It’s alll in the details.

This is definitely a ramble…

As usual, I have an ongoing project to try to improve my writing. More or less currently, I’m reading the Write Great Fiction series:

  • Plot & Structure: (Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers From Start to finish), by James Scott Bell
  • Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint : (Techniques and exercises for crafting dynamic characters and effective viewpoints), by Nancy Kress
  • Description & Setting: Techniques and exercises for crafting a believable world of people, places, and events, by Ron Rozell

There’s another one, Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue, by Gloria Kempton. Haven’t read that one yet.

The first two books are good, no quibbles there. The Plot & Structure book was a revelation in many ways. Useful stuff, and fills in the gaps of my oh-so-wonderful creative writing education during the “workshop” writing phase/fad.*

Anyway, I hate descriptions. Blah, blah, blah. And I love dialogue. Snap! As might be guessed (disregarding plot and character for the moment), dialogue is one of my strong points, and description one of my weak ones. So I’m working through Description & Setting, yes, yes, I see your point here, etc., when I come across one too many examples of “great” description:

No use of a growl, a whoop, a roar, in the presence of that beast! Vast, red-golden, huge tail coiled, limbs sprawled over his treasure-hoard, eyes not fiery but cold as the memory of family deaths. Vanishing away across invisible floors, there were things of gold, gems, jewels, silver vessels the color of blood in the undulant, dragon-red light…

This is James Gardner in Grendel. Great writer. I love the book. But this is one of the sections that I skimmed through. I have a remarkable reading speed when it comes to books with lots of this type of description: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah! The paragraph above goes on for another ten or fifteen lines. More stuff about dragons. I GET THE POINT!!!

So, with annoyance, I dropped the book over the side of the bathtub, to continue another day. Instead, I picked up Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league books and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Now, was that showing or telling? I bet her college-level writer’s workshop had a hissy fit over the beginning of the book. You don’t get a solid paragraph of description until page 3, with the castle itself:

So when, a few months after that, a tall black castle suddenly appeared on the hills above Market Chipping, blowing clouds of black smoke from its four tall, thin turrets, everybody was fairly sure that the Witch had moved out of the Waste again and was about the terrorize the country the way she used to fifty years ago. People got very scared indeed. Nobody went out alone, particularly at night. What made it all the scarier was that the castle did not stay in the same place. Sometimes it was a tall black smudge on the moors to the northwest…

That’s right. Howl’s fantastic, incredible, wonderful castle is…tall and black. In case we miss it the first time, she repeats it. Tall. And black. Oh, yes, and the castle moves. But I didn’t skip any of the description, because it was interesting. DWJ breaks the fundamental rool of writing skool: she breaks it just like almost everybody does until the invention of the modern novel.

You don’t show a story. You tell it. This excessive description stuff is a fad, I tell you, a fad!

*Workshops are the Tyrannasaurus Rex of education. Big, powerful legs and jaws (editing and critiquing) and puny arms (fundamentals of writing). A workshop-based creative writing class is preparing a roomful of critics, no matter how many awkward stories “that really happened, sorta” they produced.


I am OZ the Great and TERRIBLE!



1 Comment

  1. Dave

    There are times when that sort of rich, interesting description works, and is even necessary. But most of the time, I find it more rewarding to … well, as you say, *tell* the story, or better yet, let the characters tell it through their dialog and actions. It’s a difference I first learned reading Zelazny, I believe, whose descriptions were more for impression than to paint a perfectly crafted picture to match in every reader’s head.

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