How to write fantastic descriptive passages

Part 1. Places

We’ve had lots of conversations in my critique group lately about how to describe places and people.

So I thought I would check out how children’s greatest and best authors tackle it, starting with place…

Here’s an extract from…

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman.

imagesDirectly ahead of the ship a mountain rose, green-flanked and snow-capped, and a little town and harbour lay below it: wooden houses with steep roofs, an oratory spire, cranes in the harbour, and clouds of gulls wheeling and crying. The smell was of fish, but mixed with it came the land-smell too: pine-resin and earth and something animal and musky, and something else that was cold and blank and wild: it might have been snow. It was the smell of the North.

Isn’t he a master at painting scenes with words!

The passage is packed with detail. He starts by describing what Lyra can see from the deck of the ship and then he explores the smell of the place, slowly, so we are standing right next to Lyra tasting the air with her, trying to identify that part new, part familiar smell. The description also conveys a sense of Lyra’s anticipation and excitement. She has finally arrived in the North.

Also check out the punctuation. He uses a mixture of colons, commas and the conjunction ‘and’ to structure the scene. This variation prevents the passage from feeling blocky. He has also achieved a rhythmical quality with lots of doubled-up descriptions e.g. “green-flanked and snow capped,” “wooden houses and steep roofs,” “pine-resin and earth.” It’s a lovely passage to read aloud.

The Way We Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

images-3This short passage is from an early scene when Daisy arrives at her aunt’s farm jetlagged and overwhelmed. It’s appropriately short, as Daisy literally can’t take everything in. Rosoff describes the farm and its inhabitants in one broad sweep to reflect her character’s mood.

There was a welcoming committee staring at me through the window and in it were four kids, and a goat and a couple of dogs…and in the background I saw some cats scooting around after a bunch of ducks that for some reason or other were hanging out on the lawn.

A few pages later, when Daisy’s had a chance to explore, Meg Rosoff lets her pen flow.

First let’s get it clear that the house is practically falling down, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how beautiful it is. It’s made of big chunks of yellowish stone, and has a steep roof, and is shaped like an L around a big courtyard with fat pebbles set in the ground. The short part of the L has a wide arched doorway and it used to be the stable, but now it’s the kitchen and it’s huge, with zigzag brick floors and big windows all across the front and a stable door that’s left open, Whenever it’s not actually snowing, says Edmond….

 Daisy has a wonderful voice and it’s a neat technique, having your main character give the reader a tour of the house and grounds. A benefit of first person POV.

The passage goes on for two pages, which tells us that Daisy is curious by nature and rather enjoying her change of scene.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K Rowling.

I have to include Harry Potter because it haHarry Potter landscapes such iconic imagery and fantasy settings are the product of the author’s imagination, so in theory tougher for the writer to convey. What’s particularly interesting about the The Philosopher’s Stone, and typical of J.K Rowling’s style as a whole, are the scattered short descriptive passages. Individually they’re not terribly clever. They don’t have the poetic quality of Philip Pullman or the voice of Meg Rosoff’s, Daisy; but J.K Rowling works another trick here. She weaves her description around the character’s action and dialogue so cleverly, the reader feels as if the story is unfolding in its entirety in front of their eyes. A cinematic quality, which perhaps is the reason the books are so popular with such a wide range of readers.

“Yeh’ll ger yers firs’ sight o’ Hogwarts in a sec,’ Hagrid called over his shoulder, ‘jus’ round this bend here. There was a loud ‘Oooooh!’ The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its window sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and windows.  ‘No more’n four to a boat,’ Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting in the water by the shore.

Checkout that structure! Dialogue/characterisation (with a touch of foreshadowing),then action, reaction, place description, dialogue and place description again.  Great storytelling!

So five things to remember:

  • Show’ a place from the character’s viewpoint (not the author’s). A character’s mood and ability to observe/feel their surroundings can change considerably from scene to scene.
  • Detail, detail detail! Pin sharp detail makes a place seem real. A great setting can influence the mood of your protagonist and set a mood for the whole book. Know your setting’s quirks like you know the quirks of your characters.
  • Utilise all the senses. Authors rely far too much on sight.
  • Think about the descriptive words you use and the structure of your sentences. Similes, metaphors, rhythm and repetition can massively enhance a descriptive passage, as can active verbs and well placed adjectives, and yes, even the odd helpful adverb.
  • Don’t write your descriptive passages in a great lump of prose unless you are very skilled at all the above techniques, in which case, you may be excused as “being literary.”

Next post: How to write fantastic description – Part 2. People

 

 

 

How to evoke emotion in your readers?

Karl Iglesias in Writing for Emotional Impact, states we can experience three different types of emotion when we read books or watch movies.

Voyeuristic emotions relate to our curiosity about new information, new worlds and the relationship between characters. In this mindset we are interested onlookers but perhaps not fully emotionally engaged.

Vicarious emotions are when we identify so closely with a character, we feel what they feel. Their struggle is our struggle.

Visceral emotion is an intense physical (stomach clenching) sense of curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, laughter, and so on (a real page turner!)

Great books evoke all these emotions.

So first ask yourself, what’s the heart of my story?

And by heart I mean emotional truth. That little nugget of familiarity, which has your reader identifying with your character and his situation, that spark of recognition that makes your character feel believable and real.

For every hurdle your character faces, ask yourself, what would I feel and what would I do in that situation (at that age and that time)? Life experience is invaluable, but research can help fill the gaps: first person letters/autobiographies/live film footage.Failing that, a keen perception, a good imagination and a way with words!

These are the three ways I build a connection between readers and my characters. 

Recognition (understanding and empathy) To identify with a character we must feel (or have felt) the same as they do. If a character is well drawn (and the author understands human nature well) readers can empathise with and share the characters situation, feelings and motives, and then experience the story directly through the characters eyes.

Fascination (interest) We are attracted to what’s different and unusual. It’s human nature to be curious. A multidimensional villain, flawed hero or quirky sidekick are great hooks, as are the magical or dangerous worlds they inhabit.

Mystery (curiosity, anticipation and tension) Children’s books are full of characters with mysterious origins, super powers and secrets to be unlocked.

Think about Harry Potter.

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What character and story elements did J.K Rowling use to help us identify with and care about Harry?

He’s an orphan. He lives in the cupboard under the stairs. The horrendous Dursley’s. The scar on his forehead. The mystery of his parent’s death. Wizards on the front lawn. Magic… and that’s only in the first two chapters!

So how exactly do we show a character’s emotional reaction on the page.

After every event (action) there is a reaction.

As a writing exercise, note all the emotional highs and lows you have in a single day and your physical, verbal and emotional reactions to them.

Use all the usual writing techniques to show, don’t tell, and mix them up a little.

Internal monologue (voice)

Dialogue

Body language/behaviour

Action

This extract is from We Were Liars by E. Lockhart16143347 – 14-year-old Cadence describes how she felt when her father walked out on her and her mother.

My father put a last suitcase in the back of the Mercedes and started the engine. Then he pulled a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down onto a flowerbed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound then from my eyes, my ears, my mouth, it tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house…

This scene is three pages into the book and sets up Cadence’s state of mind. You can feel her pain.

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Even the fast moving, criminally cool, Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer), “felt a lump in his throat. Most uncharacteristic,” at the mention of his missing father and “blinked back a few rebellious tears,” at his mother’s mad ramblings. (Chapter 2)

 

 

Picture books

At Christmas, I watched 50 Best Children’s Books, presented by David Walliams and guests. Winnie the Pooh was in the top spot. Julia Walters read an extract and it struck me how emotive the writing is.

“We’ll be friends forever won’t we, Pooh?” Asked Piglet.th-7

“Even longer,” Pooh answered. “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

I’ve read a lot of picture books lately (drafts and published) that completely omit emotional content. There’s lots of colourful action but no point to it at all. Very young children cannot articulate moods and emotions but they certainly do feel and show them. Picture books are an important aid to learning and talking about feelings. They teach empathy.

Here is a great guide to structuring picture books because it makes space for the character to feel, react and learn.

Spread 1: Intro character/world

Spread 2: Establish problem (worry/dilemma/misunderstanding/first experience)

Spread 3-8: Action

Spread 9: Crisis moment (show immediate emotional reaction- Shock/laughter/confusion)

Spread 10: Examine feelings

Spread 11: Solve problem (new understanding put into practise)

Spread 12: Emotional resolution (answers the stories emotional problem)

Courtesy of Hodder/Hachette (with a little elaboration)

Character emotions vs. reader emotions

There is one final point I want to make about evoking emotion.

Authors don’t always want their readers emotional experience to mirror the characters. An unreliable narrator or an inexperienced, over confident or haphazard character can make the reader feel wonderfully superior and knowing. Humour also works this way. A clumsy character might trip over and fall into things with hilarious consequences. We will be laughing, but the character won’t be. It’s a very effective devise, if done well. It makes the reader feel clever, and flattery, as they say, gets you everywhere.