Tips for Helping Your Stories Come Alive

A compendium of advice that summarizes some of the concepts already discussed in the book, this chapter looks a little like a workbench: if you pick and sort long enough, you”ll find exactly the tool you didn”t realize you were looking for. Some of the tips are new random offerings that did not fit logically into any particular chapter but were worth noting anyway.

I hope you will use this chapter to rummage around for ideas and inspiration when you”re struggling with a scene or having trouble getting from one part of a story to another. Suggestions given out of context can sometimes strike the right chord in a way an entire chapter devoted to one problem cannot. So, when you”re stuck, or daydreaming, or otherwise not writing, scan the following tips and tricks to get you back on your way.

Expand your field of vision. Experienced bird-watchers know that different species of warblers feed at different heights on a tree. They look to the top for Blackburnians, across the middle for Magnolias, and in the lower branches for Black-and-Whites. Experienced writers follow the same instinct when observing people or nature. Don”t get so focused on the sky that you miss the ground. A person”s kneecaps might be as defining as his nose. The squeak of a person”s shoes could be as telling as the squeak of his voice. Look up, down, all around for the details that best capture the thing you are describing.

Go beyond red, white, and blue. Don”t be afraid to liven up your descriptions by getting creative with color. Cerulean is not exactly blue, russet is not exactly red. Describe the color of things with familiar objects: a jacket can be the color of eggplant, hair can be the color of hay. Mustard-colored, storm-colored, cabbage-colored, money-colored all these colors say something not only about the object being described, but about the observer, too.

Circle your adverbs. Too many adverbs is a sign that you aren”t working hard enough to let language transfer a scene from your eyes to the readers”. When reviewing your work, watch for unnecessary, irrelevant, or extraneous adverbs (especially the ones that end in “ly”). If you describe a main character as one who behaves “lovingly” and works “tirelessly” only to come home to a family that treats her “terribly,” which causes her to speak to them “bitterly” you have a description problem. You are describing things in the abstract rather than in the particular. Instead of telling us that the heroine works tirelessly, describe the callouses on her hands or her slow and heavy walk. Examine your adverbs to make sure you aren”t forcing them to do the hard work of observation for you. They can”t.

And while you”re at it, circle your adjectives. Good description is not defined by the number of adjectives per sentence. When in the editing phase of writing you might try literally counting adjectives in any given paragraph. Paradoxically, a string of adjectives (no matter how bright and punchy) can diminish the descriptive power of a moment. For example, a sentence like “He turned his slack, reddened face to the white-hot, midday sun” is made flabby and unnoticeable by too many adjectives. “He turned his face to the white-hot sun” is direct and more dramatic.

Turn a bland simile into a vivid adjective. Similes can sometimes seem like a writer”s desperate attempt to depict a vivid world. Turning similes into adjectives can help you vary your descriptive style and still retain the comparisons that help readers see what you see. “He had a face like a cabbage” can be converted to “his cabbage-like face.” “She moved like a duck” becomes “her ducklike walk.” “James dropped from roof to balcony, quick as a cat” becomes “his feline leap.” Similarly, a description like “When George laughed he seemed to roar like a lion” can be made more effective with adjectives: “George unleashed a leonine [or lionlike] roar of a laugh.” Or, you could skip both simile and adjective and simplify the description this way: “George roared.”

Don”t mix metaphors. The mixed metaphor gets first prize for exposing beginning writers. Metaphor disasters abound in most writers” early (and mercifully unpublished) work, whether they care to admit it or not. To wit: “Without her, he was a bird shot from the sky, his very foundation crumbling under the rotting timbers of his widowhood.” This sentence looks amateurish and overwritten because conflicting metaphors are crowding each other off the page. Go with the bird or the house, but don”t include them both. Birds don”t have foundations or rotting timbers, and houses don”t get shot out of the sky. You might try something like “… he was a bird shot out of the sky, suddenly wingless, crying out in disbelief” or “…he was no more stable than the house across the road, his foundation crumbling under the rotting timbers of his widowhood.” In any case, don”t make metaphors too obvious, as both of these are.

Tone down your metaphors. In the above tip, the metaphors are so heavy-handed as to be amateurish even once they”ve been unmixed. If you want to compare the poor guy to a wingless bird, you might lay out the suggestion of a bird instead of coming at us full-tilt with “he was a bird….” For example, he could be sitting in his garden noticing that all the birds are showing up in pairs for the nesting season, or perhaps he could remember shooting birds when he was a child and then be reminded of their “crying out in disbelief.” Metaphors that begin with “he was a lion” (“he was a lion of a man” is better) or “she was a cat” are usually too loaded at the outset to work. If you write, “She curled into the chair, catlike, and brushed the lint carefully off one sleeve, then the other,” you give the character over to the metaphor of a cat without actually calling her a cat. Her deliberate movements (“first one sleeve, then the other”) are reminiscent of the way cats groom themselves; the mere suggestion is enough to paint the picture.

Use the impersonal pronoun for animals. To avoid sentimentality, describe animals as “it” rather than “he” or “she.” “The cat fetched its kittens one by one and carried them into the other closet” sounds less sentimental than “The cat carried her kittens…” The impersonal pronoun allows animals to remain animals. Leave the personal pronouns for the characters themselves to use. “She bit me twice,” a first-person narrator might say of his dog, but a third-person narrative would read “The dog bit its master twice.”

Jazz up your prose by engaging the senses. When a descriptive passage fails for no reason that you can easily discern, take a good look at your sensory details. Are they all visual? Add a sound or a scent to get the prose moving again.

Don”t rely on brand names. If you present a character who wakes up on a Beautyrest mattress, eats a bowl of Cheerios cereal, laces up her Reebok sneakers, and grabs her Gucci briefcase before bicycling to work on her Bianchi mountain bike, you run the risk of creating an annoyed reader rather than a “real” character. Use brand names only when they serve to illuminate something about character or story. The Cheerios might be important if the character has been fighting with her kids over their crummy eating habits; the Reeboks might be important if the character spent a week deciding whether or not to take up jogging. It”s hard to imagine any reason to include a Gucci briefcase in a description of anything except a briefcase store.

Don”t use “telling” names. Who can forget Snidley Whiplash or Cruella DeVille, cartoon villains we loved to hate? Names like that work great in cartoons. Unfortunately, unless you”re Charles Dickens, giving characters descriptive names only diminishes serious fiction. A track star named Bea Swift is going to seem like a cartoon character, no matter what your intentions. If you”re writing humor or satire, then by all means name away but for serious fiction, “telling” names won”t do the job.

You can work with sounds when naming characters, however. A heartless surgeon might be made more vivid with a name like “Dr. Crutchfield” or “Dr. Hatch” sounds that are reminiscent of ripping or tearing. The association isn”t Snidley-Whiplash obvious, but does add just a dash of menace to the character. A kind old woman might be well served by a name like “Polly”: the sound is round and soft. The right name can make a character come into focus not only for your readers, but for you.

Don”t use alien names. The above advice can be reversed: You shouldn”t give your characters names that are too obviously meant to reveal their character, but neither should you give them names that are too alien to their character. For example, if you invent a wealthy, upper-crust English landowner with a name like Luther Johnson, you”d better be prepared to explain how he came by that name (it could be the heart of the story). On the other hand, if you write about an American sharecropper named Neville Windsor, a similar explanation is in order. (I, for one, would love to hear it.)

Don”t pile on the details. Too many details in a passage of prose can obscure its meaning. For example, the story of a social worker visiting the house of a notoriously recalcitrant family could begin this way:

The mud in the grassless yard was about two inches thick, at first spongy and yielding under her feet. She moved through the litter-strewn pathway to the house, through the spare parts of long-forgotten cars, sun-bleached Popsicle wrappers, coils of rope, tatters of ink-smeared junk mail, various and colorful plastic parts from several generations of children”s toys, junked wood that had once been part of several decent but inexpensive discount-store furniture, clay pots with jagged cracks, and an inexplicable assortment of kites in various stages of decay. Alice picked her way through the obstacle course, aware of the low and glowering sky above her that carried the tang of sulphur from the mill downriver. She shifted her briefcase from one arm to the other, aware of its sleight and heft and how it must make her look like a bureaucrat from the state come to torture some unsuspecting family. She looked up to find the lady of the house, a massive woman in a calico apron, staring like an owl from behind the screen door. Alice smiled and waved as the mud began to pull at her shoes, making each step forward like a leap through time and space.

This is a lot of detail, and in the right story it could work just fine. Know, however, that you always have the option of weeding out details so the readers can see the forest for the trees. You don”t have to set up a scene by describing everything from the weather to the buttons on the character”s blouse. Keep in mind the central image you yourself can see when entering your character”s world:

Alice picked her way through the pulling mud, her eye on the massive woman behind the screen door. Each step was harder than the first besides the mud she had to watch for discarded car parts and broken toys and she began to believe she was moving in great, agonizing leaps through time and space.

More detail is not always better. Every once in a while you have to remember to let your prose breathe!

Use adjectives in surprising ways. Try to write description that contains verbal surprises. An adjective like “sweet” does not always have to describe sugar, or a kitten, or a baby. How about a sweet tractor, or a sweet hurricane? Flex those adjectives! In the right story, seemingly unrelated adjective-noun combinations frightful goodness, ferocious necklace, barnlike body can strike exactly the descriptive note you want.

Don”t use unusual adjectives twice. Common adjectives like “small,” “large,” “brown,” or “wet” can be repeated in a story, sometimes three or four times, without drawing attention to themselves. Less common adjectives, however “lissome,” “electrifying,” “fractious,” “sinister” should be used only once per story. A good adjective repeated becomes a bad word choice.

Check for descriptive consistency. If Dorothy has blue eyes on page two, then she”d better have blue eyes on page nine. You”d be surprised how often inconsistencies crop up. If you write only on weekends, or are rewriting a story you began five years ago, you are especially prone to having descriptive inconsistencies.

Don”t mix up point of view. Any description of a character or place or event takes on a particular perspective. That perspective may be your own, or a first-person narrator”s, or a third-person narrator”s whatever point of view you choose, stay consistent. The third-person narrator might see the clear blue sky as ominous; the main character might see the same sky as a sign of good luck; the “camera eye” would objectively record the sky as blue. Don”t call the sky ominous on page one and lucky on page five unless you”ve clearly and deliberately shifted point of view. Decide who”s calling the descriptive shots right at the beginning.

Don”t enslave yourself to “showing.” “Show, don”t tell” is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective than showing. A brief statement “Helen was a cheat. It was that simple” may be far more effective than a two-page scene showing Helen at work as a cheat. Telling can be just as thrilling as showing as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.

Elevate the mundane with some lyricism. When describing things that are inherently dull a pig farm, for example inject some fresh imagery and lyrical phraseology into the description. The pigs might resemble failed dictators, say; the hoof-marked mud might be hardened in spots and reminiscent of an elegant, pressed-tin ceiling; the setting sun might cast ribbons of color over the sagging fences. Beauty and ugliness exist in everything we see if we”re willing to look hard enough.

Avoid sentimentality and melodrama. Sentimentality runs rampant when we write in abstractions: “She was wracked with grief.” “His happiness knew no bounds.” Avoid melodrama by sticking to accessible, concrete images: “She covered her face with her hands.” “He ran down the green slope of lawn, his long hair spraying out like a fireworks.” Describe the things we can see or hear; we can”t see or hear “wracked” any more than we can see or hear “no bounds.” We can, however, see a woman”s hands on her face or a man”s hair spraying out as he runs.

Avoid “realistic” details that alienate the readers. Say you”re writing a story about an ornithologist. You don”t know much about birds yourself, so you flee to the library to research the science of birds. That”s fine. Drink it in. Learn all you can until your ornithologist”s motivations and passions are as familiar as your own. When you finally sit down to write the story, though, don”t treat your readers to the fruits of your labors. You should know the difference between altricial and precocial, but your readers don”t necessarily have to. People love to learn new things through fiction, but only if the story itself remains center stage. Introduce unfamiliar words or facts as part of the story”s natural unfolding. Resist the temptation to show off; your hard work should be invisible by the time it gets to the page. The only purpose of all your bird research is to make your character, the ornithologist, believable to the readers. Jargon words like passerine and syrinx will alienate your readers, while the lay terms perching bird and voicebox will allow them into the fascinating world of birds. The paradox of fiercely researched stories is that the more technical terms you throw in, the more the readers figure you don”t really know what you”re talking about. It looks like overcompensation. If you”re such an expert on the migratory pattern of scissor-tailed flycatchers, then why can”t you explain it in plain English? If you must use jargon (perhaps that”s the way the character talks), then take care to explain in some other way what the words mean:

“Here”s where the damage is,” Dr. Hendrix said. He examined the cardinal”s orange beak, working it open and closed with his fingers. “Do you see how the upper and lower mandibles aren”t closing properly?”

Certain unfamiliar words can be worked into context, of course you don”t want to insult your readers by going too far in the direction of simplicity. Just remember that you”re writing a story, not a textbook, and that the character himself should be more interesting than the work he does.

Don”t abuse your thesaurus. Thesauruses are life-savers, but they can”t turn bad prose into good. If you find yourself running to the thesaurus every five minutes then you aren”t working hard enough. If you want just the right word to describe your mother”s garden, don”t expect the thesaurus to provide it. You”re better off sitting in your mother”s garden for half an hour and taking in the experience of what you would like to describe.

Use description to place dialogue in context. Conversations don”t take place in a vacuum. People talk while eating, cleaning house, shoveling snow, appraising jewelry, committing murder. A descriptive tag as simple as ” … she said, giving the cement mixer another turn” can remind your readers that the characters are not talking heads and that a story is in progress.

Above all, enjoy yourself! We all have something to say. We all have joys and sorrows and magical moments in our past that shape our unique view of the human condition. Sharing our view through the written word should be the easiest thing in the world. It isn”t, though; sometimes it”s the hardest thing in the world. Writing is tough work. It requires time, and concentration, and self-confidence, and extraordinary patience. This is true whether you”re writing your first story or your hundredth. Because the writing process requires so much from us, we often get frustrated or discouraged or just plain furious about the whole thing. When this happens, remind yourself that writing is supposed to be fun. Don”t take yourself so seriously. If the story you”re writing now never sees publication, so what? I can look back on dozens of my own unpublished stories and see them as the steps that led to the published ones. Nothing you write is ever wasted! Like the basketball player who spends every morning shooting nothing but free throws, you have to practice to get better. On those days when you feel like a tongue-tied hack, remind yourself why you write. Remind yourself of the joy your own words can bring you. Remind yourself how good it feels to finish a first draft. Remind yourself how satisfying it is to finally send a story out with hope and a prayer. It”s the process, not the product, that brings the most satisfaction. Not all of us will see the product a published story but the process is ours for the taking. No entry fee, no prerequisites just a pencil and an idea.

Monica Wood is the author of a novel, Secret Language, which is currently under option as a television motion picture. Her frequently anthologized short stories have appeared in such publications as Redbook, The North American Review, Yankee, Tampa Review and Manoa. Her stories have been read on public radio, nominated for the National Magazine Award, and given special mention in the Pushcart Prize. A native of western Maine, she now lives in Portland, Maine, where she freelances as a writing instructor and copy editor.

Excerpted from Description. Copyright 1995 by Monica Wood. Used with permission of Writer”s Digest Books, a division of F&W Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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