Two Brothers Press

Writing Tips

Here are links to other writing tips...

Dialog: The elements and art of dialog in fiction

Narrative Voice in storytelling: a discussion of point of view and verb tense and how these elements affect the story

Fastest Gun in the West: writers often assume readers will fill in the details

Freelance Pitfalls: Editors beware of disturbed writers; writers beware of editors with an attitude

Novel Openings: Creating compelling openings for novels

Flashbacks: Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback
Description: The red meat of storytelling

graveyardThe description of place, characters, and all other occurrences of description in a story provide the story with the environment, setting, tone, and other sensory perceptions within which the characters live and their tale unfolds. Without good description, a story is flat and uninteresting, takes place in a vacuum, and rings hollow. Description is the red meat that feeds the reader's imagination. If you're a vegan...well...um...it's the portabella mushroom of storytelling. But don't let that image linger in your mind...

Watch how description of place, weather, and other sensory elements changes the tone and mood of a story.

He took a shortcut down a backwoods road, and even though the road was paved, it needed repair, and he had to avoid deep potholes. The day was sunny and clear. The trees came close to the road, at times, and the drive was pleasant, with the sunlight dancing off the windshield as it flickered through the trees. Suddenly, the car pulled hard to the right, following a loud bang, and a moment later, he came to a stop on the shoulder of the road. He killed the engine and stepped out, surveying his surroundings. It was still and warm and quiet. He had come to a stop next to a rusted barbed-wire fence, beyond which he saw an old cemetery. The headstones were a sad mixture of stone and wood, leaning this way and that, and wildflowers of yellow and pink and tall grass shone in the bright sunlight.
Many readers will no doubt fondly recall old graveyards they have explored on such days, walking among the headstones, as they try to read the names and birth and death dates of people long gone. There's little that's creepy or scary about graveyards under sunny, clear skies, and the lush trees and grass and wildflowers add a certain charm to the setting.

But look what happens when we change the time to night and, instead of sunlight, there's a thunderstorm brewing, full of lightning, thunder, and gusts of wind.

He had taken a shortcut from the hilly village of Males on his way to Lompock, which the old man in the overalls at the Texaco had said would knock an hour off his trip. "But, mind you, there's a storm coming, and it's coming on dark," the old man said, sidling up to him, looking him square in the eyes. "Might wanna put the top up on yer car."

But he hadn't put the top up, as he pulled out of the station and headed west on the farm-to-market road the old man had pointed toward with a long, wrinkled finger. "Ataway."

And now, it was windy and already dark as sunset had given way quickly, the sun dropping below the bank of angry looking clouds boiling toward him from the west. The heat of the day lingered and hot wind blew through the car, full of humidity and barely drying his forehead. Even though the old road was paved, it needed repair, and he had to avoid deep potholes that shone for an instant in the beam of his headlights, barely giving him time to swerve to miss them. It was fully dark and lightning flashed, closer and closer, followed by the crack of thunder. Suddenly, the car pulled hard to the right, following a loud bang from beneath the car, and a moment later, he came to a stop on the shoulder of the road, his gut already knowing it was a right-front blowout. He killed the engine, without thinking of putting the top up, and fished around in the glove box for a flashlight. He stepped out and made his way around the car.

A sudden flash of lightning sent a shower of sparks in front of him, as it struck something metallic nearby, bathing everything in momentary daylight brightness, and he saw he had come to a stop next to an old graveyard. The rakish headstones danced in the strobe light of lightning for a moment. Then darkness prevailed. Just before he turned, another flash of lighting hit, and right next to the road on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, he saw the open grave, and a hot gust of wind carried the fetid odor of decaying flesh...

Yes, it's almost purple prose here, but you get the picture. Now, how many readers would fondly recall old graveyards? Rather, the tone changes to one of foreboding and evokes childhood fears and ghost stories, and when we add in the sense of smell with the odor of decaying flesh from an open grave, the atmosphere we create is something of a horror story.

ontheFaultIn an entirely different way, we can evoke physical sensations that readers can almost feel, simply through descriptions that use our physical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. This next example is from On the Fault, by Ronald J. Wichers, a novel about a young soldier from Viet Nam who loses part of one arm and has to live in a VA hospital until the stump is healed. The character is Joe Hearns.

The story is set in the early 1970s, and we get a general sense of the state of military medicine during Viet Nam, stateside. Joe Hearns is going into the clinic to have a cast put on his "stump" what's left of his left arm, which has been amputated above the elbow...

Doctor Tully, touched him on the shoulder. "Take your robe and shirt off, Hearns, would you please?"

Joe eased his swollen wing out of the sleeve, and sat stripped to the waist, waiting.

Tully stepped close to him and began handling the bandaged stump. Joe winced and tightened up.

"Louis," Tully called to one of the technicians. "When you get a chance, please."

"Yes sir, Doctor Tully. Be right with you, sir."

"Where are you from, Joe?" Tully asked, turning to him with two small papery packages and scissors in his hands.

Joe turned around. "Ah...Berkeley," he replied.

"Ah, yes...Berzerkley," Tully said, "Hmmm." The doctor seemed to slow himself, his eyes focusing intently on Joe's bandage as he began unwrapping the things he held in his hands. Cutting the brittle paper with the scissors, he brought forth a white puff of lamb's wool, and then from another package, a cloth article resembling a donut. He glanced at Joe. "Lie down, will you?"

Joe stretched out on his back, his feet extending well beyond the edge of the examining table.

Louis had placed a steel basin of water beside the bed, along with another containing a Phisohex solution. Tully was cutting the bloody bandage away... "How are these things coming along?" Tully asked, feeling with his fingers the suture line that spanned a portion of Joe's rib cage...

Tully was lost in concentrating on the condition of Joe's half arm. It was an angry light bulb made of meat, red and blue, and creased from the gauze.

Louis held the basin of Phisohex, while Tully gripped the stump just below the armpit and began scrubbing.

Joe tried to shrink away. But the surgeon's hands were working smoothly, and all three men breathed together, wrapped in single concentration over Joe's wing; the need for cleaning it, the severity of the swelling and the puffiness of the flesh that jiggled from Joe pulling in apprehension, while the doctor maintained his grasp authoritatively.

Joe's wound was coming clean. He listened to the splashing of the water as the doctor rinsed a cloth to wipe the stump. Louis held the basin of water for the doctor to rinse without having to turn from the patient.

"...Can't you make him stop?" he wanted to say. The rinsing was becoming more painful, scrubbing over and over at the end where the metal sutures were.

He tried being manly, but he had not known about the cast room, he had no knowledge of what to be prepared for...
Here we have several images, complete with sensory description that will make readers cringe as they read. Just a description of the instruments and packages, in preparation for the procedure hints at the pain to come, and the end of the stump described as "an angry light bulb made of meat, red and blue, and creased from the gauze," is enough for most readers to visualize the raw and sensitive wound that has to be cleaned.

We are feeling all this as the main character does, and like the doctor, we are totally focused on the wound at the end of the stump, as if it is our own. The tone of the writing is almost clinical and detached, except for the very personal involvement of the character in his entire body.

New writers might have said, Joe had a difficult time in the cast room, and the doctor hurt him when he prepared Joe's stump for a cast. This would simply carry no weight or pain or sensation to the reader, and we would be less inclined to feel much, either within our own minds or that of the characters. So it is simply the description, itself, that carries the red meat of the story.