Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 3)

Telling vs Describing

Don’t get your knickers in a twist over the religious rule of telling verses describing. As an author, your job is to tell a story using the most effective and/or appropriate methods at your disposal. Preferably, you talk about the stuff that is interesting to you and gloss over the stuff that isn’t. Both telling and describing are useful and valid techniques that belong in your arsenal of dirty tricks.

Here’s a better rule: if you got bored writing it, your readers are going to get bored reading it. Your job, as a writer, is to engage and entertain the reader. I’ve seen too much descriptive writing that utterly fails to entertain anybody.

What makes information engaging and interesting is that the information is relevant to the characters or to the situation, unless you are Sam Clemens, in which case you can hold an audience enraptured on the subject of drying paint. By choosing relevant detail, you can set the characters, the story, and the situations all at the same time, and with more color, than by using a laundry list of descriptors.
Let’s improve my usual bland example.

Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.

None of this is relevant information. Bob’s brown hair isn’t relevant. His jeans aren’t relevant. Even his cockiness isn’t relevant. Walking into the bar doesn’t mean anything. We expect nothing to happen. There is no tension, no desire, no mystery, no anxiety. Nothing.

Let’s rewrite and make this description relevant.

When Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt, there was something about his look that drove Daisy Miller mad with lust. She utterly died over the way his brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the Devil’s girls. His eyes slid over the door. He did not notice Daisy outside, too proud and upright to walk into that saloon.

I spent one minute rewriting the paragraph. Did you notice the difference? Yes, you do. Just by adding Daisy, and making those details relevant to her, I made those details important to you. In fact, I set up a really nice story here. Will Daisy catch her man, or will she walk away having discovered that even jerks can look  handsome?

Discussing

Even better than telling vs describing is discussing. That’s a technique that I rarely see advised, yet discussing produces better readable text than either. If telling is saying “that’s a rose” and describing is saying, “that’s a red flower with many petals,” then discussing is saying, “that’s a symbol of love for many people, given as gifts on special occasions.” Discussing explores not just the visual and physical aspects of an object, but everything that attaches to that object: history, culture, backstory, rumor, legend, and so on.

Let’s improve my usual bland example.

Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.

Let’s discuss a bit.

Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt, both new. He bought them at the local trading post with his pay from the last cattle drive. He wasn’t sure what he wanted when he walked into that trading post. He thought that he would buy a new hat, but when he saw those clothes, he knew what he wanted right away. The trail can be a cold place for a cowboy, and a good set of clothes is all that keeps you warm. Now, as he walked into that saloon, the people there would know that he was no poor boy any longer. He was a man earning his way in this world, just like any other man.

The point of discussing is to talk about all those things that are sitting in front of both you and the reader, acknowledge them, and put them into play.