it once and then comment on it as you go. In Divergent, this type of fighting is handled well. Give those chapters a read.

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  10. Hi,

    Do you have any advice on building logical magical systems? I'm writing fantasy and would appreciate some advice.

    Thanks!

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    1. This post should help you: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.in/2013/09/storyworld-building-creating-magic.html

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    2. Props to Jonathan! I was going to point you there too! Jill is the queen of this. All hail the queen!!!

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  11. I wish I either added too much description or too little. It swings back and forth between scenes, so I at least know to always keep an eye out in my editing. The scene I want to write ends up too short and the scene I push myself through is overly long. Maybe I read too many of those terrific info-dumpy fantasies once upon a time... Thank you for the post!

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    1. It's SO GOOD that you're thinking about it though.

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  12. I struggle with this. I don't know where to add it and where to leave it out. I'm wondering... what is the most important thing to cover before you let the readers imagination kick in? Objects? Scenery? The setting?

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    1. You're going to hate my answer.

      It depends. It totally depends. On the writer and the audience and the genre and the story and the pace. It just depends. This is where you need to trust your gut, read a lot of books in your genre and ask for feedback from writer friends.

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  13. What a wonderful post!! I always feel like I don't have enough description, mostly out of fear of having too much. I've just decided to fix all of that in the editing process. XP

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    1. Yes! Edits. When I think of books that weren't descriptive enough, it really isn't that there wasn't ENOUGH description. It was that I didn't click with the authors style. Refining how you describe and when you do it, is key. And practice? That's the only way to get it right.

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  14. Thanks for the great post!

    Question: how do you find your character's voice?

    I switched my story from third person past tense to first person present, and that helped, but it still reads as though it were me talking and thinking. Suggestions?

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    1. Experiment. Write the passage as if you were a snobby socialite. Then as if you were a gangster. Think about your character's backgrounds-- are they rich? Then they'd use big words. Uneducated? More grammar mistakes and contractions. Hope this helped.

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    2. Oh lady. I've done the same thing. Changing tense is helpful but it can be a challenge as well. I'm going to jot this idea down, but I've done several posts on voice. Maybe flip back through the blog for those. My pal, Jenny Lundquist, does something that can be very helpful. She journals as her main character for a while before starting to write. It helps her find the character's voice. You might try that.

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  15. Awesome post! Description has always been a struggle for me. Especially since my mind always seems to think that because I can see the scene I'm setting as clear as if it were right in front of me, I don't need much description. That's when I have to keep in mind the reader can't get into my head and I need to give them something to work with.
    Also I have a question I'm hoping you could answer, or anyone else could give it go for that matter.
    For my novel each of my primary characters has a hobby of some sort or two. The love interest likes painting and sculpting, the best friend likes origami and swimming, the rival is a long time yogi and a ballet dancer. However my main character's hobbies aren't coming to me with ease like the other characters. I want her to have a hobby that would represent her personality somewhat (she's an ENTP) but also have some kind of importance in the plot which is a dark urban fantasy that has some mystery, suspense, and a lot of drama. I've thought about making her a photographer but for me its to artsy (her Love Interest has got that area covered) and also wouldn't pertain to the plot at all. It would be useless.
    Anyone have any suggestions for remedying this cause I can't event start writing until this is cleared up.

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    1. I don't have a specific suggestion, but I like the way you're thinking. I absolutely think it should tie in to your plot. You may have to get through your first draft before you can identify it though. Like, say the climax of your story is dependent on someone being able to throw a knife across a crowded room and strike the bad guy. It would be really awesome if your main character knows how to do that. But until you write the climax you'll never know what you need. Unless you're a fantastic plotter. So, those would be my two suggestions. Plot out some of your later, more important scenes and see what you'll need. OR, just write them. Write those scenes now and see what comes to you.

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  16. Thanks so much for the post! You are always so positive, inspiring, motivational, and wonderfully informative. I'm polishing up my manuscript and have just began agent research, so I was wondering if you had any advice or tips about deciding which agents to submit to, writing query letters, and writing synopsises. Thanks again for everything you do for the teen writer's community!

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    1. Oooo! Okay. I am jotting this down. Query letters and synopses. I'll try to schedule a post in the near-future on this. I can tell you now, that I won't be recommending any agents. It's just too too too subjective. And my recommendation won't help because you really have to go through the process of reading about the agent to see if your work might be a fit. Have you tried querytracker.net? Tons of info there.

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  17. I normally feel like I don't set the scene at all in my writing. I just see it all so vividly in my head that I forget to tell the reader what's going on. So then I go all the way to the other end and add a whole bunch of description so that they're /not/ just seeing a blank canvas. :p But maybe, for me, it's okay if I err on the side of a little too little. :)


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    1. Maybe! Either way, it's always good to be thinking it through. I wish you oodles of luck, girl!

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