Playing by the Rules with Description

Narrative is tricky stuff.

Writing teachers throw all kinds of rules at us. Show, don’t tell. Vary the length of your sentences. Show, don’t tell. Adverbs are taboo. Show, don’t tell. Oh, did I mention showing and not telling?

Fantasy writers have the hardest job of all, it seems. When it comes to description, not only are we not allowed to tell rather than show (or use double-negatives), we also are forbidden from using certain narrative tools that help us get the job done. Why? Because some of those descriptions have no place in our fantasy worlds.

“Then Ramilon parked his Corvette by the Waterfall Gate.” (credit)

Let me show you. (Ha, look who’s following the rules!) Say I am writing a scene that takes place just after a battle. Elkay is collapsed beneath a tree, worn out and quite discouraged, when his wife Ivora comes to find him and bring him back to safety. Elkay sees her coming and is overjoyed that someone still cares about him. She looks just like an angel-

HOLD IT! screams the internal editor. No angels! You’re writing in deep POV, which means that you have to step into Elkay’s leathery, mud-covered sabatons and write according to his rules. Elkay has never even heard of the concept of angels; how could he compare Ivora to one?

As much as I hate it, the internal editor is right for once. Elkay doesn’t know what an angel is, nor a demon, nor any such being from the real world. For crying out loud, he doesn’t even know what fantastical creatures like svartalfar would be. When writing a fantasy, I suddenly cannot use the familiar expressions that I use every day without thinking about it. And do you know what? That’s a good thing.

Why? Because when we can’t use all of the common expressions, similes, and other narrative tricks that we love so much, we are forced to come up with our own, and it makes our stories that much more original. If I may steal someone else’s originality to explain, C.S. Lewis puts it best:

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

Some (most) of these familiar expressions have lost their meaning through overuse. The first time a person uses an expression, his or her friends appreciate the wit and begin incorporating these new figures of speech into their own vocabulary. Then the friends of those friends pick up on it, and then their friends, and so on, until the expression is nothing but trite. It’s just another meaningless phrase among the portmanteaus and colloquialisms of the English language.

Admit it- a few moments ago, when I was talking about my imaginary scene, you expected me to say that I had to step into Elkay’s shoes, didn’t you? But, while you knew what expression I was using, you didn’t even think about what the expression really meant- not until I used an archaic word like sabatons that forced you to look twice.

Meh… who would want to come up with original words to describe this, anyway? (credit)

I’m not saying we should look to startle our readers with our word choice; too often startling them will take them right out of the story. However, I am saying that we should be glad that all these expressions are now off-limits for us. Other writers, like authors of contemporary romance novels or general fiction, have to work harder to eliminate trite expressions from their stories; fantasy writers automatically must come up with their own.

And what if you don’t write fantasy? You can still learn a lesson: eliminate those overused words and expressions from your work anyway. Be original! You may have to look harder, but any writer worth two cents can come up with new ways to tell his or her story.

Yes, sometimes it takes a little bit of brainpower. I did indeed sigh over the lack of the term “angel,” and I did have to describe instead how Ivora looked. I had to show her dark hair over her white dress, her soft round face, her sad smile that made Elkay feel less lonely. But as Lewis would say, when the readers finished reading that description, they could only say, “Ah, Elkay’s guardian angel!”

You know, I think it’s fun to use my imagination instead of asking my readers to please do my jobs for me.

What expressions and words are off-limits in your stories? Have you ever invented your own? 

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The Bad Dinosaur, Part 1

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” C.S. Lewis

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). I recently watched The Good Dinosaur with the rest of my family, and though I went in with low expectations, yet I still came out disappointed. Disney has been on my bad list for some time (ever since Good Luck Charlie and Modern Family, actually), but never before had I been so disappointed with a Pixar film in my life.

Now let’s leave aside all the Weltanshauung problems like existentialism and evolution and forget the fact that the plot feels suspiciously like that of The Lion King. I’ll even forgive the composers for ripping off the Braveheart soundtrack. Other Christian reviewers like Plugged In and Christianity Today can discuss such elements.

What I want to emphasize today is that kids deserve good movies, too, because someday those kids will grow up. Pixar seemed to forget about that.

The-Good-Dinosaur-DI-1

My thoughts exactly. (credit)

Let us begin with Arlo- one of the most un-empathetic protagonists for children that I have ever encountered. I can understand having a little bit of fear, but that fear should never define a character at the expense of other character qualities and quirks. For example, according to Martin Freeman, Bilbo Baggins “is scared all the time,” yet Bilbo is never defined exclusively by that fear. He possesses other characteristics that contrast with his fear and give him a sense of realism. Have you ever met a person who is so afraid that they have no other dimensions to their personality? Neither have I- so why should a screen character be different?

Again, the characterization seemed off-beat with Arlo’s Poppa. One scene, he is the all-wise and understanding mentor giving Arlo advice on how to be brave, and the next, he is angrily driving his son through a slippery mountain range in a lightning storm. Yes, I realize that breaking and combining stereotypes in fiction is a good idea, but the writers didn’t offer enough development for Poppa to justify such a split-second change. Trying to reconcile those two extremes is like trying to say that there is no fundamental difference between Gollum and Smeagol.

Then the scenes themselves didn’t make any sense. In one particular scene, Arlo is standing in the garden, yelling at his mean older brother- but his intentions seem somewhat mixed. “I’ll make my mark! You’ll see!” Two seconds later: “I don’t care about my old mark anyway!” *stalks off like an angry baby elephant* So what is it- does he want to make a mark, or not?

The logical problems only piled up. I still can’t understand why the older brother was such a bully; what kind of person fakes his death in a chicken coop just because his little brother caused him a minor inconvenience? Later, why were the pterodactyls so flamboyantly cruel? The answer to both: because it makes the story more emotional.

Ah, the mark of a true professional.

I kept my hopes up that the movie would improve as the story progressed. This was Pixar, after all; maybe the story had something better in store for the end. Beginnings are bumpy, especially in an alternate-history story; maybe Pixar could get the thing off the ground in the second half of the movie.

Which, of course, must wait for next week…

What do you think? If you were one of the few people who went to see The Good Dinosaur, I want to hear your take on the beginnings.

What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part 1)

Let’s be honest, fellow fantasy writers. Plenty of authors have turned the word “exposition” almost into a curse word, and we’re the worst offenders.

Think about it. Epic plots, magic battles, worlds full of creatures unseen except in our imaginations… they make for a very long, very full, very expository sort of book. Telling rather than showing seems to be the way to go, even though we know that’s against the rule. Writers don’t like it, readers don’t like it. The mention of the “e” word makes all of us shudder, yet when readers pick up a new fantasy book, they almost expect us to throw a heap of backstory at them. And I too am guilty of writing unimaginative exposition.

Everything you ever needed to know.

But do we really want to settle for such low expectations? It’s time for us to break the chain and make our backstories interesting- and maybe exposition can help us do that if we do it right.

This week, I’m exploring the three biggest offenders in fantasy: prologues, infodumps, and villain monologues. Next week, I’ll share the ways that I avoid these three rascally problems. Ready? Here we go.

Starting with Act I, our first offender is the almost entirely dispensable prologue, and you could find it in almost any fantasy from The Lord of the Rings to Eragon. Now, in the rare event that your prologue actually is the perfect introduction to your book, most editors will tell you to make that your first chapter. However, the problem with most prologues is that they usually have very little to do with the rest of their respective books, except to summarize all the information we will need later (and then some).

While it might seem like the most efficient way to summarize a fascinating plot to a new reader, it is also the most yawn-worthy. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, many readers actually expect a boring prologue in a fantasy book; therefore, they will automatically skip the paragraphs under the heading “Prologue” and so miss any vital information that I might put in here. No way around it; people just don’t read prologues. Honestly, when was the last time you read the prologue?

The world is changed…

Secondly, the characters who get all the explaining done to them are quite likely to have heard it all before. Why would their mentor friend explain it over again? And for that matter, characters in a prologue are usually not so significant to the story that they deserve the first place in a book. Why not start with the main character in his or her daily life? The mentor and company can explain everything when they meet.

Our second troublemaker comes in the form of a big infodump, typically toward the beginning of Act I. This is in essence exactly the same as a prologue, only rewritten and placed in a new chapter. We overcome the temptation to write a prologue only to drop an encyclopaedia in another chapter. So there is of course a right way and a wrong way to do it; some books do explain huge chunks of history in such a way that keeps readers interested. But most new writers do it the wrong way by having the hero’s Mentor plunk down and explain the history of whatever fantasy world we have in our heads.

An infodump is simply too much, too fast. By definition, it dumps information on us all at once, devoid of elbow room or breathing space. Often this information isn’t even relevant to the plot. In an old draft of a story I never published, the hero is chosen for a quest (sound familiar? He even had a magical sword to go with it). But before he can go on that quest, he has to have the entire history of the world explained to him in a nice chunk of exposition. In one sitting. People just can’t read paragraphs like that. It’s not interesting to them, and they won’t need all this prior knowledge to enjoy the rest of the story.

If we can move past the prologue and infodumps, we might still end up throwing exposition at readers even in the third act of the story. I speak, of course, of the villain’s monologue. We have all seen this one before, especially in movies for kids. All the little kids watching Frozen (spoilers…?) just won’t understand why Hans wants to take over Arendelle- despite the fact that he already told Anna about his twelve elder brothers. When we encounter this illusion of a problem, we usually end up writing a scene in which the antagonist faces the protagonist in a moment of triumph and explains all the ins and outs of his or her complex plan- under the guise of “gloating”.

Frozen (2013)

Here’s the thing: some really despicable villains might be inclined to gloat, but most antagonists aren’t that foolish.  If you had your mortal enemy in your power and were just about to execute the final crushing move, would you reveal every part of your plan to them? Of course not. Hans, for example, has no reason to tell Anna that he deceived her- she knows that by now- or to explain that he’s going to kill Elsa.

And that, fellow writers, covers our three biggest enemies in exposition. Tune in next week for part two, and I’ll share a list of some techniques that might help work in the backstory.