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Tips for Writing Descriptions #2

Lately I've taken to tracking my progress on an Excel spreadsheet. I list all of the chapters on separate rows and have columns for a brief chapter synopsis, the current status ("Not Started," "In Progress," or "Complete), and Notes. I use Notes to remind myself what still needs to be done to the In Progress chapters.

Almost every cell in the Note column begins, "Add description of..."

I hate writing descriptions. I hate writing them because I hate reading them, and I can't bring myself to write anything I don't want to read. When I reach a strictly descriptive passage in a novel, no matter how beautifully written, my eyes glaze over and I skim past it. I do the same when I'm writing. When I bump into a spot where I must describe the setting, my fingers stop typing. I leave a note for myself and skip to the interesting parts. Later I have to come back and invent a way to describe the setting without boring myself to tears.

In March 2014 I wrote a blog post titled "Tips for Writing Descriptions." Under the Static vs. Interactive header, I said this.

Long descriptive passages that paint static backdrops can stop the narrative flow dead. They're like those annoying parts in Disney attractions, e.g., the Haunted Mansion, where the ride stops moving and you're supposed to sit still and look at the scene. Readers get to them, see a block of adjectives and "things," and are tempted to skip ahead to when the ride starts moving again.

I've since picked up some tricks for avoiding these "sit still and look" type of passages. From the works of other authors, I've gleaned some devious ways of describing settings without being boring.

Describe People, Not Things

Here's a tedious way of describing a college campus, courtesy of yours truly.

Red and white tulips grew around the base of the gate. A wide brick path passed through it to the campus beyond. To the right, the path diverged into a shaded wood. To the left stood impressive 19th-century lecture halls made of Indiana limestone, with clocks embedded in tall spires and Latin mottos carved over the arching doorways. A gentle breeze rifled through the grass of the impeccable lawns. A bronze statue of a beloved former president sat on a bench in a round clearing, his balding head glinting in the summer sun.

Egads, that was painful to write. If you read the first sentence and skipped down to here, that's precisely my point.

Now here's a more interesting way of describing a college campus, from the first chapter of Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night (1935).

Students sauntering in pairs. Students dashing to lectures, their gowns hitched hurriedly over light summer frocks, the wind jerking their flat caps into the absurd likeness of so many jesters' cockscombs. Bicycles stacked in the porter's lodge, their carriers piled with books and gowns twisted about their handlebars. A grizzled woman don crossing the turf with vague eyes, her thoughts riveted upon aspects of sixteenth-century philosophy...The college cat, preoccupied and remote, stalking with tail erect in the direction of the buttery.

By focusing on characters, not inanimate objects, the setting comes alive. But readers still glean information about this place and will flesh it out in their imaginations. We're at an old-fashioned British university, it's summer, there's a big stone gate at the entrance ("porter's lodge") and a lovely green lawn ("turf") and a bustling student cafeteria ("buttery").

Think about what people notice and remember about places. They notice people. They notice unique features. They notice things that elicit emotions or thoughts that are out of the ordinary.

What would a real-life person say if you asked her to describe a recent visit to Disneyland? She'd say the kids wanted to ride Space Mountain three times, and the guy dressed up as Goofy on Main Street was so funny, and there were these amazing acrobats in the parade at the end of the day.

But what do writers do when they sit down to describe Disneyland? An old-fashioned train takes visitors around the perimeter of the park. Main Street is lined by quaint gift shops selling colorful lollipops and Minnie Mouse ears and *snore*....

For some reason, when we set out to describe settings in print, we start focusing on boring things nobody notices or cares about. Who notices breezes rifling through the grass? Only a writer staring at minutiae, trying to come up with something observant to say.

Describe Actions and Reactions, Not Settings

The thing that impressed me most when I read the first The Hunger Games book wasn't the characters or the plot—both of which were pretty much as expected—but the setting descriptions. Specifically, the fact that they didn't seem to exist.

Suzanne Collins never stops the flow of the story to describe things. Every paragraph reveals backstory, develops character, or furthers the plot. Still, she manages to convey a visually rich world through descriptions integrated into the narrative.

In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings on a smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods.

This paragraph is typical of Collins' technique. She sneaks brief descriptions into the middle of paragraphs that are primarily about action and/or character. A setting might be nestled in a memory, or an interaction between characters, or a nugget of history about the dystopian world. It's never merely a setting for its own sake.

Here's another version of a college campus description, this one from Debbie Macomber's Three Brides, No Groom. She laces the setting into the emotionally charged memories of the heroine.

Gretchen Wise walked slowly toward the old cement fountain and smiled as the memories swirled around her the way water rushed around a rock in a swift stream.

She could almost hear the echo of laughter from those long-ago years. How happy she'd been back then: young, carefree, excited and so very much in love—with the wrong man. Fifteen years earlier she'd barely been able to appreciate her own graduation, not with her head full of wedding plans and Roger.

Sitting on the old concrete rim now, Gretchen swung her gaze to the nearby law school. The two-story redbrick building with the wide flight of stairs leading up to the double doors remained much the same....She had spent many an idle afternoon sitting in this very spot, anticipating Roger's arrival, never guessing where he'd actually been.

Make the Setting Active

For the most part, settings belong in the background. Central focus belongs on the characters. Writing a story about a protagonist but waxing at length on his surroundings is like filming a video of a person but focusing on the tree behind him.

If you must move your attention away from the subject and focus on the tree, it had better be a darned interesting tree that's doing something.

In The Hunger Games, the setting of the arena behaves like an adversarial character. If the setting is trying to kill people, that's a pretty good reason to focus on it.

The world has transformed to flame and smoke. Burning branches crack from trees and fall in showers of sparks at my feet....I run, choking, my bag banging against my back, my face cut with branches that materialize from the gray haze without warning, because I know I am supposed to run.

Similarly, in Stephen King's short story "1408," a haunted hotel room drives the main character insane and tries to eat him. Oddly, I found the story boring when the protagonist was talking to other human characters, but it picked up quickly when he shut himself up alone in the room.


Depending on genre, readers will have different levels of tolerance for static description. Suzanne Collins' teenage thrill-seeking readers have no patience for it at all, so she needs to sneak her descriptions into the action. Debbi Macomer's clean-romance-seeking readers don't mind a few paragraphs dedicated to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

But no matter the genre, it's always a good idea to stop and evaluate whether a page-long description of a setting is really necessary. Can it be worked into a more interesting scene? Can the POV character interact with her surroundings, instead of merely staring at it? How does the setting affect the character emotionally? What unique aspects would she notice about it, given her background and her state of mind?

Writing What You Think You're Writing

Last week a coworker and I went on a field trip to the local public library to try out their microfilm machine. We're purchasing the same model for the college and, as it costs approximately the MSRP of a 2017 Nissan Versa, we needed to make sure it will be worth every penny.

While I was there, I picked up a cozy mystery I've been dying to read ever since I saw the cover art in the online catalog. I won't share the specific title, but suffice to say it was adorable. The premise was brilliant and I was excited to crack open the paperback.

You know how it usually ends when I get excited to read a book with a brilliant premise.

For the first fifty pages, I couldn't put my finger on exactly what was wrong with this book. The author delivered the story she promised, but I wasn't enjoying it. The characters were quirky, but they somehow came across as flat. The setting was fabulous, but it somehow came across as drab.

Then the heroine, whom we'll call Anne, meets a wealthy woman, whom we'll call Beth. In a brief one-page conversation, Beth drops hints about the shady past of a third character, Carl. Anne is suddenly obsessed with getting to the bottom of "what Beth was trying to say." She reads deep meanings into every move Beth makes. She sees profound significance in the way Beth glances at Carl across the room.

I thought, "Hold on, Anne. You talked to this woman for one minute, and you already know all of her secret resentments and hidden agendas? Do you have heretofore unmentioned telepathic powers?"

I realized that the author intended Beth to play a specific function: to introduce Carl as a mysterious character and spur Anne to dig into his past. All Beth really did was share some catty gossip. But Anne, as the author's mouthpiece, was carrying on as if Beth had revealed a great and terrible mystery.

I thought back on the fifty pages before that. From page one, the heroine had been doing all the talking. The characters were flat by themselves, but they were supposed to be quirky because Anne said they were. The setting was drab by itself, but it was supposed to be fabulous because Anne said it was.

This is the sort of thing that people blame on outlining. They point to examples like this and say, "See? This is what happens when writers outline. They sacrifice character and believability for 'how the story is supposed to go.'" But I've read sample chapters with the same problem from "pantsers" who made their stories up as they went along. The heroine would rant for pages about how much she hated a coworker, but the coworker really wasn't that bad. Or she'd act like her crush was the most fascinating man on planet Earth, but he was really as bland as a sodium-free cracker.

This isn't a problem caused by a writer's process. It's a problem caused by a writer's over-reliance on telling.

For readers to believe a conclusion, they have to come to it independently. To believe the heroine's coworker is a Class A Jerk, they have to see the coworker screaming at a pitiful intern for bringing him a lukewarm latte. Then readers will feel the same dislike the heroine does. To believe the heroine's crush is fascinating, they have to see the crush climbing a tree in an expensive suit to save a terrified kitten. Then they'll melt into warm fuzzies like the heroine does. Nobody will feel anything if you simply say, "He's such a jerk; I hate him so much!" or "He's super cool; I'm so in love!"

Once I read the first chapter of an urban fantasy by a young man who was seeking advice through an online forum. In the opening scene, a dubious low-life uses his telekinetic powers to break into a house and steal cocaine. We'll call this character Dan. I told the writer he could make Dan more frightening by subtly emphasizing his villainy, showing him trampling over flowers and whatnot.

The writer said, "I didn't intend for Dan to be a villain." The character was supposed to be sympathetic!

I expressed surprise. "In this scene, Dan comes across as a thug with no redeeming qualities. It's not enough to tell us he's stealing the drugs because he's desperate. To make him sympathetic, you have to show us that he's a complex character."

The writer's response: "I did that, right here: He had to do it. His basic survival was in jeopardy."

I believe the appropriate twenty-first-century expression is "facepalm."

Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue

Writers who rely on telling aren't writing what they think they're writing. When this young man wrote, "His basic survival was in jeopardy," he thought he was writing, "His basic survival was in jeopardy." But he was actually writing, "Dan justified his actions by telling himself his basic survival was in jeopardy, but that was probably a gross exaggeration."

Almost all modern fiction is told from the limited perspective of the point-of-view character, and readers know it. Adult readers take every sentence with a grain of salt, especially if they're fans of mysteries and thrillers. Knowing that the hero will make many erroneous assumptions before he figures out whodunnit in the final chapter, readers will try to judge the truth for themselves from evidence in the story. If the hero comes to an off-the-wall conclusion from the same evidence, readers will get frustrated with him (and the author).

When the author of that disappointing cozy mystery wrote, "Beth was trying to tell me something, but what?" she thought she was saying Beth was giving Anne a clue. But she was really saying Anne thought Beth was giving her a clue. I, the reader, did not see anything in Beth's behavior that indicated she was communicating some secret knowledge. I was very annoyed, because when I pick up a cozy mystery I expect to identify with the heroine and root for her. Anne and I were clearly not on the same page and never would be.

Of course there's one big exception: the unreliable narrator. A protagonist "telling" the reader things that are inconsistent with the evidence in the story can be used powerfully, if done on purpose.

I admire the way Lori Rader-Day pulled this off in The Black Hour. In chapter one, the sardonic heroine comes back to work as a professor at an illustrious university. A student shot her at the end of spring term and left her permanently disabled, with only one fully functioning leg. The heroine tells the reader about her elitist colleagues, who always looked down on her because her degree came from a no-name state school. None of them want her to come back. They all wish she would quietly disappear so they could forget about the unpleasant scandal.

Then the heroine learns that her department is having a meeting on the other side of the campus, on the second floor of an old building with no elevator. She couldn't possibly climb those stairs. The faculty are trying to exclude her from departmental business and force her out of the university. But she won't let them! With the assistance of a friend, she limps slowly across the big campus. She hauls herself up the steep, aged stairs, gasping in pain with every torturous step. The friend opens the door, and...

"Welcome back!" Her colleagues beam and applaud. There's a sheet cake on the table with her name on it. The faculty congratulate the heroine on her recovery and joke that she sure took her time getting to the party.

The truth hits the reader in the face: these people aren't callous snobs with nefarious designs to kick the heroine out of the school. They're well-meaning but oblivious academics who didn't think about how difficult it would be for a person with a physical disability to reach this room.

By showing evidence that contradicts what the heroine tells the reader, Rader-Day succeeds in illustrating that the heroine has an inferiority complex that warps her view of the world. Sadly, most books I read are not as ingenious as The Black Hour. Usually when there's a difference between how I see characters/events and how the protagonist sees them, it isn't a deliberate ploy by the author. Instead the author thought she'd written one thing when she'd really written another. How to avoid this pitfall?

1. Take a hard look at what you're showing the reader.

Read your manuscript, skipping all of the telling. Or copy the whole thing over to a new document and delete the telling. Every time the POV character passes a judgement (i.e., "My coworker is such a jerk," "The little bookshop was adorable"), that's telling. Every time you write straight up what a character is thinking or what motivates him (i.e., "He was desperate for cash," "The girl was head-over-heels in love"), that's also telling.

If you remove all of the sentences in which you tell readers what to think, would those readers still come to the conclusions you want? If you don't tell readers the bookshop is adorable, would they still think it's cute as described? If you don't tell readers the girl is in love, would they get it from the way she speaks and acts?

2. Put yourself in the POV character's head.

In the Intro to Psychology class I took as a freshman in college, the professor told us about an interesting study. The researchers asked students in a library, "If you walked through the security gate and the alarm went off, what would people think?" Most of the respondents said everyone would think they were trying to steal books. Then the researchers asked, "If someone else walked through the security gate and the alarm went off, what would you think?" The same respondents said they'd assume the person made a mistake. Maybe he forgot a book was in his backpack, or maybe the librarian at the desk didn't scan it properly.

People tend to make erroneous assumptions about what other people would think and do in a hypothetical situation, but they're pretty good at guessing what they'd think and do themselves. Many pitfalls in fiction could be avoided if writers stopped asking, "What would this character do?" and instead asked, "What would I do in this character's place?"

What would you do if you met a random woman who told you something bad about a stranger? Would you study her movements closely, looking for clues about the stranger's mysterious background? Probably not. You'd likely think the woman is an unpleasant gossip, and the stranger's past is really none of your business. If your aim is to give the heroine a reason to dig into this stranger's past, it has to be a reason that would also persuade you to dig into a stranger's past.

What would you think if you were breaking into a house to steal cocaine? You might say, "Well, I would never do that." Exactly. The vast majority of people would never do it. Certainly none of your readers would ever do it. What could possibly make you so desperate that you would do it? The answer is what you need to show if you want readers to sympathize with this character.

3. Ask beta readers for feedback.

Try as we might, we can never fully get rid of the rosy filter over our eyes that makes us see what we intended to write instead of what we actually wrote. There are some little tricks to help: change the font to see your manuscript with fresh eyes, print out the chapters to read on paper, read your writing out loud to the cat, or put the book away in a drawer for six months and read it again after you've forgotten most of it. But the only truly foolproof method is to ask other people to read it.

Finding good beta readers is the tricky part. Fellow writers, in my experience, tend to think of themselves as editors even when you specifically ask for reactions, not advice. Friends and family might not be entirely honest because they don't want to hurt your feelings. And if they do hurt your feelings, or you hurt theirs by asking Friend X to read the manuscript but not Friend Y, there can be awkward ramifications for all.

Since I haven't found reliable beta readers myself, I don't have any advice to give. Sorry, you're on your own! But you do need another human being to look at the story through an objective lens. If all else fails, there are many competent developmental editors out there who will help for a reasonable fee.

Cutie Mark Mindset vs. Kung Fu Mindset

Yesterday I reached the one-third mark of my cozy mystery by finishing chapter 9 of 27. I'm progressing more slowly than I'd like because I'm too tired to write after work, but I rarely manage to wake up in time to write before work. I'll keep doing what I can on weekends, and if I dedicate myself over the winter holidays I believe I'll finish the first draft before the new year.

As part of my "research" for the novel, a few weekends ago I baked these beauties.


This picture won't look like much to a disinterested third party, but to me it's irrefutable evidence of my triumph over the snickerdoodle. I've made several batches of snickerdoodles over the years, and all of them failed to impress. The batch before this one was a complete disaster. I used a traditional recipe that called for cream of tartar to activate the baking soda. The result was a cookie that looked and smelled lovely but tasted sour and left a horrible aftertaste. After forcing myself to eat the batch, so as not to waste the ingredients, my taste buds were traumatized. The mere scent of cinnamon made my mouth sting with the anticipation of bitterness.

But I would not be deterred! The next week I bravely took up my cookie scoop and modified the recipe to use baking powder instead, and I successfully created these beautiful melt-in-your-mouth cookies. Snickerdoodle purists will say my version is merely a sugar cookie coated with cinnamon, and a snickerdoodle isn't a snickerdoodle without the cream of tarter tang. I say I'd rather have a fake that tastes delicious over a genuine article that makes my throat burn.

My adventures with snickerdoodles exemplify what orientation facilitators at my college call a "growth mindset." The opposite of a growth mindset is a "fixed mindset." I'll define both in detail below.

What Is A Fixed Mindset?

A fixed mindset is the belief that people are good at certain things and bad at certain things, and that can't change. People with fixed mindsets believe everyone is born with certain "talents," and succeeding is a matter of "finding what you're good at." One might also call it the Cutie Mark Mindset.

In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, young ponies have "blank flanks" until they come of age. When a pony discovers a talent that makes her special and unique, a cutie mark appears on her hindquarter, and she knows she's found her destiny. For example, Rarity has a cutie mark of gemstones because she's a talented fashion designer. Fluttershy has a cutie mark of butterflies because she's good at working with animals. Applejack has a cutie mark of apples because she's destined to run the family farm. Etc.

My Little Pony Mane Six with Cutie Marks Outlined

Many episodes follow the "Cutie Mark Crusaders," a trio of prepubescent ponies determined to get their cutie marks. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo try many things like cupcake-baking, costume-making, mountaineering, and sleuthing. Every time they try a new activity they look anxiously at their flanks, but nothing appears, and they droop in disappointment because that's not what they're destined to do.

Apple Bloom Tries Baking

In the screenshots above, Apple Bloom tries her hoof at making cupcakes for the first time...and after burning them horribly, never tries again. If I'd given up like this after the first time I tried baking sweets, I would have lead a snickerdoodle-less life forever.

Cutie marks are a fun concept for a cartoon, but that's not the way people work in real life. The first time we do anything, we make a mess of it. We develop skills over many years of patient practice. Having a natural aptitude for something gives a person an initial leg up, but after twenty years of dedication to cupcake-baking, or costume-making, or whatever, the difference between someone who picked it up quickly and someone who didn't will be negligible.

Yet many an aspiring novelist acts like she expects to finish chapter one of her first manuscript and see a cutie mark of a Nobel Prize appear on her thigh. When that doesn't happen, she gets upset. She takes to Tumblr or Facebook or Twitter and declares that she apparently has no talent and she's giving up forever.

What Is A Growth Mindset?

A growth mindset is the belief that all skills and abilities can be developed through training. I call it the Kung Fu Mindset.

The term kung fu, or gōngfu in Pinyin, has been somewhat warped in English. The original word gōngfu means any skill developed through diligent practice over time. Someone might have gōngfu in dancing, or in noodle-making, or in any other skill that's difficult to master. The closest English word I can think of is "craft."

The misinterpretation proliferated in the second half of the 20th century, when kung fu movies floated over to Western shores. Black-and-white Shaolin monks would talk about working on their gōngfu, meaning their craft, and in that context their craft happened to be their fighting skills. So in the West we understood "kung fu" to mean an acrobatic style of martial arts full of high-flying kicks.

Mulan doing a flying kick

But kung fu movies are still aptly named, because they emphasize the importance of hard work and discipline in developing skills. There are no cutie marks in kung fu movies. When the brave but rash protagonist loses his village to the gang of bandits, his white-bearded mentor doesn't say, "You're just not meant to be a hero." He instead says, "Patience, young grasshopper." To defeat the bad guys, the protagonist must learn that there are no shortcuts to mastery and that training, though boring and tiring, is the only way to improve.

In the Disney movie Mulan, the heroine doesn't set out for her adventures as a skillful warrior...or a skillful anything, for that matter. She's a klutzy weakling, the laughingstock of the Chinese army. The general nearly sends her home in humiliation. But she keeps at it until she makes a "man" out of herself.

How Can You Change Your Mindset?

If you think like an Apple Bloom, how can you change into a Mulan (magnolia blossom) instead?

The switch is both incredibly easy and terribly difficult. It's easy because the mindset you have is all in your head, and you can make the choice to switch in an instant. It's difficult because you have to stick to that choice for the rest of your life, despite exhaustion and embarrassment and frustration. You'll yearn for those happy days when you could shrug and give up every time you hit an obstacle, and tell yourself it's okay because you're "just not cut out for this."

One of the most masochistic things I ever did was to sign up for a drawing class at my previous workplace, Portland Community College. All my life I'd been the smartest kid in school, because school focused on subjects I was naturally good at, like math and science. Our industrialized society doesn't value areas I'm not naturally strong in, like art and athletics, so by high school I didn't have to face my weaknesses at all.

Sitting in that drawing class at the age of 27, for the first time I was the slowest learner in the room. My 18-year-old classmates could toss off gorgeous pieces in minutes. I took two hours to draw a teapot. I had to remind myself (and sometimes, Sweetie had to remind me) that drawing skills come with practice over time. Every famous artist in history had to train for many years to become a "natural genius." Picasso's father was an art professor who instructed him in figure-drawing and oil-painting from a very young age. Jackson Pollack perfected his seemingly spontaneous method of painting over decades of experimentation.

In writing, as in art and nearly everything else, whether you're gifted at the age of six, or sixteen, or even thirty-six, means very little. The most important quality in a writer isn't genius, but tenacity. Plenty of sixteen-year-old literary geniuses get impatient and come to nothing. Plenty of sixteen-year-old underachievers buckle down and accomplish great things.

John Greene, author of The Fault in Our Stars, was one such sixteen-year-old underachiever. In the three-minute video below, he describes the kind of student he was in high school: a "screw-up" who skipped many classes "because they were early or because they conflicted with [his] schedule of smoking cigarettes in the woods."

At 2:26, Greene says this.

High school is not destiny. It's part of life, but I feel like when you're in high school, people act like it's the most important thing you'll ever do, and like the whole course of your life is being decided.

But at least so far as I can tell, the course of your life isn't decided. Ever. Most of the time it's not like there's one fork in the road, and you choose one or you choose the other. There are hundreds of forks in the road every day that you're alive.

College is also not destiny....Also, your twenties are not destiny. Your thirties are not destiny. Destiny is not something that happens all at once. It's something that happens only in retrospect.

Since no magical cutie marks will tell us what are destinies are, we have to figure them out for ourselves. The only way to figure them out is to fail, and fail, and fail some more until we stop failing.