Setting Descriptions and Improving Descriptive Writing

When writers are focused on characters, plot, and flow of a story, sometimes the development of something equally as important gets overlooked. Amazing characters and an engrossing story cannot stand on their own; the writer must put them in vivid, memorable locations. Part of what makes fiction writing so meaningful to many is the ability to travel to another world within the pages of a book, and authors who can clearly depict such a world will have readers hooked.

But what constitutes a well-written setting? Too much description can get boring for the reader, but too little leaves ambiguity. Simply ask yourself some questions and determine how it may benefit your reader.

Is the scene taking place outdoors? Consider the weather: is the sun bright and hot, warming the skin and making the character squint? Or is the night cool with a light breeze and stars so clearly visible that the character can identify constellations with the naked eye?

For an indoor setting, determine the type of room. Is it a lush living room with satin couches and custom-made sandalwood end tables, sun pouring in from floor-to-ceiling windows? Or is it a musty studio apartment with creaking wood flooring and no air conditioning, a cockroach peeking out from a crevice in the floorboards?

What makes these decisions important is that the setting of a scene can have an effect on the characters. Standing in the hot sun might make a character sweat, adding body language such as wiping the brow or fanning themselves. The dialogue of characters gathered in a lush living room might be more formal. Not only do settings give your characters a place to be, but those settings improve character development.

Sometimes the tiniest of details can add more to the story than what you think. As an exercise, put yourself in the character’s shoes and look around. What do you see? I first learned of this exercise decades ago when a class assignment was to practice descriptive writing by describing a room in my house in detail, starting from directly in front of me and then moving around clockwise. As an example here, I will write a detailed description of a part of the room I’m in.

Directly in front of me near the corner of the room is a flat-screen TV, currently off. Three remotes lay in front of it, and a small cable box sits on a small shelf below the one the TV sits on. To the right of the TV is an old brown speaker with a VCR on top. The right wall is adorned with a line of four photo frames, each filled with a picture of my twin daughters, rewinding time with each photo left to right. In front of this wall is a small coffee table currently blanketed in toys ranging from plastic dinosaurs to cars to Barbie dolls to miniature animals. Beside the table is a small, soft, toddler-sized chair from my husband’s childhood. Covered in a faux wool fabric, it currently holds a genie doll with bright pink hair.

This is only a fraction of my current environment, and of course in a story situation not all of these details are necessary. But let’s pretend for a moment that this is the setting of a story; what bits of information might be useful? The photos of the children and the variety of toys tell a lot about who resides in the home. Perhaps the mention of the VCR and childhood chair depicts nostalgia as a character trait. But the placement of the remotes and the cable box would not add anything to the story.

Try this exercise either within your story’s environment to develop it directly, or in your own home or work space to practice descriptive writing. Either way, you will feel results in your writing.

Why Reading Aloud is Important for Writers

It’s safe to say that many writers feel that the voice inside their head is sufficient enough for evaluating one’s own work, or even the work of others. They often consider the act of reading aloud to be a ridiculous waste of time. I’ll be honest and say that was how I felt for a long time. It was only once I was forced to do it that I discovered this interesting new perspective.

When I was a fiction writing student at Columbia College Chicago one of the things we had to regularly do is read each other’s work aloud to the class. The teacher would choose someone’s work, read a passage from it, then pass it to one or two other students before giving it back to the author to read a final section. This exercise has multiple benefits, all of which will not only assist you in improving your work, but also in improving yourself as a writer and overall literary human.

The first benefit comes from hearing others read your work aloud. You are hearing your words come from someone else’s voice. This person is visually reading your words, processing them mentally, then bringing them out to your ears using their own tone, pitch, and inflections of speech. If they’re good at reading aloud (which I’ll discuss later), this will be a glorious awakening.

Success in strong character development and dialogue will have your reader portraying those voices well. Flowing setting descriptions will make the reader’s delivery flow just as smoothly. But if what comes out doesn’t sound right to you, don’t blame your reader straightaway. What can you do to make your story heard better? Was there some specific wording or sentence structure they stumbled on? Did a character’s dialogue not come across as authentic? Consider it an opportunity to improve the writing instead of blaming someone for not “getting it.” If it doesn’t sound right to your ears, it’s likely not going to sound right in anyone’s head other than yours.

A second benefit to this exercise comes when you read your own work aloud. You’ll gain the most when you read it to someone and get their feedback, but simply finding a hiding spot and reading by yourself will also be rewarding. The voice you speak with really is different than the one in your head. It takes more mental processing to read aloud; not only does your brain have to read the words on the page, but it also has to control the physical movements of speaking and manipulating your voice to match what is seen with your eyes. Do you find yourself stumbling on any wording? Are you able to portray your characters without forcing or exaggerating anything? If it sounded good, nice work. If not, revisit.

Lastly, one of the most surprising benefits I discovered is learning how to be a good reader. When doing these exercises in my classes, I didn’t realize that I was subliminally being taught the art of reading aloud. Though the teacher did tell us to occasionally look up at the audience, it was actually the act of bringing another writer’s work to life that encouraged me to be more expressive when reading aloud. As an extreme introvert I am often mortified by the prospect of speaking in front of a group, but this was one thing I have grown to enjoy. And it’s a skill I use daily when attempting to keep the attention of my five-year-old twins at story time.

Now go out and try it. If you’re in a writers’ group or have other writer friends, take turns reading each other’s work to the group so everyone can benefit. Print out a passage of your work, sit in a comfy chair, and read aloud to yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you can discover.

Should I Get a Critique?

As fiction writers, the worlds and characters we have created are precious to us, built from our hearts and souls. Why would we ever want to pay someone to analyze it and potentially tear it apart, shattering our hopes and dreams of our beloved baby becoming the next bestseller? Getting a story critiqued is a scary thought, but if you have the means to pay a professional to do it, you should.

The number one reason to keep in mind is that no one else can see the story from your point of view. The story came from your head; everyone else is going to interpret the story differently from you, and differently from each other. You might think you have perfectly described your character’s appearance and were detailed with your settings, but what seems clear to you might not actually be so. The story flow might feel perfect and smooth to an author, but a reader might stumble. A second pair of eyes (at least) is invaluable for catching possible issues.

A couple years ago I finished a novel, which I was very proud of, and I was very attached to the story. However, I knew that I needed to develop things as the length was short, so I sent it off for a professional critique. What I got back was not what I expected.

The reader felt that my main character was vastly underdeveloped. They couldn’t connect with her, stating that by the end they didn’t know her any better than they did at the beginning. There was no story arc, things were repetitive, and they felt the setting was not quite believable. I was heartbroken. I had put so much love into this character and her story, and this professional just ripped it to shreds.

After I had a mini-meltdown, I reread the critique. I pondered everything that was said, compared it to the story, and came to an important conclusion: This reader was 100% correct.

Looking at your own story from the outside is extremely difficult, but once someone else does it for you, you can then step back and see it through their eyes. I saw the main character much differently; I saw all the flaws, and even questioned who she really was as a person. I looked at the timeline and locations throughout the story and realized how ridiculous it all was. My eyes—and mind—were opened.

Critiques are not entirely negative. A good critique will include positive insights and suggestions on how to build on the good things you have written. My reader connected with a secondary character, going so far as to suggest I make him the protagonist. He was developed, he was unique, and he had a story of his own to tell. Changing a main character and storyline is huge! Why would I want to dismantle the entire thing and rebuild from scratch?

This reader put possibilities in my head, and my writer brain took those ideas and put them together, building up a brand new story. A story with life. Without someone telling me what they saw as a reader, I never would have considered changing anything at all. Writers need to be receptive to feedback and use it as a tool to make the story the best it can be.

One last note: perhaps you are thinking of asking a friend or family member to be a “beta reader” because they might do it for free. DON’T DO IT. If you want truly objective and insightful feedback, give it to someone you don’t know and spend the money to do so. I didn’t even know the name of the person who read my story, or if they were male or female. It’s better that way. I have no regrets and will do it again.

Writing Dialogue, Part Four: Creating a Unique Voice

Previous posts in this series have focused on dialogue tags, but in this final part it’s time to discuss what is being said. In real life, people vary in the words they say, whether it is speaking in a dialect, inserting incorrect grammar, using jargon or trendy words, or having an accent. Many variables affect what people say, and it’s this variety that shapes their personalities and how others interact with them.

Characters are boring if not fully developed, and one of the best ways to develop a character is by focusing on their dialogue. Even if your story is not very dialogue driven, the smallest amount of speaking is crucial for making your character seem real in the mind of the reader. Readers need to relate to the people they are reading about, and hearing their voices brings them closer together.

Ask yourself who your character is. How old is he? What region of the world does he live in? What does he do for a living? What places does he visit, or with whom does he spend his time? Answers to these questions can determine the type of speech the character uses. Let’s look at some examples of different types of characters and what they might say.

Sixteen-year-old Stacy might say to her friends, “Oh my God you guys, can you even believe what Andy posted on Facebook? I mean, that’s like the most insane thing to happen ever.”

Seventy-year-old Evelyn might say to her friends, “My goodness, have you seen the news? It’s unbelievable what this world has come to.”

These two may have seen the same news, but are showing their surprise in very different ways based on their age. It shows us that Stacy is a very energetic teenager, and that Evelyn is a very composed yet disdainful older woman. Now let’s look at two characters that live in different regions of the United States.

Brian, living in the inner city, says, “Nah. Look, dude. That’s not how I roll.”

David, residing on a southern farm, says, “I’m tellin’ ya, mister, that’s just not how them things work.”

The first man is using cool, trendy words that make him sound confident, even a bit cocky. The second man is using a dialect that, though cliché, is authentic to the smooth southern style we expect to hear from people in rural southern America.

Let’s look at one more scenario where dialogue can depict the type of person a character is. Daniel is a college student, and upon arriving on campus he meets up with a friend. “Hey, what’s up, man?” Then he goes to class and says to his teacher, “Good morning, Mr. Smith.” This shows us that Daniel is not just all-around friendly, but also knows to address his friends differently from those of authority. Therefore we see Daniel as respectful. If he instead said, “What’s up, Smith?” we either see disrespect or that Daniel is close friends with his teacher.

Next time you start a new story or edit an existing one, stop when your characters speak. Analyze who they are and determine if what they are about to say fits them. Don’t put words in their mouth; let them speak for themselves.

Writing Dialogue, Part Three: The Evils of Adverbs

In Part Two of this series, we discussed how the use of he said/she said in dialogue tags is sufficient, as well as some ways to use descriptive language to replace tags entirely. Now we will dig deeper and analyze one of the biggest blemishes in fiction writing: the use of -ly adverbs in dialogue tags.

I’ll once again quote Stephen King from his book On Writing: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” That may seem a bit harsh, but it encompasses what many editors feel when such writing graces their desk. When writers use these words to describe how the character is speaking, it is a sign of fear, fear that the reader will not understand how the words are spoken. The manner of speaking is just as important as the words being said, and the easiest way to convey that is to use an all-encompassing adverb. But what is easy is not always what is best.

One great thing about the English language is that it is, in a way, customizable. Take pretty much any adjective, add an -ly to the end, and you got yourself a new word that you can use to describe how your character is speaking. Here are some examples:

“I can’t wait for the party!” Joe said excitedly.

“This is the worst day of my life,” Samantha said sorrowfully.

“Your days are numbered,” Tom said menacingly.

Do these three adverbs convey how the characters have spoken their words? Of course they do, and it’s easy to write dialogue this way and know the reader will understand. But so much more could be done to bring these pieces of dialogue to life. We want our readers to see the characters as they speak. Just like in real life, people use body language to show more about what they are saying, and we can use this to make the words more meaningful and bring descriptive strength to the story. Here’s how we can improve these lines of dialogue:

“I can’t wait for the party!” Joe said, jumping up and down.

OR:

Joe jumped up and down. “I can’t wait for the party!”

“This is the worst day of my life,” Samantha said, her voice wavering.

OR:

Samantha looked down at the ground, her eyes watering. “This is the worst day of my life.”

“Your days are numbered,” Tom said, his voice low enough to be a growl.

OR:

Tom leaned closer and bared his teeth. “Your days are numbered.”

As I wrote these revisions, I asked myself, “What would a person do if they said these words? What are they physically doing at that moment? How can we describe the tone of voice in vivid detail?” I imagined that Joe showed his excitement by jumping up and down. For Samantha and Tom, I first thought of how to describe sorrowful and menacing voices, then I thought of how each might physically display their feelings. By describing sorrow, we might feel more connected or empathetic toward Samantha, and describing menace could make us fear Tom, or feel more concerned for the character he is speaking to. And this is what we want our readers to experience.

If you find yourself using an -ly adverb in a dialogue tag, stop and envision what is happening to that character. Then bring the words, and thus your characters, to life.

In Part Four, I’ll focus on what it takes to give characters their own unique voice, and using these ideas to improve character development.

Writing Dialogue, Part Two: The Power of Said

In Part One of this series we discussed the ideal placement of the dialogue tag. Part Two begins analyzing the guts of the tag, specifically the use of said. I’ll quote Stephen King from his excellent book, On Writing:  “. . . while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” Now, I won’t be going into adverbs until Part Three, but the truth in the latter part of this quote deserves its own focus.

Anecdote time: When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had the class do a brainstorming project where we were to come up with as many words as possible to replace said in a dialogue tag, and were encouraged to use this variety in our writing. My fifth-grade mind thought that was a great idea; my grown-up writer/editor mind pictures The Scream painting by Edvard Munch. Variety is good in writing, but there is a time and a place for it.

Examples of decent variety in dialogue tags would be things like whispered, shouted, or mumbled. I list these because it can be difficult to use context or description to convey the style of speaking to the reader. However, it can be done, and can even bring more descriptive qualities to the scene in which the dialogue is taking place.

Consider this first example:

“We have to keep this a secret,” Sam whispered. “It could get us in trouble.”

There’s really nothing wrong with this quote, but we can revise it slightly:

Sam lowered his voice to a whisper. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Or:

Sam leaned closer to Julie’s ear. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Both of these revisions remove the tag altogether. The first one still states that the words were whispered, but it is used more like a noun rather than a verb. But verbs are great, you might say. They convey action! Indeed, but let’s use that verb action differently, such as in the last revision. Sam leaning in to Julie’s ear shows the reader what the characters are doing and can infer that the words are spoken in a whisper because he is so close. Readers are smart like that.

Let’s also look at some examples of how to do similar tricks with shouted and mumbled dialogue:

“I’m going crazy!” Dave shouted. –> Dave took a deep breath and tugged at his hair. “I’m going crazy!”

Not only do we see Dave showing his exasperation, but the exclamation point is what does the shouting for us.

“This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Emma mumbled. –> Looking away, Emma kept her voice low. “This is the worse idea I’ve ever heard.”

In this example, we see Emma’s reaction and are prepared for her tone of voice before she speaks.

If you find yourself wanting to use verbs other than said, consider whether you can use descriptive action to replace the tag. If your dialogue and the surrounding prose are strong enough, then said is all you need. In Part Three I’ll dive into adverbs in dialogue tags, and how to avoid the urge to use them.

Writing Dialogue, Part One: Dialogue Tag Placement

Dialogue is a huge driving force in fiction writing. It helps with character development, giving each person a unique voice, and is an easy way to “show, not tell.” In Part One of a four-part series, I discuss the placement of dialogue tags, or the statements of who is speaking. It may not sound like something important, but in fact it is actually crucial.

Writers developing their stories always know who is speaking, but do the readers? Consider this example:

“I apologize. I was distracted. Yes, the birthday party did turn out well. It was fortunate so many were able to attend. It is gratifying to see them after so long,” John said a little stiffly.

Not only do we not know who is speaking until the end of the five-sentence paragraph, but also how it was spoken. As we read, we may not have had the character speak with a stiff tone, but rather a sincere once. Or maybe we read it as if a completely different character was speaking. Some readers might then be inclined to reread the paragraph in the “correct” way.

Let’s revise this to make it clearer:

“I apologize. I was distracted,” John said a little stiffly. “Yes, the birthday party did turn out well. It was fortunate so many were able to attend. It is gratifying to see them after so long.”

Now we know the who and the how of this piece of dialogue right away. The rest of the lines after the tag read smoother, and readers can focus on the character’s voice and how it relates to the story.

Another scenario in which the placement of the dialogue tag is imperative is when more than two people are speaking. With just two characters conversing it is easy to alternate the lines without tags and the reader can follow without a problem. Throw in more people and you’ll get something like the following example where four characters are talking:

“Look up,” said Kit.

“Look up?”

“Scorpions will cling to walls and ceilings and drop down on you suddenly,” Nance said.

“Ooh. That’s bad.”  Sophie was shivering with dread.

“Relax. Enjoy the ride. See how the trees are covered with golden blossoms. They’ll blanket everything with their blossoms and pollen for a month.”

“Ben, did you know that gold ore is present on this land?”

“It’s everywhere in the Territory.  Part of the region’s charm, really.”

By context of the previous paragraphs not shown here, the second line is known to be spoken by Sophie, so no tag is needed there. We can also correctly deduce that the fifth line is spoken by Nance. However, we cannot easily figure out who is addressing Ben. The tone of the sentence doesn’t quite fit the frightened Sophie, and Nance just spoke the line before. So, is it Kit? Did Sophie say it to change the subject? We need a tag to know for sure.

After I queried the author, he chose to add a very simple tag that prevents the story from falling off the tracks:

Kit said, “Ben, did you know that gold ore is present on this land?”

When writing dialogue, consider the reader’s ability to follow along. If there is any doubt of who might be speaking, find a way to make it clear.

In Part Two of this series, I’ll talk more about dialogue tags and how to keep them simple, yet strong.

Why Do I Need a Copyeditor?

As a writer myself, I understand the feeling of wanting to protect your precious manuscript with sword and shield against anyone who might have any thought of making the slightest change to it. This can be even more so for indie authors looking to self-publish, as this route of publishing offers the greatest amount of control over what the final product turns out to be. Because of this, indie authors are the ones most in need of copyeditors.

But why would a writer willingly pay good money for someone to change what they’ve poured onto the page?

A couple years ago I was approached by an author who was desperate for help with his autobiography. He said he had had a number of other editors work on it, but they had done a poor job and he was frustrated. I took on the job and indeed it needed a lot of help. It wasn’t until the project was completed that I found out exactly why he had been so upset.

He had self-published his book on Amazon and received a negative review regarding the “uneducated” writing style. That review is permanent.

It’s unfortunate that in order to accept that his writing needed more help than what cheap editors on freelance bidding websites provided, he had to endure the embarrassment of having someone publicly shame his intelligence. No writer should have to experience that. But many readers expect perfection; they want the story to take them in and want to walk in the shoes of the characters without stumbling on problematic sentence structure or getting lost in a confusing plot. What makes perfect sense to us as authors may not make sense to a reader. And as any good editor will tell you, we are advocates for the reader.

Since he updated his publication with the newly edited version, his book has been quite successful, with many wonderful reviews focusing on the story and how powerful it was. So if you’re asking yourself whether you need a copyeditor, imagine what your review section on Amazon might look like. If you think it will be any less than five stars, get an editor. If you are certain people will love it as is and there is nothing wrong with it, definitely get an editor. Invest in your success. Your writing is worth it.