Tag Archives: descriptive language

How to Introduce Characters to Each Other

27 Aug
Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult. For instance, how do you introduce two characters for the first time? A lot rides on the encounter. It’s not so different than dreaming about that guy or girl in middle school and worrying about how you’d ask him or her to the dance. The problem vexed F. Scott Fitzgerald—how to introduce Gatsby to Nick— so much that he slipped the great man in the back door. We meet him without knowing it.

If you want an easier way to introduce two characters, check out Mary Helen Specht’s great novel-in-progress Migratory Animals. The prologue was published at Necessary Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Specht introduces the novel’s main characters: Flannery, a white American woman in her 20s visiting Nigeria, and Kunle, a Nigerian man in graduate school:

“She met Kunle at an outdoor canteen at the Nigerian university where she had been posted on what was supposed to be a brief data-collecting trip. Sitting at an adjacent table with a soda and a worn textbook, he leaned over and said, “You should try the palm wine.” Kunle wore slacks and a blue button-down Oxford, both ironed within an inch of their lives. Trim and preppy, he looked like one of those idealized husbands in films, usually too straight-laced to be Flannery’s type, the kind of man who kissed a beautiful wife before leaving for the office.”

Notice what Specht does not do: she doesn’t let the characters say, “Hi.” They don’t shake hands or make chit-chat. They don’t eye each other from across the room. The introduction just happens. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  1. When and where she met the man
  2. The initial encounter boiled down to a single spoken phrase and action
  3. What the man was wearing
  4. What his appearance reminder her of

If you used this template for every introduction in every story and novel, you’d be set for life. It’s an easy, efficient way to get two characters together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce two characters using Mary Helen Specht’s novel as a model:

  1. Pick a setting: Why is the character/narrator there? In what specific place did the characters meet? Be explicit when starting the passage: He/She/I met So-and-so in this place.
  2. Pick a moment: Boil the initial encounter down to a single spoken phrase and action. When the main character/narrator leaves the encounter, what words of the other person will he/she remember and dream about?
  3. PIck the clothes: What is the person wearing? Be specific.
  4. Describe the clothes/style/appearance more generally: From one character’s perspective, describe the other character. What does he/she reminder her/him of? What feeling does he/she get when meeting the person?

That’s it. The encounter is over, and you can transition next to the next encounter. Mechanically speaking, all you need to do is get the characters onto the page together. The scene doesn’t need to be long, like the initial encounter in Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. Be brief and efficient and move on.

Good luck and have fun.

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How to Introduce Setting

23 Jul
Marc Watkins story "Two Midnights in a Jug" appeared in Boulevard Magazine.

Marc Watkins story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won the 2008 Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writings from Boulevard Magazine. You can read the story here.

A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly?

Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently. “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins won the 2008 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, and you can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on the opening paragraph:

“Follow any hollow in the Ozarks and it’ll come to river or stream where soft clay the color of rust covers jagged limestone along the banks. Mountains cut by water dot the horizon, their peaks smoothed over millennia into knolls and greened with trees. In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred year old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her’s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.”

The passage begins with a wide frame (any hollow in the Ozarks) and gradually zooms in on a particular town (Eminence, MO) and then parts of town (trailer parks, farmhouses, the high school, the mega hog farm). So far, the passage follows the basics of Describing Setting 101. But notice what happens next. The passage moves from physical setting to philosophical setting, i.e. what the people who live in the place think and how they talk. This transition is crucial to the story’s development because it allows the narrative to begin. There’s almost never any story inherent in place. Concrete is merely concrete, and trees don’t care what happens around them. It’s the people who walk on the concrete and sit beneath the trees that give those things meaning.

This transition from place to people happens all of the time in fiction. Look for it in the next story or novel you read. I bet you’ll find it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a description of setting that transitions from place to people.

  1. Choose the place.
  2. Write down the basics of the place’s geography, landscape, and physical features. If you’re describing an interior space, the same ideas still apply except that you’re describing floor plans and architecture rather than landscape. (It’s important to sketch these details out before actually writing the paragraph. Your brain doesn’t always give you details in the best order for prose.)
  3. Now, write about the sense that you have of the place: cultured/backward, beautiful/ugly, freeing/oppressive, spiritual/dead, exciting/dull, etc. Try to explain why you have this sense.
  4. Finally, describe the people who occupy this place: smart/dumb, happy/sad, cosmopolitan/provincial, motivated/depressed, etc. When you think of these people, what actions, habits, or things first come to mind?
  5. At last, let’s write the paragraph.
  6. Start with a wide frame: show us the largest view of the place that makes sense (i.e. the region/city/neighborhood and not the blue speck of planet Earth in the black universe.)
  7. Zoom into the specific place where the story is set. Do this in no more than four sentences.
  8. Transition to the people. Notice how Marc Watkins does this with the phrase “folks call trailer parks…” In the next sentence, he writes, “You’ll need a wife…” And then he moves directly to the people: “People will talk…” He’s transitioning from the Godlike objective view of a satellite looking down on Missouri to the subjective view of the people on the ground.
  9. Drive home the sense that you have of this place with the people’s actions or habits. Marc Watkins does this with details about finding a wife. When you finish this paragraph, you may be ready to write a story. Or at least you’ll have a few good sentences about setting.

Good luck and have fun.

Describe Setting Without Getting Lost in the Details

28 May
The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle is the debut novel from Jedah Mayberry.

The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle is the debut novel from Jedah Mayberry. You can read the opening pages here.

In a story or novel, how do you describe an entire town or geographical area without getting lost in the details?

Many writers have done it, memorably Toni Morrison in Sula and F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Add to that list Jedah Mayberry, whose debut novel, The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle, begins with a description of a small New England town that demonstrates how to distill history, culture, migration, geography, and demography into a single short passage.

The novel is new out from River Grove Press, and you can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Ernest Hemingway famously claimed that the best writing omitted far more detail than it included–meaning that a story or novel resembles an iceberg, ninety percent of which is underwater. Critics have turned this idea into a theory for art, but, in truth, it merely describes an inevitable problem faced by all writers: if you’re writing what you know, then you know more than can fit into the story. But you can’t simply include and leave out details randomly. You need a method. Mayberry’s method in The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle becomes clear in the first sentence:

“The village of Preston is largely defined by the things it is not, by the things its expanse of working farms and decaying historic landmarks serve to divide.”

The novel tells us explicitly how it will organize details about the town. Any that do not fit into the idea of absence or division are left out. The Great Gatsby does something similar in its opening description of East and West Egg:

“I lived at West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.”

In this passage, the writing quickly moves to descriptions of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. Those characters stand for the difference between the two places. As a result, the setting helps create character.

So that you can see how common this strategy is, here’s the opening of Sula by Toni Morrison:

“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.”

Morrison gives us her organizing principle right away: the way the neighborhood looks now versus the way it looked then. That difference helps introduce the story, which is in part about the relations between the people who once lived in the neighborhood and the ones who have turned it into a golf course.

In all of these examples, the writers clearly identify the way they will organize details about a town or area. A place that is vast and filled with innumerable things is reduced to a single passage in a book. In other words, only the tip of the iceberg is revealed.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s follow the example set by Jedah Mayberry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison.

  1. Choose a town or area to describe.
  2. Write a definition of the town that creates two groups, a la Fitzgerald and Morrison. For instance: “Everybody there was dumb except for the cops.” Or, “The town had a railroad line running through the middle of it, but the division wasn’t between poor and rich but between people living in rundown shacks and people sleeping on the ground.”
  3. Now, try writing a definition of the town that identifies a broad organizing principle, a la Mayberry. For example: “The town was defined by the opportunities it had missed.” Or, “So many people had ended up in the town by accident that everything about the place seemed ruled by random chance.”
  4. Finally, describe the town. Use the definition as inspiration and as a guide for the details.

In both #2 and #3, you can switch the order around. So, you can write the definition but save it. List the details first and then finish the description with the definition. Either way you use the strategy, you’ll begin seeing it in almost every story and book that you read.

Good luck.

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