Hello, may I present…

Introducing a character to the reader is a bit like introducing that special someone to your parents. The temptation is to tell everything you know about them so the reader will love them as much as you do. 

The problem is that page and some of extolling the character’s looks, virtue, smarts and tough background story has derailed your plot. At the end of it the reader knows lots about the character, but they’ve lost the connection between character and story.

Here’s an example from a book I have in progress:

Frederick groaned as the cobbles dug into his back and looked up into Katerin’s brown eyes. She was not the delicate beauty of the other nobles in Lexburgh, her gown didn’t have nearly as many frills. Perhaps it was due to her, like him, being a scholarship student at her Academy. Katerin had appeared every time Vassily tortured him. He couldn’t guess at her reasoning, she risked her reputation each time she healed him. Yet here she was, again, that crooked smile on her face, as if she herself didn’t quite know why she was bending over him.

What have we learned about the plot of the story? Frederick is lying on the street, we know why since that is the prequel to this introduction. At the end of the introduction we’ve learned nothing new about Frederick. Even Katrin is mostly a sketch. Is she kind? Does she like Frederick?  We don’t know, but expanding on the paragraph to tell the reader how kind she is, and how she doesn’t really like Frederick but is somehow fascinated by him won’t do much more than delay further any revelation of plot.

Here’s what I wrote:

“Why do you let him do that?” Katerin crouched beside Frederick and put her hand on his chest sending warmth through to his battered heart. It beat more regularly and he could breathe normally.

“Why do you keep showing up to help me?” Frederick took Katerin’s offered hand and she pulled him to his feet.

“Let’s say, I’m not a fan of the Harnchev family.” She frowned, her deep brown eyes clouded before she shook her head and let go of his hand. “You need to move if you’re going to keep to your schedule.”

“You know about my schedule?” Frederick’s heart banged in his chest for a different reason.

“How long have I been stopping to help you?” She patted the same cheek Vassily slapped and walked briskly away. Frederick had followed her one time to watch her enter the girl’s version of the Academy on the far side of the huge green space which formed the center of Lexburg. The punishment for missing the first class was severe – ten soft lashes and then he had to run laps of the campus until he collapsed.

Now what have we learned from this introduction? We don’t know she’s on scholarship, but do we need that knowledge yet? Not really. We also get the bit on how she dresses, that may or may not be important to the plot. I’m somewhat infamous with my editors for not describing characters. So maybe the dress could find its way into the revision, but probably not.

The reason for that is I want show her emotional conflict. Note she doesn’t directly answer his question, instead she responds that she doesn’t like Vassily’s family. What we do get is she’s a healer of some kind. Her touch helps his heart and breathing.

She is familiar with Frederick’s schedule even if she doesn’t want to explain why. Perhaps her reason is not one Frederick would like, thus her walking away instead of answering directly.

As a bonus we learn some things about Frederick too. He is attracted to Katerin at some level. He appreciates her help, even as he doesn’t understand it. Katerin fascinates him enough to make him late for school, once.

At the same time we learn the schools are separated by a large green space, and at Frederick’s at least punishment is harsh. 

It could be argued that the bit about him following her is exposition, and I’d agree, but it also fits as immediate reflection by Frederick. He tried to learn more and it resulted in a painful lesson. So I’ll probably keep it in revision, but edit it to reveal more setting without taking anymore space.

The trick is to weave information into the story, make it part of the story. Not only do we meet Katerin, but we find out there is some conflict about what she is doing. I try to use dialogue as part of most of my character introductions. Even in the snippet before this one, Vassily gets lines to say to show us his character. (He’s a jerk.)

Now when I want to show more about Katerin, maybe about her relationship with her Academy, or her classmates, I’ll put her into another scene with more action and dialogue. The reader sees her and a bit more is revealed, but only as it is needed.

The same process works for setting, not that the character talks to the setting, but they can talk about it, or interact with it. Those cobbles under Frederick tell us a lot about Lexburgh. (I have them in a slightly different place in the revision)

Interaction with the setting could include a character shivering in the wind, pulling their collar up to try to stay dry in the rain, him tripping on holes in the road. The smell of horse manure, or the scent of blossoms. The sight of the Academy, the sounds of other students chattering. 

Because these are part of the character’s experience, the reader experiences them too, and the story keeps moving forward.

Now, what happens if we need more information right from the start? We make the scene longer and weave it in. Action, thought, dialogue all can show us what characters are like. Past actions of the character may affect the present moment of the POV character. Perhaps a memory of a mentor brought out by the experience. 

We do need to be careful with the reflection on character as it can turn into exposition disguised as thought. The litmus test to decide if we are writing reflection or exposition is the emotional weight. The memory means something, it changes the emotional state of the person remembering. 

That brings us to the crux of the matter. If anything we’ve write does not move the story forward, either revealing plot or characters interacting with the plot, we need to cut it or rewrite it. That means a lot more work from us as storytellers, but our reader will thank us.

Description, more than a pretty scene

Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it’s likely  the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and create atmosphere. Now, I know  everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end is a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.

A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil was rich and fertile and the crops were ready to harvest. There was only one town in the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.

That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:

Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them.

The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch it fluttered and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over the thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but there was something she couldn’t name that kept her eyes lifting to the mountains that towered on all sides and wondering what was on the other side.

At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. It lay weightless and delicate in her hand. She could see the tiny veins that ran through it, yet already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne turned to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew change had found her.

Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.

Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.)  None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”

Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.

The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.

John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. The night deepened; the streetlights lit  as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. Not caring he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life he loved, and he messed it up.

John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. DogThing was licking his face. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.

The final point for this article is the difference between passive and active description.

Passive description has nothing to do with passive voice (that’s another article). It is what I call description in which the character (and thus the reader) stop everything to look at the scenery.

Anthony stepped through the door. The butler stood on his left, a look of disapproval pasted on his face. All around the great hall hung the portraits of Anthony’s ancestors. Each with varying degrees of disgust trapped in paint on canvas. The floor was polished marble; he used to get in trouble for sliding in his stocking feet. Straight ahead the staircase spiraled up to the gallery. His mother stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on her son.

That’s a lovely setting, all kind of emotional things going on in the background. We learn a lot about Anthony just by the way he sees the hall. What is he doing while we read the description? Standing in the doorway, frozen in time until he takes the next step. If this is part of a highly emotional homecoming, he have had to work himself up to knock on the door. We expect an emotionally laden dialogue with mother dear, and in between -he’s stuck in the door. There may be times we want that ‘stuck in the door’ moment, but it means we need to use it to forward the plot.

What I like to do is have the character interact with the setting. Thus, active description.

Anthony stepped through the door. He nodded at the butler with disapproval pasted on his face.

“My coat.” Anthony offered his threadbare garment. The butler lifted it with one finger and carried it away, probably to burn.

The paintings still hung around the great hall, Anthony strolled along the line of his ancestors, each with varying levels of disgust captured in paint on canvas.

“Sorry, Father.” Anthony stopped in front of the newest portrait, trying to feel anything but relief.

“Ahem.” 

Anthony turned to the grand staircase where his mother waiting. For a mad moment he wanted to kick off his shoes and slide across the polished marble floor. His mother’s frown deepened as if she’d read his thought. He dragged himself over to stand at the foot of the stairs. As always, she stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on him.

All the same elements are present, but the plot moves forward. We see the emotion in the hall, but also feel Anthony’s shame and reluctance.

Description, more than just a pretty place.

Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it is likely that the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and atmosphere. Now I know everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end can be a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.

A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil rich and fertile with crops ready to harvest. Only one town occupied the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.

That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:

Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them. The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but something she couldn’t name kept her eyes lifting to the mountains towering on all sides and dreaming about what was on the other side. At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. Weightless and delicate in her hand – she could see the tiny veins that ran through it, already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne spun to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew that change had found her.

Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.

Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.)  None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”

Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.

The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.

John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. Night was coming quickly and the streetlights lit up as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. He didn’t care that he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life that he could love, and he messed it up. John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.

 While description is essential to your story, don’t over do it. You want to avoid purple prose – writing which is so full of description it goes over the top and pushes the reader out of the story. Read Dickens, he got paid by the word, so lots of description.

The other thing you want to avoid with description is putting it in the wrong place. The time to describe the alley is not after the fight begins. Description will freeze the action and you don’t want to do that. Describe the setting at the start of a scene, use beats in dialogue to show more of it. Better yet have the character interact with the setting.

Instead of standing in the door cataloguing the paint colour and furniture in a room, have your character walk through it, bumping into things, sitting in chairs, wincing at the colour. In this way you have description, but you also have character. The settings which become almost a character in their own right are the ones which affect the people in the story directly.

Have a look at Character Assassination for tips on describing characters.