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Mark now, how a plain tale shall put you down.
--William Shakespeare, Henry IV, part one

A Spoonfulof Sugar: Thoughts on Writing Description for Fantasy was first published in Verge Communications, LLC

Rie Sheridan
A Spoonful of Sugar: Thoughts on Writing Description for Fantasy

Writing description is like eating gruel for breakfast. It can be dry, tasteless, and dull. It can be overly “accessorized,” like drowning the mash in heavy cream with brown sugar and peach slices. Or, it can be just right, enough milk-but not too much, a hint of sweetness, and maybe a garnish of banana. In other words, description should add to your plot without overshadowing it, enhancing your characterizations without substituting for them. It should help reveal the concrete sensory details of your world but not inundate your readership with them. And finally, it should pin down that world to a specific time and place-whether real or imagined-with its own set of logical rules that your reader can trust you to follow for the remainder of their visit with you and your characters.

The first of these three duties for your hard-working descriptive details can be summed up in that oft-repeated, but seldom adequately explained, phrase “Show, Don’t Tell.” The three words a writer most dreads to hear. But they don’t have to be. Once you grasp the actual concept of “Show, Don’t Tell,” it can become one of the most exciting comments an editor can give you, because now you know where to go back and “play.”

Let’s look at a specific example: The prince fought for his life.

This gives you a bit of drama, a hint of conflict. Someone or something wants to kill this poor prince. It is not without merit.

But what if you said instead: The exhausted young prince swung his broadsword up with a two-handed grip, barely managing to parry the downward cut of his opponent’s blade. The clang of steel on steel made his ears ring, and the sharp scent of fear-sweat assailed his nostrils as he fought to catch his breath. His foot slipped on the dewy grass, and he went down on one knee. Gathering every ounce of strength he possessed, he pushed to his feet once more and raised his shaking blade. He must fight on, or die.

Which example is more interesting? Which would you rather read? It should be obvious which was more fun to write. The first example tells exactly what happened, in very general terms. The second shows how it happened, with precisely chosen details.

However-and this is a strong caution-you don’t want to do what the following example does: The exhausted, red-haired young prince narrowed his sea green eyes and swung his antique silver broadsword up with the two-handed grip that his sword master had taught him on his twentieth birthday three months before, barely managing to parry the savage downward cut of the evil-looking black falchion that the scar-faced demon captain aimed at his unprotected head….

Well, you get the idea. There is such a thing as a surfeit of detail, and when you show too much, your reader has no reason to read on to find out more.

Think of it this way. Would you rather be spoon-fed, or feed yourself? Do you prefer to explore new surroundings, or follow a list of detailed, step-by-step instructions? As a reader, which do you yourself prefer? A page-turner of a novel where the author keeps you guessing until the final revelation (at which point you say, “Of course! I should have known that!), or a detailed description of each character including their shoe-size and what they had for breakfast. The first time you see them. These details may be crucial to the story line, but it seems hardly likely that the two things will both have impact in the same scene. And, as mentioned before, if the reader knows everything of importance in the first paragraph, why should they bother to continue reading?

If you don’t like to wade through a sea of unnecessary detail (the key word being “unnecessary”) what makes you think that your readership will? It is much more interesting to read, or write for that matter, something that doles out information like a careful mother doles out treats-a little at a time, rather than carte blanche in an “All You Can Eat” sweet store.

So, you are ready to gradually present your details. How do you choose which ones to use? Remember that good description should help to make your world real and concrete for your readers. Is it just like our world? Fine. But make the fact that it is so similar concrete in the reader’s mind, if that is the case. For example, which is clearer: “He spent three coins for the book” or “He fished a sovereign and two talons from his pouch to pay for the volume?” Of course, when you do get concrete and specific, you also have to be careful. You can’t have your hero eat a peach in autumn. Unless you explain where and how he got it in his medieval marketplace in a very mild climate. It does, however, make him easier to identify with when he gives his velvet cloak to a starving child to wrap up in as the snow begins to fall. Silk wouldn’t be nearly as helpful to the child, would it? Using specific sensual comments-how does the situation smell? taste? feel? sound?-as well as look will make your writing sparkle.

But choose carefully. It has been said in many playwriting and film circles that you should never mention a prop or bring it into the focus of a scene/shot unless it will serve some function in the play or film. This is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind when writing general description too. If you are going to spend a paragraph in lovingly detailing the dress that the heroine is wearing, make it important to the action for some reason. Maybe it is inappropriate to the weather, as she finds out when she is accidentally locked in the stables with the hero.

Also, keep in mind the fact that there is a flip side to the judicious revelation of detail. For example, if your adventuresome prince has a ring that will prove to be of essential importance to the climactic scene of the book, don’t wait until that scene to mention it exists. Work it into the story early on, so that the reader won’t feel slighted when it saves the day. People in modern society feel cheated when a miracle unexpectedly solves all the world’s problems. The days of the “deus ex machina” or “machine of the gods” being a good* thing are long gone. Now, such a convenience is considered to be belittling to your audience and is unlikely to win you a returning readership. (The exception being a willful use of the idea in a comedy, and then it must be perfectly executed to work well.)

And, finally, the third important duty of description is to reveal the concrete details of your world without inundating the reader in them. It is the careful allotment of information on a “Need to Know” basis. If you go back to the example of the embattled prince, for example, it may be of vital importance that your reader knows that the poor fellow is exhausted at the point where he is dueling with the demon captain. However, you might want to save until a later point the fact that he got in that condition by sitting nightly vigil at his father’s crypt for the last week so that the demon would not steal the body and deliver it to an evil necromancer for her vile pleasures. Unless you feel that he would stop in the middle of the battle to discuss the matter with his opponent-or let his mind wander to reminiscences and get skewered.

On the other hand, when the demon lies slain at his feet might be the perfect time to have him sink down against a boulder and consider what has brought his country to such a sad state of affairs. And you might continue to keep under your hat, or up your sleeve, or wherever you happen to store secrets, the fact that the necromancer is the dead king’s elder sister and feels entitled to treat the body as she sees fit. The thoughtful revelation of detail in justifiable increments is what makes a good writer rise to great…or maybe not. But it doesn’t hurt.

So, let’s review. When writing fiction, there are three sparks that can set your words on fire: 1) show your details, don’t tell your readers what happened; 2) make those details concrete and specific; and 3) don’t reveal everything at once--dole out your description and character traits in manageable doses.

Remember that a spoonful of sugar goes a long way. Don’t make your reader sick!

. . . . .

Rie Sheridan is the senior editor at Verge Communications LLC: http//:www.vergemag.com Her novel THE BLOOD THAT BINDS will be published by NovelBooks, Inc. in December. She also has a collection of short stories pending from SunnySide Up Publishing, and a second novel next June from NovelBooks, Inc.


Read Rie Sheridan's Beauty Within the Briars at dowse Fiction Hub
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