In my writing class last semester, I wrote a scene. My two main characters were in a car. I wrote “He put the radio on. 80’s rock.” I received feedback when I presented the scene in class- six people asked me specifically what song was playing on the radio.
Last week, my classmate wrote a scene. The scene specifically named a Duran Duran song. She got criticism that naming the song was too specific, that the reader needed to google the song to understand why it was important.
Two people critiqued, and given contradictory information. What does a writer do?
I spoke last week about my difficulty with organically writing description into my story. I’m still confused and working in description limbo, but I am starting to come up with my own sort of description bible. Remember: I am not a published author. I don’t know anything. This are some of my thoughts as I work out my novel.
Description should add to a scene, not detract from it. In the scene I wrote in the car, I’m sticking with the generic 80’s rock works in the scene because it’s a general setting. These are people who grew up in the 80’s and this type of music is comforting. They are also the kind of people who listened to rock music as opposed to jazz. Generic works.
In my friends story, the scene was a little more specific: the song had special meaning to the two characters in the scene, which is why she named it and had a line of lyrics. I think in that case, specific was necessary.
If you are using a detail, make sure it is helping the reader set the scene.
If you are moving a platter across the table, ask yourself if giving description to the platter adds or detracts. If the platter is antique, and shows a particular part of a character, than talk about it. If the rest of the scene is what’s important, how many words should go into talking about this platter? Don’t add words that don’t add to the overall story. If it doesn’t matter, it will bore the majority of readers.
Which brings me to my next point: everyone has an opinion. Two people will critique something and come up with contradictory opinions. As a writer, go with what your instinct is telling you. You know what you are trying to do. And I don’t mean blindly listen to the person who agrees with you, I mean really think about what you are trying to get across with your words, and if the words make sense to your vision.
Don’t laundry list. Seriously. “She went to the black, modern, metal cabinet and took out a thick hot pink mug that she bought on sale at Macy’s last year.” Do you need all the adjectives? Maybe. Are there other ways to convey the same information that are more lyrical and less in your face? definitely.
Some people are just more descriptive than others. Some people write long, languorous, fully loaded sentences and it works beautifully with what they are trying to accomplish. That’s great- for that writer. It might not be good for another writer. Know your strength and work with it. Accept your weakness and try to get around it.
I struggled on Monday when I tried to rewrite an early chapter in my book. It’s the first time the reader is seeing the neighborhood in which my character lives. I know I need to give it texture and physicality. I was struggling adding the details organically. I was getting caught up in describing the place, and forgetting that this scene was important. the purpose of the scene was to show conflict between the main character and her three friends- she is doing something they don’t understand, but I was writing paragraphs about what the neighborhood looked like, and it was a waste of energy because it wasn’t moving the scene forward. It was detracting from the importance of the scene.
In writing class last night, my teacher said something that made a lot of sense. (Who knew- teachers say important things) He said sometimes three of four words can be more impactful than a paragraph, that it’s just a matter of choosing the right three or four words.
Then, when I came home from writing class, my daughter was finishing up an AP Language and composition assignment. She began to tell me about the part she was about to do. The question asked how the syntax of a particular sentence made the sentence stronger and more meaningful. (they were asking about a David Forster Wallace essay) And I realized that the way I structure a sentence is actually really important. (who knew- sometimes your teen can teach you something)
So when I rewrite the horrible scene, I am going to remember these two things. I’m going to pay attention to how I describe the setting without getting bogged down by it. I need to remember that the setting is texture, but it’s not the story.
I will figure out how to write description.
Or I will throw the laptop out of the window.