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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Description is Boring – and How to Make It Interesting

Please welcome guest blogger Madeleine Drake

Let's start with the obvious:  description is boring because it stops the action of the story in order to give readers a look around.

And yet, if we don't give our readers a chance to look around, they'll never see the worlds we've lovingly crafted for them, and our settings will seem weak.

Yes, we could keep description to a minimum, breaking setting details into small chunks and sprinkling them throughout the scene.  But even the smallest chunk of description, no matter how vivid, stops the action.

Is there a way to make setting descriptions a part of the action?  Is it possible to describe things as needed without boring the reader?

Yes.  But in order to do it, you have to understand how your point-of-view character's consciousness moves through the scene.

We humans experience the world as a stream of stimuli, interrupted by our responses to those stimuli.

You accidentally stub your toe (stimulus), you involuntarily pull your foot back and curl the injured toe (response).

A co-worker says something critical (stimulus), and you come back with a snarky retort (response).

You remember on your way home that today was your nephew's birthday (stimulus), and you feel guilty because you forgot to get him a present (response).

Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response:  that's the rhythm of life.

If you want to create the illusion of life, you need to reproduce that rhythm on the page.  A scene is a series of stimulus-response units chained together to give the illusion that we're seeing the storyworld through the eyes of a living, breathing, responding-to-stimuli person.

Description is boring when it's written as a series of stimuli without responses:  the car was blue, sunlight glinted off the vintage chrome bumper, the tires grabbed dust from the road and threw it up in a red-brown cloud.  When you give the reader a laundry list of details, it doesn't matter how vivid those details are, the reader's going to get impatient, because she wants to see something happen.

When description is presented as part of a stimulus-response chain, those vivid setting details become part of the action.

Consider this passage:

My repeller dangled between my breasts on a cord, sending out a bone-deep whine that drove the mosquitoes off and parted the pale clouds of miniscule gnats swarming along the bayou path.  The asphalt beneath my feet radiated heat.  The water treatment plant upstream tainted the breeze with the scents of sewage and cloying sweetness.

At what point in this paragraph did you start skimming?

Compare with this:

My repeller dangled between my breasts on a cord, sending out a bone-deep whine that wasn't supposed to make my teeth buzz.  But it drove the mosquitoes off and parted the pale clouds of miniscule gnats swarming along the bayou path, so I left it on.  Heat radiating from the asphalt aggravated the ache in my sore, swollen feet.  A whiff of sewage mixed with cloying sweetness clung to the back of my throat, making me gag. I could hardly wait to get upwind of the water treatment plant.

Better, right?  Doesn't this passage have a sense of movement that the first one lacked?

Let's break this down into stimuli and responses:

Stimulus:  My repeller dangled between my breasts on a cord, sending out a bone-deep whine
Response:  that wasn't supposed to make my teeth buzz.

Notice that the response is both a sensory detail and a veiled complaint that lets us know the repeller is annoying the POV character.

Stimulus:  But it drove the mosquitoes off and parted the pale clouds of miniscule gnats swarming along the bayou path,
Response:  so I left it on.

In this case, the stimulus is the POV character's observation of the repeller's effectiveness, and the response is her decision not to turn it off.

Stimulus:  Heat radiating from the asphalt
Response:  aggravated the ache in my sore, swollen feet.

The stimulus is another sensory detail, and the response not only tells you how the character is feeling, but also implies that she's been walking for a while.

Stimulus:  A whiff of sewage mixed with cloying sweetness clung to the back of my throat,
Response:  making me gag. I could hardly wait to get upwind of the water treatment plant.

The stimulus is yet another sensory detail, and the response includes the character's reflexive reaction to that detail as well as her thought identifying the source of the smell.

In this version, you don't just get the stimuli, you also get the POV character's reaction to each one:  she's torn between putting up with the buzz in her teeth or being swarmed by bugs, she keeps walking even though her feet ache, she's gagging on the smells from the water treatment plant.

Her responses also do double duty as characterization:  we learn that she's someone who keeps going until she gets where she needs to go, regardless of what discomfort she suffers along the way.

I encourage you to choose a description-heavy scene from your work-in-progress and revise it so that each passage of description has this stimulus-response structure.

I'd also like to invite you to join me next month as I teach Edit the Life Back Into Your Story:  Hands-on Techniques for Creating Emotional Impact here at FF&P.  This workshop will include lessons on:

      Using stimulus-response chains for maximum dramatic effect
      Fine-tuning the emotional progression of a scene
      Exposition techniques that keep your infodumps from putting the reader to sleep
      Recognizing and eliminating author intrusion
      Methods to ensure that your characters' emotions and personalities come through strongly on the page
      A simple process for turning "telling" into "showing"

See you there!


Madeleine Drake writes feisty, fast-paced paranormal romance and erotica that spans the space-time continuum. Her homeworld is located out past the constellation Orion, but she currently resides in Texas. You can find her online at http://www.madeleinedrake.com

When she's not writing fiction, Madeleine blogs under the name Lynn Johnston about how to take control of your life ten minutes at a time using the kaizen approach: http://www.smallstepstobigchange.com

Her books include The Kaizen Plan for Organized Authors: Take Control of Your Writing Career 10 Minutes at a Time (www.smallstepsforwriters.com).

8 comments:

Marilyn Muñiz said...

Wow, I'm floored. This is the best advice I've ever read. Thanks so much!

Madeleine Drake said...

Thanks, Marilyn - I'm glad you found it helpful! :)

Lita said...

Great post.

Paula Millhouse said...

Hi Madeline,
This post is amazing - your class sounds liberating for both characters and setting - what a great observation with the stimuli-response approach.
Paula

Nickie Asher said...

Wow. Great post.

Madeleine Drake said...

Thanks, Lita! :)

Madeleine Drake said...

Hi, Paula -- I'm glad you found it helpful. :)

The class focuses very intensively on bringing the characters to life and bringing the reader into the character's head. We do a lot more with stimulus-response chains, and look at how to make sure you're never stopping the action of the story, and a ton of characterization work. It's all hands-on...techniques that you can use immediately to make your rough draft shine.

I hope to see you there!

Madeleine Drake said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Nickie! :)