Here are links to other writing tips...
Dialog: The elements and art of dialog in fiction
Narrative Voice in storytelling: a discussion of point of view and verb tense and how these elements affect the story
Fastest Gun in the West: writers often assume readers will fill in the details
Freelance Pitfalls: Editors beware of disturbed writers; writers beware of editors with an attitude
Novel Openings: Creating compelling openings for novels
Flashbacks: Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback
Description: The red meat of storytelling
description of place, characters, and all other occurrences of
description in a story provide the story with the environment, setting,
tone, and other sensory perceptions within which the characters live
and their tale unfolds. Without good description, a story is flat and
uninteresting, takes place in a vacuum, and rings hollow. Description
is the red meat that feeds the reader's imagination. If you're a
vegan...well...um...it's the portabella mushroom of storytelling. But
don't let that image linger in your mind...
Watch how description of place, weather, and other sensory elements changes the tone and mood of a story.
He took a shortcut down a backwoods road, and
even though the road was paved, it needed repair, and he had to avoid
deep potholes. The day was sunny and clear. The trees came close to the
road, at times, and the drive was pleasant, with the sunlight dancing
off the windshield as it flickered through the trees. Suddenly, the car
pulled hard to the right, following a loud bang, and a moment later, he
came to a stop on the shoulder of the road. He killed the engine and
stepped out, surveying his surroundings. It was still and warm and
quiet. He had come to a stop next to a rusted barbed-wire fence, beyond
which he saw an old cemetery. The headstones were a sad mixture of
stone and wood, leaning this way and that, and wildflowers of yellow
and pink and tall grass shone in the bright sunlight.
Many readers will no doubt fondly recall old graveyards they have
explored on such days, walking among the headstones, as they try to
read the names and birth and death dates of people long gone. There's
little that's creepy or scary about graveyards under sunny, clear
skies, and the lush trees and grass and wildflowers add a certain charm
to the setting.
But look what happens when we change the time to night and, instead of
sunlight, there's a thunderstorm brewing, full of lightning, thunder,
and gusts of wind.
He had taken a shortcut from the hilly village
of Males on his way to Lompock, which the old man in the overalls at
the Texaco had said would knock an hour off his trip. "But, mind you,
there's a storm coming, and it's coming on dark," the old man said,
sidling up to him, looking him square in the eyes. "Might wanna put the
top up on yer car."
But he hadn't put the top up, as he pulled out of the station and
headed west on the farm-to-market road the old man had pointed toward
with a long, wrinkled finger. "Ataway."
And now, it was windy and already dark as sunset had given way quickly,
the sun dropping below the bank of angry looking clouds boiling toward
him from the west. The heat of the day lingered and hot wind blew
through the car, full of humidity and barely drying his forehead. Even
though the old road was paved, it needed repair, and he had to avoid
deep potholes that shone for an instant in the beam of his headlights,
barely giving him time to swerve to miss them. It was fully dark and
lightning flashed, closer and closer, followed by the crack of thunder.
Suddenly, the car pulled hard to the right, following a loud bang from
beneath the car, and a moment later, he came to a stop on the shoulder
of the road, his gut already knowing it was a right-front blowout. He
killed the engine, without thinking of putting the top up, and fished
around in the glove box for a flashlight. He stepped out and made his
way around the car.
A sudden flash of lightning sent a shower of sparks in front of him, as
it struck something metallic nearby, bathing everything in momentary
daylight brightness, and he saw he had come to a stop next to an old
graveyard. The rakish headstones danced in the strobe light of
lightning for a moment. Then darkness prevailed. Just before he turned,
another flash of lighting hit, and right next to the road on the other
side of the barbed-wire fence, he saw the open grave, and a hot gust of
wind carried the fetid odor of decaying flesh...
Yes, it's almost purple prose here, but you get the picture. Now, how
many readers would fondly recall old graveyards? Rather, the tone
changes to one of foreboding and evokes childhood fears and ghost
stories, and when we add in the sense of smell with the odor of
decaying flesh from an open grave, the atmosphere we create is
something of a horror story.
an entirely different way, we can evoke physical sensations that
readers can almost feel, simply through descriptions that use our
physical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. This next
example is from On the Fault
, by Ronald J. Wichers, a novel
about a young soldier from Viet Nam who loses part of one arm and has
to live in a VA hospital until the stump is healed. The character is
The story is set in the early 1970s, and we get a general sense of the
state of military medicine during Viet Nam, stateside. Joe Hearns is
going into the clinic to have a cast put on his "stump" what's left of
his left arm, which has been amputated above the elbow...
Doctor Tully, touched him on the shoulder. "Take your robe and shirt off, Hearns, would you please?"
Joe eased his swollen wing out of the sleeve, and sat stripped to the waist, waiting.
Tully stepped close to him and began handling the bandaged stump. Joe winced and tightened up.
"Louis," Tully called to one of the technicians. "When you get a chance, please."
"Yes sir, Doctor Tully. Be right with you, sir."
"Where are you from, Joe?" Tully asked, turning to him with two small papery packages and scissors in his hands.
Joe turned around. "Ah...Berkeley," he replied.
"Ah, yes...Berzerkley," Tully said, "Hmmm." The doctor seemed to slow
himself, his eyes focusing intently on Joe's bandage as he began
unwrapping the things he held in his hands. Cutting the brittle paper
with the scissors, he brought forth a white puff of lamb's wool, and
then from another package, a cloth article resembling a donut. He
glanced at Joe. "Lie down, will you?"
Joe stretched out on his back, his feet extending well beyond the edge of the examining table.
Louis had placed a steel basin of water beside the bed, along with
another containing a Phisohex solution. Tully was cutting the bloody
bandage away... "How are these things coming along?" Tully asked,
feeling with his fingers the suture line that spanned a portion of
Joe's rib cage...
Tully was lost in concentrating on the condition of Joe's half arm. It
was an angry light bulb made of meat, red and blue, and creased from
Louis held the basin of Phisohex, while Tully gripped the stump just below the armpit and began scrubbing.
Joe tried to shrink away. But the surgeon's hands were working
smoothly, and all three men breathed together, wrapped in single
concentration over Joe's wing; the need for cleaning it, the severity
of the swelling and the puffiness of the flesh that jiggled from Joe
pulling in apprehension, while the doctor maintained his grasp
Joe's wound was coming clean. He listened to the splashing of the water
as the doctor rinsed a cloth to wipe the stump. Louis held the basin of
water for the doctor to rinse without having to turn from the patient.
"...Can't you make him stop?" he wanted to say. The rinsing was
becoming more painful, scrubbing over and over at the end where the
metal sutures were.
He tried being manly, but he had not known about the cast room, he had no knowledge of what to be prepared for...
we have several images, complete with sensory description that will
make readers cringe as they read. Just a description of the instruments
and packages, in preparation for the procedure hints at the pain to
come, and the end of the stump described as "an angry light bulb made
of meat, red and blue, and creased from the gauze," is enough for most
readers to visualize the raw and sensitive wound that has to be cleaned.
We are feeling all this as the main character does, and like the
doctor, we are totally focused on the wound at the end of the stump, as
if it is our own. The tone of the writing is almost clinical and
detached, except for the very personal involvement of the character in
his entire body.
New writers might have said, Joe had a difficult time in the cast room,
and the doctor hurt him when he prepared Joe's stump for a cast. This
would simply carry no weight or pain or sensation to the reader, and we
would be less inclined to feel much, either within our own minds or
that of the characters. So it is simply the description, itself, that
carries the red meat of the story.