Sunday, August 30, 2009

Every Picture Tells a Story

The notes from my talk at SICCO on August 29, 2009 follows:

Peanuts fans remember Snoppy's struggles as a writer. Perched atop his doghouse with typewriter in front of him, Snoppy typed: "It was a dark and stormy night." Then Snoppy's muse would desert him. His opening line came from the opening line from a book written in 1830 titled "Paul Clifford" written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Let's take a look at this horrible prose in an attempt to improve it.

Have you ever heard of a bright and stormy night? Most likely not. Therefore "dark" is a redunant word and can be dropped. We're left with "it was a stormy night." Better, but now a passive verb becomes the sticking point. Revise again. "That night, it stormed." How about that for a creepy opening?

Vision occurs by light reflecting off an object and entering the eyeball. The retina picks up the light and sends it up the optic nerve upside down and in 2D. The brain interpts this signal, turns it right-side-up and converts it two 3D. Writers do the same thing with words. The black and white as a result of our writing morphs into mental images for the reader.

John Gardner (a British author of thrillers and epics) said writing is "a vivid and continuous dream." That is a dream which feels as sharp and focused as real life and remains vivid. This type of writing prevents the reader from being disconneted to your story. How do you disconnect?
  1. No sympathetic character and the reader no longer cares.
  2. The plot meanders or goes nowhere and the reader either yawns or says, "Huh?"
  3. Lack of sensory input. That's what we're going to talk about.

Setting (the sense of place) is a vital part of your story. It is the world created by the writer where the characters dwell and the plot develops. The sense of place can set a tone (happy, dark, romantic, dangerous, etc.) and can even take on a personality within the story.

Description is the detail the writer provides to create a sese of place. To accomplish this, the writer makes use of the five senses to create (according to Brandi Reissenweber of Gotham Writef's Workshop) a relationship between the character and his/her surroundings.

We use our senses to keep in physical touch with the world. What we see, hear, feel, touch, taste, smell, sense and think all connects us to our world. Our characters need the same relationship. By providing this sensory imput through a character's Point of View (POV), writers manitain a connection to the reader. In your setting, what would be seen, heard, felt, touched, tasted, smelled and sense there. Your word choice will allow the reader to experience the setting through the character.

  1. Be specific in detail unless a need requres vagueness.
  2. A major character or important scene deserves more sensory detail.
  3. A minor character or a passing scene requires less.

Use the best detail to convey the picture. If you hit a muse-stopping word search, just write down the various words which come to mind. You can come back later and hammer out the correct wording. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of those writers who must have the right word before moving on. Then write down the words that come to mind, pick one and move on. Until publication, you get redos to find the right word. For example:

  1. The horse ran through the field.
  2. Change horse: Is it a quarter-horse, an Arabian, or a Mustang?
  3. Change ran: Did the animal race, gallop, or charge?
  4. Change field: Is the field a winter cornfield, an unused ballfield, or a muddy pasture?

Waxing eloquent and lengthy can be a detrement. It is much better to use five correct words than five lines. A common problem in writing causing extra verbiage is the over use of adverbs and adjectives. Similes and metaphors allow the writer the means to provide creative sensory input.

  1. A simile compares two unlike things and is often introduce by like or as. He ran like a racecar on steroids.
  2. A metaphor uses a word or phrase denoting one concept used in place of another to suggest a likeness. The ship plowed through the seas.

Avoid descriptive traps. Avoid mixing metaphors, for they may seem clever but end up being confusing. Stay away from cliches, those trite expression whose effectiveness has been worn out from overuse.

Become a collector of sensations, of objects, of names of various things, of colors. Use a notebook to record things you see, hear, taste and so on. Go through magazines and collect pictures of people and scenery. Use the internet to collect pictures and comments in a file folder. Don't forget to reference their URL. Of course, collecting these images, descriptions, phrases and so on doesn't help if you don't store them where you can easily find them. Another excellent tool is Google Earth. You can go anywhere on earth and get the correct sights and other details of a particular location.

To help maintain a sense of location, have your characters interact with elements of the setting. That will prevent losing the relationship between character and surrounding. By describing the inner life of your characters and choosing the right words, you develop the mood of the setting. By using the best details, avoiding the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, avoiding the descriptive traps and pulling from your collection of sensations, the reader will not only connect with your characters, but they will perceive the location and live your story through the character's POV.

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