When it comes to writing fiction, it’s important to consider a variety of elements that go into the construction and execution of your piece. These start from the genre that you want your piece to sit in (or that you want it to object to if you are attempting to avoid genre altogether!) and go all the way up to the dialogue, the importance of the story’s layout, and your use of punctuation to create certain effects within that piece of writing. One of the most fundamental parts of your writing technique to consider when working on any piece of fiction is the effective use of your surroundings (e.g. to inspire new works-in-progress or to develop your draft) and deploying description to really take your reader on that journey with you and / or your characters. Making the most of these, without over-saturating your piece, is one of the key tools to master. In this post, I’m going to talk about why ‘Surroundings’ and ‘Description’ are both so important.
Let’s start with what these techniques add to a piece of writing.
‘Surroundings’ and ‘Description’ go hand-in-hand with one another when it comes to making the writing itself come alive on the page. Think of them like a piece of music: the surroundings are your setting, and all of that background noise that you often don’t even realise you’re listening to (or reading), but that you still find yourself subconsciously taking in, that is your basic chord pattern. It’s the base line that you need in order to develop the rest of your piece. Sometimes, surroundings might even act as your inspiration; a vague setting that you’re picturing in your head that you know you want to write about or, like chords in the background of a piece of music, they might even be the motivation that you need to keep going with your writing.
If your surroundings are the chords, then the description becomes the melody.
‘Description’, on the other hand, is the additional material that you include on top of that base line (the surroundings) to help make the piece come to life in the reader’s mind and bring them on the journey with you — to soar where the chords alone couldn’t. By deploying description, you add a certain flavour, a richness, to that setting, to your characters, or to the wider plot, and, without them, you might well lose your reader’s interest or even your own motivation to write. Description allows you to play with the world that you’re creating, to expand it and change it until you find that perfect fit for yourself, your reader and / or your characters, and, as writers, we need to find the right balance to ensure that we are creating something that seems believable. By making the most of your use of surroundings and deploying description, you can make your piece seem credible to your reader.
Note: I didn’t say that it has to be realistic.
While your writing should seem credible and / or believable to your reader, I don’t mean that it has to be 100% realistic all of the time. For example, if you’re writing about an unknown race on a planet in a different galaxy then realism itself isn’t what you’re after. Instead, you want your readers to believe that the place and the characters you’ve created could exist somewhere at some time in the future and you can do that by deploying description effectively. Take, as another example, the difference between these two sentences (below) to describe the same place. Here, I’m using our unknown race on a different planet scenario:
a) Sitara walked out into the street lit up red by the moon.
b) Sitara walked out into the street, turning her face up towards the three moons that circled her planet. Each moon cast a burgundy hue across the cold earth, the rusted night-glow as much a part of Sitara’s life as the grey light of day.
By exploring the surroundings and deploying description to evoke a real sense of place in the second sentence, we have created a setting that feels believable even if it isn’t very realistic…
The key lies in ensuring that you find the right balance.
Like many techniques in Literature and / or Creative Writing, over-describing something can just as easily break your piece’s flow in the same way that using no description at all might leave it stagnant for your reader. Going back to my earlier analogy of your base-line chords and melodies: too much description is the same as too many notes in the melody. Too much or too many can shatter the rhythm of your piece, creating jarring moments rather than a flowing work of fiction.
The same goes for your use of surroundings, too: overdo it and you might end up losing sight of the rest of the characters, the plot (and subplots), or even your relevant description. In particular, watch out for ‘information dumps’. It can be easy to get carried away when you have a description in your mind and you want to make sure that you translate this to the piece of paper or Word document on the screen in front of you, but throwing all of your description into one place may only serve to halt the progression of your piece entirely. For example:
Sitara walked out into the cracked street, her feet treading the same path as she had the night before, avoiding the crumbling divets in the earth that seemed to ache to swallow you whole, turning her face up towards the three brilliant, gargantuan moons that circled her home planet Xilyuo, the largest in the galaxy. Each moon cast a burgundy-red hue lightly across the cold, cracked, crumbling earth, the rusted nightglow as much a part of Sitara’s life as the grey light of day.
Here, you can see how too much description has become detrimental to my piece. In addition to what I term the ‘information-dump’, you can see how easy it is for me to repeat my description unnecessarily when trying to create a key image in the mind of my reader. Take, for example, ‘burgundy-red’: Burgundy is a subsidiary description of the colour ‘red’ and, by using both, I end up saying the same thing twice without progressing my narrative. Another example of this is present in the use of the word ‘cracked’ twice in neighbouring sentences. My top tip: Always check you haven’t repeated the same words close to each other in your work-in-progress. It may not be obvious to you but it could stick out like a sore thumb to your reader.
Keep an eye on repeating words close in neighbouring sentences.
As we have explored, ‘Surroundings’ and ‘Description’ are both integral to your piece of fiction and, when used appropriately, are invaluable tools to creating a living, breathing story in the mind of your reader. Don’t be afraid to use them, even if you think you might be overusing them. The important thing to do is to edit: you can always go back over your piece and look at it as we have examined my example above, identifying any areas where your use of surroundings or deployment of description have become detrimental to your work-in-progress rather than supportive.
Want to try using your surroundings to inspire new works-in-progress or to over-describe for the purpose of practising your self-editing? Join us on Wednesday for our first online workshop of 2019!
(c) Kathryn Cockrill and Wordsmith_HQ, 2019.