In Stephen King’s On Writing he says, “In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings the characters to life through their speech.”

(On the off chance that you are a writer and have not read On Writing, I better quickly say, “Go get it right now!” Try reading this blog post from the site Writing Forward if you need convincing. I’d say ditto to all of it.)

I’ve been thinking about the balance of dialogue, narration, and description. This morning I woke up with descriptions in my head that I wanted to add to my novel. They made me realize how much it’s lacking in that department so far.

Does anyone else find that your rough drafts feel so skeletal? For me, it’s because the story is too vague the first time I sort it out. Like I can vaguely hear my characters talking to each other, so I jot down some dialogue of what I think they’re saying, and I narrate what I think is happening, but my job on each subsequent draft is to keep sharpening the sensory reality King mentions.

And maybe that’s why real, true description shows up so late in the writing process for me. If I try to plug it in before I have a clear idea of the scene, the descriptions turn out hokey and trite. You wouldn’t believe how much description I’m cutting in my current draft, despite not having enough description yet. I have to get rid of the lame to make room for the better.

Writing is an evolutionary process for me, and everything from my characters to my settings starts flat and stick like, and I have to continually redraw my vision of them until they’re rounded and shaded and detailed.

One great thing about conversing with other writers is passing tidbits around, especially when those tidbits find you at the perfect moment. Shannon Hale recently mentioned to me a quote from Neil Gaiman that is simple but makes so much sense:

“You can take for granted that people know more or less what a street, a shop, a beach, a sky, an oak tree look like. Tell them what makes this one different.”

If anyone else out there is busy fleshing out their novel as well, I thought I’d keep passing this advice around. I’m on the lookout for what makes my characters and my settings different, and that’s what I’m adding now. The obvious is hokey and trite; it’s the unique detail that can make descriptions resonate.

Anybody have other description tips to share? What have you heard or done that works? What part of the process are you in?

Leave a comment!


4 thoughts on “Fleshing It Out

  1. Unfortunately I have the opposite problem. My first draft is usually weighted down by pages and pages of useless dialogue and really obvious description. Every little detail excrutiatingly typed out. I spend most of the first round of rewrites hacking stuff out of the draft. That said, I usually end up slashing too much and then having to rebuild bits and pieces. Finally I settle on some sort of balance, usually when I give it to one of my firends to read and they aren’t asking ‘what’ every five minutes or they aren’t rolling their eyes bored.
    Thanks for sharing your views on this and your advice.


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