Description Tips

Descriptions are another element of my own writing that I've really worked to improve, and I've learned some valuable lessons along the way.

The best book I ever read about description is WORD PAINTING by Rebecca McClanahan. Can’t recommend it enough. One reason I like the book is because McClanahan references Aristotle and his belief that good description should be four things:

1. Concise – use the specific, proper names for things.

2. Sensory – appeal to all five senses.

3. Active – describe things in motion, create moving pictures in the mind.

4. Metaphorical – descriptive language and metaphors conjure vivid images.

Other tips:

- Use active, vivid prose.

- Avoid filters like “She noticed” or “She felt”; state image directly.

- Avoid linking verbs like appear, seem, was, were.

- Avoid helping verbs like would, can, might, must.

- Avoid adverbs.

- Metaphor isn’t the marriage of two things; it’s the child produced.

Tips for describing characters:

- Appeal to all five senses.

- Modify adjectives completely. For instance, instead of “green eyes,” say “eyes like cheap brass.”

- Make details as specific as possible.

- Don’t overdo it; focus on most revealing details.

- Don’t clump physical descriptions; spread details throughout scene.

- Set characters in motion.

- Use the environment to describe characters. For instance, if the character is sad, the environment’s description can help convey the sadness.

Aristotle’s four points are the most significant; everything else kind of flows naturally from them. Keep those points in mind whenever writing description.

Also, David Morrell, the fella who created Rambo, practices what he calls “triangulation.” Basically, he always tries to combine sight description with two other senses, triangulating on the subject matter to provide a strong image. Again, you may not be able to do it every time, and if you did, it would get repetitive like anything else. But triangulating is a good tool to have in your toolbox. You can bust it out whenever you really want to drive home a description. 

Clumping character and scene descriptions is probably the most common mistake I see. Clumping occurs when you place all your descriptions in one paragraph and then move on with the story, essentially segregating the description from the rest of the story. It happens the most when characters get introduced. Avoid giving extensive physical descriptions right away. Spread those details throughout the scene. 

You never want to describe something just to describe it. Every description should be crucial to defining character, establishing atmosphere, or advancing plot. Make the details essential to the story.

I have a writing teacher named Tim Esaias who always points to the book SHOGUN as the perfect way to do description. The story takes place in feudal Japan, where a lot of the buildings had paper walls. But we don't know the room has paper walls until someone puts his fist through one. Until that moment, the paper walls aren't important, so there's no need to describe them. Make sure the description is vital before writing it. Otherwise, unnecessary descriptions bloat prose and slow pacing.

Make sense? This was just a quick review of the key points I try to remember when writing description. In the next blog post, I’ll provide some examples to illustrate effective description.


Mystery Plotting the Hardy Way

Want to learn the finer points of mystery plotting? Sure, you could study Doyle or Hammett or Chandler, but I would like to shine a light on two overlooked giants of the genre: Frank and Joe Hardy. Yep, that's right. The good ol' Hardy Boys will teach you all you need to know about writing a mystery. And, better yet, they'll do it while hanging out at the circus.

For those who don’t know, the Hardy Boys are teenage amateur sleuths who first saw print in 1927. They've starred in countless young adult mysteries, all written under the name Franklin W. Dixon.

High-Wire Act, the 123rd mystery in the Hardy Boys Casefiles series that started in 1987, finds Frank and Joe investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding an injury to their pal Freddie Felix, a circus clown who almost died during his high-wire act. Simple in premise but profound in execution, the story provides the perfect mystery blueprint due to seven key points.

1. Structure - Chapter 1 ends with what the Hardy Boys believe to be an attempted murder. They begin an investigation, interviewing suspects, discovering clues, and using legit detection to solve the crime. The plot starts quickly, and each subsequent scene works toward the eventual solution.

2. Motivation - When dealing with amateur sleuths, you must establish a clear motivation. Why are they getting involved? Frank is friends with Freddie the clown, providing an emotional connection to the crime.

3. Suspects - Readers get clear, defined suspects in a shady veterinarian, a suspicious strong man, a short-tempered snake charmer, and a rival clown named Bobo. However, the two guilty parties, Bobo's wife and the circus magician, aren't targets of the investigation until the very end. They both make appearances relatively early, and Bobo's wife has a clear motive, but neither crosses the Hardy Boys' radar until absolutely necessary. Yet when the key clue turns out to be poisonous chemicals, the groundwork had already been done to connect the magician to the crime. When he first meets the Hardys, the magician makes a point of saying his tricks are done with chemicals. And Bobo's wife had told a blatant lie about Freddie's friendship with the strong man, betraying her involvement in the murder plot.

4. Secrets - All the prime suspects have secrets to protect. The strong man is on steroids. The veterinarian is smuggling exotic birds. These secrets make them look guilty and pull suspicion away from the real killers.

5. Second Body - Mysteries need a second victim to raise the stakes. Bobo's death supplies the second body and provides the Hardys with the decisive clue.

6. Plotting - The book begins with the Hardy Boys investigating who tried to kill Freddie, but in reality, Bobo was the target all along. Once the Hardys figure out Freddie wasn't the intended victim, the pieces fall into place. Mystery plots benefit from this kind of misdirection since it’s another way for authors to stay one step ahead of readers.

7. Logic - Plot twists only work if they make sense. Everything surrounding Freddie’s fall and Bobo’s subsequent death -- every clue, red herring, and motivation -- comes together perfectly with no holes in logic.    

Naturally, the story itself is tailored for the YA audience, but don't let the simplistic prose fool you. If you want a mystery plotting lesson, High-Wire Act is your manual.

The Hardy Boys would never let you down. Nancy Drew? Well, let’s just say I’ve heard things....


Four Tips for Likable Protagonists

If readers don't care about your protagonist, your book is dead in the water. Having an emotional connection to the book's hero is what gets readers hooked and invested in the story. So how do we, as authors, get readers to care about our characters? Here are four simple tricks:

1. Show your character suffering. Readers will identify with and root for a character suffering an emotional loss or dealing with adversity. Don't be scared to make things rough on your hero.

A perfect example of this would be “Guardians of the Galaxy.” As fun as that movie is, it opens with a young Star-Lord losing his mother to cancer. Everyone has lost someone they love, so this empathy creates an unbreakable bond between Star-Lord and the audience. Viewers immediately become emotionally invested in his story and can’t help but like him.

2. Show your character making a sacrifice. Tough to hate good people. If your hero sacrifices for another or at least goes out of her way to help someone, chances are readers will like the hero. And if they like the hero, they'll want to see what happens and will keep turning pages.

A subtle example of this happened in the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” At the beginning of the first episode, Will and his three friends, Michael, Lucas, and Dustin, are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Michael’s basement. Michael is acting as the dungeon master and unleashes the Demogorgon, a horrific monster. Will needs to roll a 13 or higher to fireball the demonic beast. In his excitement, he rolls the dice off the table and they get lost. That’s when Michael’s mother calls him upstairs and forces an end to the game. Meanwhile, downstairs, Will and Lucas find the dice and discover that he had rolled a seven, meaning he failed to kill the monster and that his character died. Lucas tells him to keep quiet because Michael will never know. Yet before Will leaves for the night, he pulls Michael aside and tells him that he rolled a seven, admitting that he lost and is out of the game.

Will could have lied or simply kept his mouth shut, but he didn’t. He told the truth. He sacrificed his own glory to ease Michael’s mind. Sure, it’s a small, easily overlooked gesture, but viewers sense Will’s altruistic nature and automatically like him. He’s a good kid. And that’s why the writers had Will be the one abducted by the monster at the end of the episode. Since viewers have been tricked into liking him, Will’s disappearance takes full advantage of that emotional investment. They’ll keep tuning in to see what happens to Will. And his disappearance also makes us care about his mother because, as mentioned in point no. 1, she suffered a severe emotional loss. 

By the way, there’s also a swell sacrifice in the aforementioned “Guardians of the Galaxy.” After Gamora’s ship explodes and she’s left floating unconscious in space, Star-Lord sacrifices himself to save her, giving her his helmet so she can breathe.   

3. Show your character being good at something. If your character is a detective, show her breaking down a crime scene with dazzling efficiency. People respect excellence. If readers see your character is skilled at something, they'll subconsciously admire and respect your hero.

Consider “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” After watching Indiana Jones evade the ancient temple’s death traps and swipe the golden idol, viewers know this guy is something special. And his likability increases even further when he’s forced to surrender the idol to Belloq, meaning he risked his life for nothing. Another loss. See how that works? 

4. Use humor. Who doesn't like to laugh? Make readers laugh, and they'll follow you anywhere.

Think of pretty much any successful comedy. For instance, the first time we see Peter Venkman in “Ghostbusters,” he’s rigging an ESP test at the expense of some poor sap so he can hit on a pretty co-ed. Or, once again, think of Star-Lord in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” After we have that opening scene of loss with his mother’s death, Star-Lord is next seen as a wisecracking outlaw dancing along to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” That entire opening sequence is a playful riff on the previously mentioned Indiana Jones scene. You could even say that Star-Lord’s ability to escape capture also shows he’s good at what he does. So James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, the movie’s screenwriters, nailed all four tricks for crafting a likable protagonist. Is it any wonder “Guardians” was such an enormous success?  

There ya go. Four simple ways to get readers to care about your characters. And if none of those work, have your hero adopt a chimp. Works every time.