Animate the monster

Helga’s post # 22 — As the story goes, if you were to eavesdrop at the London Book Fair, the comment you’d most often hear as novels are pitched is, “It’s beautifully written,” followed by:  “of course.”

At least that’s how Donald Maass tells it.

In one of Joe’s previous posts, ‘Book buying’ his point, especially poignant for newbie writers, is this: ‘As new writers, I think we need to remember this. Words matter. Voice matters. Style matters. How a story starts… matters.’

Truer words were never written. Think about it:

If ‘beautifully written’ will someday be said about a novel that you have written, you’d likely think there is no greater compliment, no bigger reward, than your readers saying:

“She (Karalee, Paula, Silk) or He (Joe of course) has got a way with words.”

Conversely, as a buyer of books, if the words don’t captivate me right from the start, no matter how clever the plot, how stylish the cover picture, even the smart title, the book will probably be a flop. I will feel duped as a buyer and reader. The writing sucks.

So then, how do we make our words sing, make them float on the page, make them ‘swirl and swing as they tangle with human emotions’, as James Michener said.

Maybe to do what Anton Chekov had in mind when he said: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

As writers, we need our compass for pointing us in the direction of ‘beautifully written’ vs. the opposite, ‘the writing sucks’. We know instinctively what we need to do. Sometimes it helps to be reminded though. Legions of books are written on the topic, their authors not always in agreement. There are however some common traits.

‘Beautifully written’ is more than description, images, and metaphors, though that’s part of it. More so, a beautifully written novel invokes emotions, ‘moving readers’ hearts, ‘changing their ideas, and even rocking their worlds’.il_570xN.350947546

To quote from Maass again: Beautiful writing is more than pretty prose. It conjures a world that is unique, highly detailed, and brought alive by the characters who dwell there. Beautiful writing also illuminates a story’s social world, its era, the passage of time and the story’s larger meaning. When a novel’s grasp is sure and its ambition is vast, then it is beautifully written.

At the other end of the compass, the ‘writing sucks’ point, there is one writing tool that should be thrown away: description. Most readers skim it. Even if using the five senses, it’s dead weight. Instead, describe a character’s experience, conveying how things look, smell, sound, taste, etc.

For example, it’s not enough to show that a character owns a luxury home and to describe its details. The reader needs to see him in that house when the family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. We want to know his feelings. Is he conflicted? He loves his wife and he hates her. He feels trapped by her, thrilled by her, disgusted, but unable to leave. It’s his personal world. His feelings are the lightning bolts that ‘animate the monster’ and make it live.’ (Maass)

2336426905_fa1dcb6ef7_oSo much advice, so little time. Perhaps it boils down to this:

‘Write for the right reasons. The ability to write is a gift and should not be abused for cynical purposes. Resist the temptation to imitate what is currently commercially successful. Write what’s in your heart.’ (Thrity Umrigar, The Space Between Us)

6 thoughts on “Animate the monster

  1. One of the things i was taught about description is to keep any description down to a couple of things, no more than five max., and they have to be things that the viewpoint character would notice, and be sufficiently unique to bring the room or the person or the situation being described to life – and only include it when it’s necessary. If it’s just to anchor someone in a scene, then put as little in as possible, but make sure it does its job. Not an easy chore!

    • Very true. Narrative description is such a temptation for writers. It fills the pages, it’s easy to write, but doesn’t move the plot forward, nor flesh out our characters. Thanks for your insight, Bev.

  2. “‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This says it all about description, which is something I’ve instinctively avoided, before I was told that I should. BUT does this apply to characters as well as surroundings? A reader once complained that he didn’t know what my characters looked like. I didn’t want to describe their appearance, figuring that the reader would picture characters based on what they did and how they acted. I’m interested in knowing what you folks think.

  3. I think “description” may be too broad a term for what we’re trying to avoid here. I would call “glint of light on broken glass” active description. It’s still description (the light, the glass), but it makes the reader imagine where the light is coming from (the moon), and wonder why the glass is broken.

    This kind of creative description engages readers and makes them do a little bit of mental work, instead of spoon-feeding them a picture. I think the work a writer makes the reader do to visualize a scene triggers readers’ synapses and lets them become an active part of the scene. In other words, the reader gets to experience something firsthand: the act of imagination.

    So maybe another way of thinking about description in writing is that it should leave something to the reader’s imagination.

    But I’d hate to see any writer mindlessly shun everything that might be classified as “description”. Just avoid the boring kind. We do need to “describe” things enough to orient the reader. For instance, I’ve read (bestselling!) action books that made me exhausted and bored at the same time because it was nothing but go, go, go without enough description to give me a sense of context. It felt like being carried through the book in a speeding car with a bag over my head.

    And as far as description of a protagonist goes, many writing advice-givers say not to, yet many successful authors do it to great effect (Dashiell Hammett’s description of Sam Spade is often quoted as an example). Personally, I like enough of a suggestion about a main character’s looks that I can imagine them for myself without my image being ridiculously unlike the author’s image. If the author sees a guy weighing 400 pounds, my image of a skinny protagonist is going to catch up with me somewhere along the plotline and trip me up badly.

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