Put it to work by giving it double duty!
I’ve been blogging on using description this week. If you’re just joining, you’ll want to check out the prior blogs:
This next description trick makes me tingle—it’s that cool. MAKE YOUR DESCRIPTION MATTER! You’re the writer. You’re the one sitting at the keyboard day in and day out. Force your words to do your bidding!
How can you make your description matter beyond simply setting the mood? How can you make your description matter to your plot and character development?
Make your description work double duty. If you use the words, at least make them work up a sweat. You make your words work double duty by:
- Making them relevant to your plot
- Making them relevant to your characters’ development (No, I did not intend for that to rhyme!)
Let me use two examples from Out of the Shadows, book II of the Elysian Chronicles. Take a look at one of the description-heavy paragraphs from my prior blog and what I took out. More importantly, check out what I left in:
Tom and Jake ran outside into Tecumseh Court, or T-Court, a courtyard of grey brick where midshipmen lined up for formations. Two once bronze, now verdigris cannons called Mars and Venus pointed at each other from atop stone bases, guarding the courtyard’s entrance with eternal vigilance. Past the cannons on each side of the court, t Two flags flew in the breeze. One bore the red, white, and blue of the United States. The other, the navy-blue flag of the Brigade of Naval Academy Midshipman. Both flags flew at half-mast to honor the dead in the Cincinnati bombing. Haven’t seen them flying at full mast since I arrived, thought Tom.
Just past the cannons outside of T-Court stood the statue of Tecumseh–a bronze replica of the figurehead of the USS Delaware, a Union ship in the American Civil War. a ship the union scuttled at Norfolk during the American Civil War. The actual Indian was Tamanend, chief of the Delaware Indians. For some reason, midshipmen disliked the name Tamanend and after many nicknames including Powatan, Tecumseh–the war loving Shawnee chief–stuck. The old Indian’s head was shaved except for a tuft of it on top that fell down in spirals. A quiver of arrows hung on Tecumseh’s back–Gabriella’s favorite part of the statue. Tecumseh was a fellow archer.
- The names of the cannons don’t matter. I originally loved the idea of having the cannons “guard” the entrance to T-Court, but I just can’t see any way of making it relevant to the plot.
- The flags flying at half-mast matter. America and the World are far different in Out of the Shadows, which takes place ten years from now. I need the flags flying at half-mast, and I need Tom to notice it.
- I couldn’t bear myself to take Tecumseh out. Tecumseh is too much of a Naval Academy symbol to eliminate. I slashed some of Tecumseh’s history, but to make Tecumseh matter, I made him relevant to Gabriella’s character development. Gabs is an archer. I show her love and even addiction to archery In A Prophecy Forgotten, but I needed to show her attachment to archery in Out of the Shadows as well, especially since that attachment pushes her into big trouble. I gave Tecumseh double duty. When Gabs sees him, she doesn’t think “Union Ship” or “Naval Academy History.” She thinks: archery. Oh yeah! He matters.
I also put Tecumseh on double duty in the next paragraph:
Below, Jake [Tom’s best friend at the Academy] muttered, "Hold on." He stopped in front of Tecumseh and took out a penny. "For my chem test! Got to make my peace offering to the god of the 2.0." He tossed the penny at the statue, and saluted Tecumseh with his left hand–a ritual for superstitious midshipmen who wanted a passing grade point average of 2.0 or above.
Jake is a bit of an overachiever, but he’s not as prevalent a character as Tom. I can’t spend as many words on him. This scene shows his quest for good grades, and adds to his personality. Oh yeah! An unimportant Naval Academy ritual just became relevant!
When I write, I love to incorporate as much of the five senses as possible. (I’ll discuss that tomorrow.) Here’s another great trick to make your description matter: describe your scenery’s effect on the reader.
Two places in Out of the Shadows where I do this:
"Hold on," said Davian. "Listen to that." The wind blew through the trees. "I haven’t heard the wind in ten years." A bird chirped. "Or that either."
I want to show the wind and the birds in order to give the audience a sensory detail experience. I want them enjoying the woods Davian and his men traverse. However, I want my description performing double duty. I’m showing the wind and the birds’ chirps effect on Davian.He’s been incarcerated for 10 years. (Ooh, did I just give something away? Are you just dying to know what happens to Davian?) Davian, a military hero who focuses purely on his objective, is now noticing wind and birds. This shows a bit of his character and how he’s feeling. Double duty description.
Using description to enhance plot might sound difficult, but it can be quite fun. In Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy spent an entire chapter describing how a submarine worked and describing a flaw one of the nuclear subs. Reading through that chapter makes the reader tense because he knows at the end: BOOM! If you work your description right, you can use it to control your reader’s mood and create suspense, hence enhancing your plot. Double duty.
Here’s an example from Out of the Shadows (with a few parts taken out for speed):
Davian heard a whoosh above him to his right and felt a gust of wind. The fog swirled around him… They heard it again and felt the same gust of wind. Theo gasped and pointed to the sky where a long, reptilian tale disappeared into the fog above… Marcus pointed [into the fog] at something that looked like the wing of a bat, except it was green and about ten feet wide.
After most of the fog cleared, a rust-colored dragon more than twenty feet tall sat ten yards away from them. The five claws on each of its four feet grasped at the rock it had landed on. Spikes as long as Davian’s hand ran down the dragon’s back, and they turned into spikes over a foot long at the end of its tail, which swished about on the ground in front of its feet. Five horns grew out of its head like a natural crown, and it pointed its long, thin snout at Davian, Boronan, and Marcus. Its red wings were folded on its back…. More fog cleared, revealing more than fifty dragons that surrounded Davian’s soldiers and unicorns. Twenty more circled them in the air.
Pure description, but highly plot-relevant. The description creates the suspense. It does double duty. I could have just sent a few dragons flying overhead, but that’s boring and clichéd! The dragons also are main characters, so I choose to spend a lot of words on them.
Tomorrow, I'll discuss using sensory details to bring your world to life.
Be sure to check out my new To Elysia and Back Again podcast every Tuesday! Click here for more information.
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, which is being adapted into a graphic novel series by Wandering Sage Publications, Inc., with Weston penning the script and KISS comic book artist, Adam Black, doing the art. Weston hosts a podcast on her To Elysia and Back Again blog, which can be downloaded on itunes. Click here for a complete listing of the To Elysia and Back Againpodcast episodes. Weston is also the host of The Final Cut in Movies, an internet radio talk show about science fiction and fantasy movies on Ad Astra Radio, which can also be heard as a podcast on M. B. Weston's Podcasts site or on iTunes. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.