Tag Archives: how to write description

How to Create Friction Between Character and Scene

5 May
What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called "thrilling" and "perceptive" by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called “thrilling” and “perceptive” by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

In life, people tend to work together. At weddings, when the crazy uncle is drinking too much and telling offensive jokes, the rest of the family negotiates this behavior gently, distracting the uncle and muting him. Everyone is on the same page. If life didn’t work this way, we’d spend all of our time screaming at each other. In fiction, however, characters shouldn’t work together, at least not all of them. When a scene gathers momentum and begins to take on rules for how to act, a character needs to refuse or fail to play along. That friction between character and scene can be a great source of tension.

Melissa Falcon Field’s novel What Burns Away has this tension in spades. You can read the opening of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel opens with a scene that may feel familiar to parents of young children. It’s morning, the baby is awake and screaming, and one of the parents is getting ready for work. The other is staying home. So, the scene is set:

Jonah hollered again, his breathing gone fierce: “Mama! Come!

Such hollering tends to create a particular mood in a house, in a scene. Think about the last time you were around tired people while a child screamed. What was the mood? Frustrated? Frantic? Now, watch the book’s narrator (Jonah’s mother) look at her husband:

I eyed my husband through the open bathroom door, watching as he tapped his razor against the edge of the sink.

Already, you can see a distance open up between the sensibility of the scene (screaming child) and the response of the character “tapped his razor.” Imagine how else this description of the husband could have been written. He could have become as frantic as the child (parents often do). He could have snapped at his wife. He could have rushed out the door. Instead, he moves methodically. Now, watch how the sensibility of that tapping razor gets stretched along:

Miles kept his back to me. A new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist, and I studied his face in the mirror. His steady surgeon’s hand took a straight edge to the beveled cleft of his chin.

All desperation and hysterics, Jonah screamed. “Please, Mama!”

Every sentence contains a key detail: Instead of turning to his wife to see if she hears the baby, Miles keeps his back to her. He has gained weight, which has pooled (note the inertia implied in that word choice) at his waist. We learn that he’s a surgeon with a steady hand. In short, his refusal to get sucked in to the household drama is an essential part of his nature and evident in his actions, his physical appearance, and his career.

Now, watch what happens next:

Miles turned to face me as I stood, a dollop of shaving cream above his lip. “Claire, go get the baby.”

That’s a cold line. He’s asserting himself and his sensibility upon the drama around him. It’s a line that you can feel like a punch in the gut.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a gap between scene and character using What Burns Away by Melissa Falcon Field as a model:

  1. Set the tone of the scene. Often, this is done by introducing a particular force. In What Burns Away, it’s a screaming baby. In my earlier example, it was an uncle acting inappropriately at a wedding. Both are characters who can’t be tamed, at least not easily. This week’s episode of Mad Men had a great example of this. Don’s in a meeting with a table full of creative directors, listening to a pitch about beer. The company is impressively huge, and so everyone is listening intently. But not Don. In short, walk something into the scene that cannot be ignored, that must be dealt with.
  2. Create the character who will not play along. In What Burns Away, the husband refuses to quicken his morning routine for a screaming child. In Mad Men, Don refuses to listen. At the wedding, a character could egg the uncle on, rather than tamping down his behavior. If you know what the best or necessary behavior is, think about what it would mean for a character to A) do the opposite or B) disregard the thing that cannot be ignored.
  3. Be subtle. Miles eventually tells his wife to get the baby, which is highly dramatic, but before we get to that moment, we see him resisting or ignoring in a very small way: tapping his razor. In Mad Men, Don looks out the window before he walks out of the room. Don’t jump directly to the drama. Set it up by giving the character the smallest possible physical action that reveals or embodies his or her sensibility or behavior in general. Give the character a way to not play along that no one but the reader and maybe one other character will notice.

Good luck.

How to Direct the Reader’s Attention

28 Apr
Stefanie Freele's story, "Davenports and Ottomans" was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans” was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

In his epic story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” Adam Johnson uses a strategy for writing descriptions that has fundamentally influenced how I write my own. It’s also a strategy that I see everywhere, in books of all kinds, and I recently came across it once again in Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans.” It was published in a relatively new journal that is already developing a reputation for quality work, Tahoma Literary Review. At the TLR website, you can read the story, and the entire issue of the journal, as a pdf.

How the Story Works

In some ways, Johnson’s story, one of the longest (maybe the longest) story ever published in Tin House, has little in common with Freele’s story, which clocks in at just three pages. Yet both stories use the same approach to description.

Here is a passage from the beginning of Johnson’s story:

The boarded-up Outback Steakhouse next door is swamped with FEMA campers, and a darkened AMC 16 is a Lollapalooza of urban camping. It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware. How do you tell your thin bed sheets from your neighbor’s? Can you separate your yellowed, mismatched Tupperware from the world’s? And there are mountains of all-new crap. Outside the campers are bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills, which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.

In this passage, a pattern develops: give details and then tell the reader how to understand those details. So, we see the parking lots full of campers and then get the line, “It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of.” The same thing happens at the end of the passage. We see the laundry bins, porch chairs, and grills, and then we get this line: “which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.”

Of course, Johnson reverses the pattern as well: “it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware.” In that line, he tells us how to understand the list that follows. Mostly, though, throughout the story, a list of details is summed up with a line that indicates how to understand those details. It’s an incredibly effective strategy, as the paragraph from “Hurricanes Anonymous” makes clear.

Now, here is a passage from Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans”:

The crotch in Maribel’s white tights scoots even lower, half-way down her thighs as she enters the hot holiday-decorated living room. The insides of her legs itch and are already chafing from the short walk across the icy parking lot and up the green carpeted stairs that smell like mold and rain, a confining smell she will forever associate with Great Aunt Agnes. She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.

The description is no longer about setting, as it was in Johnson’s story. Instead, it’s become personal, a description of a character’s clothes and the way they make her feel. Still, the strategy is the same: details and interpretation. We see the tights and her thighs, the itching and chafing, and the claustrophobia of these details is connected to setting with the moldy carpet. Then, we get that last line, which adds the character’s thoughts: “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”

The details probably made you feel a certain way, but the words hates and nonsense point us in a clear direction for understanding this feeling and these details. There are, in fact, many ways to feel about ill-fitting tights, and the story, in a line, dispatches with all but one, which allows the story to move forward with a clear sense of purpose.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description using “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele as a model:

  1. Decide what to describe. Johnson describes setting: a place. Freele mostly describes a person, though that description eventually brings in some details about place. It doesn’t really matter what you want to describe, only that it (place, person) should be connected to some feeling. That feeling may be vague, but it should be there. When you think about the place/person, you should feel excited or uneasy or something. In stories, neutral is almost never good. We want characters and places that are charged with emotion or sensation.
  2. Describe it with specific details. Eventually, you’ll want details that cohere into a whole that is larger than the parts, but, first, you just need to get some details onto the page. Be as specific as possible. Use the sort of nouns that have adjectives attached to them (“white tights…half-way down her thighs” or “bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills”). You’re giving the reader something to see, an image that may be familiar or surreal. Either way, it’s specific.
  3. Interpret the details. Try using the phrasing from either of Johnson’s sentences as models: “People seem…” or “which is what happens when…” Or, use Freele’s phrasing: “She (emotion verb) (things we just saw). The goal is to not only tell the readers what we just saw/read but also how to think about it.
  4. Revise the passage for coherence. Once you have a line of interpretation, you may find that some details fit better than others. So, cut the ones that don’t fit, add more that do fit, and tweak the interpretive line so that the entire passage makes as much sense as possible.

Good luck.

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