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Details, Description, and Imagination

Being able to describe things in a way that is interesting and engaging is one of the most important skills that a writer can have. Good descriptions can elevate otherwise mundane scenes and add depth and flavour to your writing. One of the best examples of this can be seen in how characters are described.

Consider the following description:

He was tall and skinny, and his clothing had clearly seen better days. If there was a field nearby, he would have done a fine job as a scarecrow.

There are a total of twenty-nine words in that description, yet the image and tone are vivid. The reader can easily form a picture about the man being described.

Now, consider this description:

He stood precisely six feet and four inches tall. He had narrow shoulders, and he was slim almost to the point of being emaciated. His clothing, consisting of an old suit jacket, a worn pair of trousers, a shabby dress shirt, and tattered shoes, was all of poor quality.

That description contains forty-nine words, nearly double the number of words as the previous one. It certainly contains more details about the man in question, but is it a better description? I would argue that it is not. The reader does not need to know every single thing about the man’s appearance. Indeed, I would argue that it is more enjoyable for the reader if a certain amount is left to their imagination.

The first description gives the reader latitude when it comes to building a mental picture of the man being described, yet it still provides the essential details (i.e., that the man is tall and skinny and that his clothing is of poor quality). In addition, asking the reader to do a little bit of imagination helps to engage them, drawing them into the story and involving them as they get a chance to create, in their own mind, a picture of the character.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t give any details. For example can you imagine if the only description that a novel gave of the main character was the following:

John was a man. He was middle-aged.

There isn’t enough there for the reader to latch onto. You want to engage their imagination, so you can’t give them too much, but you do need to give them enough to get going. What if we added to it?

John was a middle-aged man. He worked insurance, and even if he smiled a lot, it never reached his eyes.

I’ve added an extra sentence here, but I think it’s worth it. Notice that even though I haven’t given any really specific details about John’s appearance, what I have added has given a sense about what sort of person he is. The reader knows that he works in the insurance industry. The fact that he smiles a lot without those smiles ever reaching his eyes gives the reader the impression of him being tired, weary, and fed up with what he’s doing. I don’t have to describe his appearance in great detail, but the reader can already picture the expression on John’s face, even the way he carries himself. Everyone knows someone like John, which leaves readers free to create their own picture of him in their heads.

What’s important to note is that this description suggests that the most important thing about John isn’t how he looks. No, by mentioning his occupation and his attitude to it, it’s implied that those are what the reader should be focusing on.

Overly long and detailed descriptions can come across as bloated, and they can become tiresome and boring for readers. I believe that a lot can be gained from having descriptions that leave some things to the imagination of the reader while still focusing on the essential attributes of the characters being described.

For example:

He walked into the saloon just shy of dusk. There was dust from a long day’s hard riding on him, but he walked smoothly and steadily to the bar. His gaze was sharp, and he settled onto a stool that gave him a view of the whole saloon. His voice, when he spoke, was soft, but there as an undercurrent of menace laced into the words, a hidden hardness that flickered now and then in his eyes as well.

“I’m looking for Thompson.” His eyes might as well have been green ice, they were so cold. “I’ll ask politely the first time. The second time? You don’t want to know how I’ll be asking.”

Again, the description doesn’t focus on his looks because those aren’t what are important to the scene. Instead, it’s his bearing, his sense of purpose, that gets mentioned, and these are the things the reader forms an impression of.

The same principle can also be applied to locations insteadof characters. Think about describing a castle. Are you really going to describe every single thing about it? No, the odds are that you’ll focus on the parts of the castle that are most relevant. If the castle is going to be besieged at a later point in the story, then you might focus on the walls, the moat, or the gatehouse. If the castle is going to be the site of a great gathering, you might focus on its halls or its courtyard.

The walls towered over everything. They were a man-made mountain range that circled the castle. And around that mountain range was a river – a moat as wide as the walls were thick. The only place to cross was at the gatehouse, a bulwark of stone, wood, and steel that had stood for five hundred years and looked like it could stand for five hundred more.

Once again, the walls themselves are not described in excruciating detail. What is provided in the description allows the reader to understand the most important thing: the walls are huge and imposing and they are not the only obstacles attackers must face. The gatehouse is the only point of weakness, but even it conveys a sense of strength.

Descriptions are a vital part of storytelling. Without good descriptions, it can be almost impossible for your readers to engage with the story. Yet simply providing more and more details is not the answer. Instead, it’s about providing the right details, details that will engage the reader’s imagination while still conveying the most important points.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

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An Important Question

Who do you think would win in a cake-eating contest, Sam or Spot?

In one corner you have Sam, a trans-dimensional protoplasmic horror whose species may or may not want to bring about the apocalypse after ushering in an era of limitless horror and despair. In the other corner, you have Spot, the little dragon with a big stomach.

Which cake-eater shall reign supreme?

P. S. You may well find out the answer in one of the short stories in the upcoming collection…

 

Improvement Through Teaching

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in various forms of teaching. I say fortunate because I find teaching immensely rewarding, and I do believe that it is rather undervalued, much to the misfortune of both teachers and students.

Some of my experiences in teaching have been in physical activities. For example, I once ran a martial arts club for a couple of weeks when the owner (a close friend who was one of my instructors during my younger years) went on holiday. However, I’ve also been involved in more traditional teaching as a university lecturer and tutor.

Something that has become clear to me through my experiences is that teaching can be a great way to learn. When you have to teach someone who knows nothing or very little about a subject, then you are forced to make sure that your own knowledge base is both current and correct. If you don’t properly understand a concept, idea, or technique, then you’re not going to have much success in teaching someone else about it.

Consider something as simple as how to throw a proper jab. The actual mechanics of throwing a proper jab can be broken down into several steps. A good instructor is able to properly convey to their student not only what each step involves but also how the steps fit together to produce the proper result.

But so many martial artists get used to throwing jabs without ever really thinking about proper technique. Having to teach someone who doesn’t know how to throw a proper jab is an excellent way to get the instructor to refocus on proper technique. After all, breaking a jab down into different steps doesn’t just involve the student going through those steps. The instructor has to be able to demonstrate those steps to their student.

Factorisation (from mathematics) is another good example of how having to teach others can lead to improvement. Factorisation is something that I’m quite familiar with due, in large part, to having done a large amount of mathematics in not only high school but also university. However, when I started tutoring the children of some family friends who were struggling with maths, I had an interesting experience.

I’ve never really had to worry too much about how to do factorisation. Once the concept was explained to me and I did some examples, it didn’t take me very long to automatise the processes involved. However, the people I’m tutoring aren’t so good at automatising things like factorisation. If they were, then they wouldn’t need help with maths.

To help them, I looked into all of the different ways to approach factorisation. I ended up learning all of them and trying them one by one with my students until they found the method that best suited them. They didn’t end up choosing the method that I used, but that’s part of what made the whole thing so fascinating. I had a way of doing factorisation, but it wasn’t one my students could really use because they couldn’t do as many of the operations in their head as I could. Trying to force my method of doing it on them would have been disastrous. Instead, I did what a good teacher should: I identified different methods and helped my students learn the one that best fit with their abilities.

Now, the time may come when they feel confident using the method that I do (it’s faster). If that happens, then I’ll gladly teach them my approach. The most important thing is that they have a method that works for them, and it wasn’t one they were able to learn in class because with so many other students in the classroom their teacher simply did not have the time to individually approach all of them about different methods. Moreover, I learned all of those other methods too. I might not need them, but it’s certainly better to have them.

I feel that writing is much the same. Do you know what good dialogue is? Do you know how to write a good description? If you’re sure that you do, then can you teach someone else how to as well? The only way you can possibly teach someone how to do either (or, really, anything else related to writing) is if you yourself have a solid grasp of what it is you’re trying to teach.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing articles about writing and education. Each article I write forces me to go over the content to make sure that I know what I’m talking about. That process, having to go over the content and examine it in detail, is a great way to not only revise but also improve. If I can’t explain a concept, then maybe I need to learn more about it.

Teaching is a great thing. It can be very rewarding because, more often than not, both the student and the teacher end up learning.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Progress Report

With Divine Assistance now available on Amazon, I’ve been turning my attention to my next project: a collection of short stories set in the same universe as The Unconventional Heroes Series. The stories will features characters from the series, both those you’re already quite familiar with (e.g., Timmy) and those who’ve stayed mostly in the background (e.g., some of the people who work at the castle). The stories will also be set at different times. Some will take place before the beginning of the series while others will take place at various points throughout the series.

To give you some idea of what I’m working on, here are the titles (some of them provisional) for the stories that I’ve drafted so far along with rough word counts on the drafts in brackets:

  • The Hungry Dragon Cookie Company (4900)
  • Food Supply (3000)
  • Piracy and Practicality (3700)
  • Family Matters (3300)
  • First Impressions (3100)
  • Tomb Raider (5700)
  • Impostor (6200)
  • The Bank (4900)
  • Gardening (3000)

That adds up to a rough total of 37,800 words. Keep in mind that I still have a few more stories to add to that, and the likely overall word count will be around 45,000-50,000 words. Now, add in the fact that these are first drafts and that it is not uncommon for a story of mine to double in length from the first draft to the final draft, and I’m looking at around 80,000+ words.

So, yes, that’s what I’ve been doing.

 

The Coffee Shop Scenario

Creating engaging characters is one of the most important tasks for a writer. Engaging characters can rescue a story with a drab plot, and readers will often ignore a writer’s technical limitations if the characters are interesting enough. Although there are many different ways to define what makes characters engaging, a simple definition would be that engaging characters are those that feel alive to the reader, catching and holding their attention and interest.

Every writer has their own approach to creating engaging characters, but one approach that I like to take is to use what I call the ‘coffee shop scenario’.

The coffee shop scenario involves imagining a character having coffee at a coffee shop. They can be on their own, or they can be having coffee with another character. If I want to create an engaging character, then I need to make sure that I can convey key aspects of that character in the coffee shop scenario in ways that are interesting to the reader. If I don’t know and understand my character well enough to do that, then I need to do some more work on them. These key aspects can include things like personality, appearance, mannerisms, intelligence, and so on.

To help illustrate my point, I’ll be providing two examples. In the first example, Avraniel and Spot from The Unconventional Heroes Series will be meeting a koala for coffee. In the second example, it will be Old Man meeting the koala for coffee. You might be wondering why I’m using a koala, but I just happen to like koalas, and, well, the thought of meeting a koala for coffee happens to amuse me.

 


The blonde elf took one look around the coffee shop, and her lips curved into something that wasn’t quite a sneer. The decor didn’t involve nearly enough fire or metal. On the upside, there was a lot of wood, and wood was wonderfully flammable. She tossed a glance down at the dragon padding along beside her.

“Come on, Spot. Let’s go find that damn koala.” She grinned toothily as Spot gave her a hopeful look. “Yeah, yeah. We’ll get you some cake.” Avraniel made a face. She knew letting Spot hang around Sam so much was a mistake. The protoplasmic horror had passed his cake obsession on to Spot.

Avraniel smiled faintly at Spot’s happy trill and slouched into a chair at a nearby table. On the other side of the table, the koala continued to read through the menu. She grabbed the menu and glared. “Cut the crap, koala. You better have a good reason for calling me out here.” Embers danced around her fingertips, and Spot wagged his short tail, fire kindling in his mouth. “Well? I’ve got bandits I could be robbing and enemies I could be burning. If you’ve got something to say, then now is the time.”

The koala calmly handed her a piece of paper.

“A job, huh?” Avraniel smirked. “If it involves setting bad people on fire and counts for my pardon, you can count me in.” She scowled as she noticed the distinct lack of coffee or cake on their table. “Hey!” she growled at the nearest waiter. “Can I get some damn service here? I want coffee and cake.” She pointed at the koala. “The koala there is paying.”


Old Man walked into the coffee shop. He paused briefly to remove his hat – it would be impolite to leave it on indoors – and took a quick look around to see if he could find his contact. It shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, what were the odds of two koalas being in the same coffee shop? He smiled. Most people would find it odd to be having coffee with a koala, but he wasn’t most people. He was a semi-retired legendary swordsman who lived in a castle with two necromancers, a pyromaniacal elf, a bureaucrat with who knew how much stored away with his magic, an ancient vampire, and a young dragon. Meeting a koala in a coffee shop would probably the most normal thing he’d do this week.

His gaze eventually settled on a marsupial occupying a table near the middle of the coffee shop. He made his way over and took a seat opposite the koala, who appeared to be quite interested in studying the menu.

“Do they have tea here?” Old Man asked. “This might be a coffee shop, but I do prefer tea.”

The koala handed him the menu and tapped it with one claw.

“Ah, yes. Excellent.” Old Man had nothing against coffee, but he was definitely a tea person, when everything was said and done. “So… I understand you have a job you’d like me to do?”


Those two snippets combined are only several hundred words long, yet they convey quite a lot about the characters in them. In Avraniel’s case, even someone who hasn’t read The Unconventional Heroes Series can get a sense of what sort of person she is (e.g., combative, confident, pyromaniacal). Likewise, the contrast between her and Old Man is also obvious. The reader immediately has some idea of who the characters are as individuals, and that makes them more likely to want to know more.

The coffee shop scenario alone will not ensure that you write engaging characters. However, writing characters who can come across as interesting in the coffee shop scenario will help to ensure that you have a fuller understanding of your characters, which will in turn help to make them more engaging.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Purple Prose and Purpmaxity

Purple Prose and Purpmaxity

It has come to my attention that certain writers have raised objections to the use of purple prose. I disagree. If anything, I believe that prose is not purple enough. It should be so purple as to make the eyes bleed, so purple that it actually goes beyond the visible spectrum, courtesy of an excursion into the ultraviolet. Yet even that would not be purple enough. Imagine prose so purple that the very word ‘purple’ is insufficient to express its purpleness. Instead, a new word ‘purpmaxity’ would be used to denote prose having reached the maximum shade of purple possible.

Of course, those same writers will wail and scream about how writing is for communicating with others. Bah! The whole point of writing is to dredge up words that have heretofore gone unremarked since at least the late 1800′s, preferably the late 1700′s lest we come across as part of the great purple-hating hoi polloi. Indeed, it should be considered a mark of grave dishonour if more than a fifth of your readers can actually understand what you are saying.

Instead, your readers should fawn and marvel over your vocabulary, driving themselves into paroxysms of purpmaxity-induced joy, followed shortly by purpmaxity-induced aneurisms as their minds degenerate into inchoate collections of wildly misfiring neurons as they encounter yet another word that hasn’t been used by any normal person since approximately the rise of the British Empire. Naturally, you get bonus points if your readers spend at least ten hours analysing your work for deeper meaning when all you’ve really done is grabbed a thesaurus and hoped for the best.

Allow me, then, to furnish some examples because giving examples would be too easy. Ah, if only we could defenestrate examples, that would be thrilling. Imagine hurling an example out of a window, preferably onto the heads of your unsuspecting enemies. It would certainly make an impact, and I daresay it would make mathematics more interesting.

“Take that!” the teacher would wail, tossing another example of differential calculus out the window, thereby causing the death of yet another poor fellow labouring under the illusion that calculus doesn’t kill.

“Have another!” the teacher would add, only this time it would be some hideous trigonometric monstrosity out to destroy the minds of some poor high schooler via the relationship between the opposite and the adjacent. The surly problem would crash onto the head of the unlucky victim, turning the excruciating into the thoroughly deadly.

But, yes, to return to the examples. Wait, why use return when we could use a better word or phrase? Why not say that we are are embarking on a grand emotional quest, one destined to unleash new frontiers of knowledge that shall surely expand our minds and usher in a new age, one filled with… well, examples of purpmaxity.

You could say that you went to school today, but that would be foolish. Going to school is the normal way of saying things, and we are not going to settle for normal. No, we must exceed the normal, we must surpass it! We must become… abnormal! Wait. Perhaps not. How about extraordinary? No, not purple enough. Yes, we must become more. We must become majestically magnificent.

So, you did not go to school. Instead, you ventured forth to attend the institution of learning to which you had pledged your allegiance. Admittedly, it takes far more words, but more words is better, and they’re longer words too! Surely, that makes them better still.

But have we perhaps missed something? Mere vocabulary may not be sufficiently purple for our purposes. Perhaps we ought to add in other techniques? Might alliteration be of use. I believe it might. After all, the pursuit of purple prose is a proud and profitable use of personal proclivities.

We might even have to add rhyme and rhythm. Ah, I can see it now. Imagine a future where all prose must not only be purple but must also be written in rhyme and iambic pentameter or perhaps haiku if we are feeling particularly pithy about the potential purpleness of poetic pandering. Oh, wait. That was alliteration.

Regardless, allow me to conclude. If one must write prose, let it be more than purple. Let it achieve purpmaxity. Suffice it to say that having prose that actually reads as though it were not written by someone with an overblown sense of pomposity (or perhaps a penchant for psychoactive substances) is not good enough.

Purple is as purple does.


Author’s Notes

I was tempted to write this after being informed that a high school student I am helping with their studies has been all but ordered by certain individuals (not myself) to use purpler language and alliteration in their creative writing, never mind that the story in question is told through the eyes of a child of seven or eight who is in the midst of what can politely be termed a panic attack.

Because panicking children use extravagant language and alliteration. Well, we might as well have the poor tyke combat their panic with haiku, or perhaps they can express their terror through some kind of epic saga, preferably written in Old English because, well, if it’s good enough for Beowulf, it shall certainly suffice here.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

The Importance of the Basics

I am currently helping two children of a family friend with their schoolwork. What has surprised me the most is how little time seems to be spent on the basics in class. Now, this might sound trite, but without the basics, it really is almost impossible to develop a high level of proficiency. This is particularly true for subjects like English and mathematics that build on previous work.

Allow me to furnish two examples.

One of the most important concepts for a high school students to master in mathematics is negative numbers and how they work. For instance, a negative number multiplied by a negative number yields a positive result. In contrast, a negative number multiplied by a positive number gives a negative result. For convenience, this can be summarised as:

  • positive x positive = positive
  • negative x negative = positive
  • negative x  positive = negative
  • positive x negative = negative

Now, the rules for division are the same since division is simply the opposite of multiplication. Where things get complicated (relatively speaking) is addition and subtraction. In simple terms:

  • Adding a negative is like subtracting a positive
  • Subtracting a negative is like adding a positive

What makes this complicated is that when you add a negative number to a positive number, the sign of the result depends on which number (the positive number or the negative number) had a larger absolute value. This means that the sign of the result must be determined on a case by case basis, unlike with multiplication and division where the rules can simply be applied in a more general sense.

What I’ve noticed in the two people I’m helping – and in others I’ve encountered – is that it is very easy to make mistakes when adding and subtracting negative numbers. The most striking thing, however, is how little time is spent drilling students. Instead, they are simply given some rules and a few questions before being introduced to more difficult material.

However, this, I believe, is a mistake. When dealing with something like negative numbers, the best way to make sure that people learn is to not only give them the rules but give them a lot of questions, so they can practice using those rules until they are almost instinctual (i.e., they don’t even have to think before using them). This is especially important when you consider the fact that dealing with negative numbers is something that occurs over and over and over again, and being unable to handle them confidently will only make things harder than they need to be.

The second example that I’d like to bring up is formal writing in English.

As someone who has acquired a PhD, I am perhaps more familiar with formal writing than I would like to be (nothing kills the soul faster than overuse of formal, academic language). I have also had the pleasure of teaching students at a university level. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of university students arrive at university with very little idea of how to write formally in English (e.g., essays, reports, etc.). Indeed, one of the things we would do for students was to hold tutorials giving them a crash course in how to write properly.

But where does this begin? Obviously, bemoaning it at a university level is soothing, but it hardly addresses the problem. The more I deal with high school students, the more certain I become that the problem begins there. Simply put, high school students are expected to do things like discuss the themes and techniques employed in film, poetry, prose, and so on – but without receiving much instruction at all about how to actually do that.

Let me make it clear that I am not heaping the blame on teachers. Two people in my family are teachers (albeit primary/elementary), but I know plenty of teachers. Overwhelmingly, they have noticed the same things as me, and they have come to many of the same conclusions. Alas, they are increasingly being buried under red tape, administrative minutiae, and syllabi that have obviously been written by people who have either never set foot in a classroom or last did so in the age of the dinosaurs.

In any case, let me return to the topic at hand. The ability to identify themes and the techniques used to convey them is not necessarily related to the ability to explain those ideas in prose. Specifically, formal writing demands a certain rigour of thought and a certain style, and simply knowing what you want to write about is not enough.

Consider the basic structure of an essay. You might have an introduction, the body of the essay, and then the conclusion. I am always horrified by how few students realise that simply dividing the essay into thirds is not the correct way to go about it. The introduction and conclusion are not the same length as the body of the essay. If they are, then something has gone seriously wrong.

One of the children I am helping had an assignment in which they had to write an essay about a particular topic. They had discussed it with their friends, and they had, together, come to the conclusion that the above strategy was sound. That is, they thought it would be fine to have one third of the essay be the introduction, another third be the body, and the final third be the conclusion.

This is madness, and the fact that this wasn’t addressed at some point worries me. What worries me even more is that the students aren’t even given one of those handouts where they roughly outline the structure of an essay and what each part should do. Admittedly, these handouts are only rough guides, but even so, this is probably the first real essay that this student has had to write in high school. I would rather they receive too much guidance at this point than too little since it can be very hard to fix bad habits.

Looking at the work of the high school students I know, what strikes me is the tendency of the syllabus to focus on themes and techniques, which is all well and good, but the basic purpose of English, to my mind, is to teach students how to communicate using the written word. It might very well be fantastic to be able to know what the themes of a poem are, but if you can’t explain any of that in coherent fashion, then I would argue much of the potential value is lost.

What I would prefer to see is a focus on the basics of communication. Teach students how to write an essay (and other forms of writing, e.g., reports, reviews, etc.) and teach it to them early. Focus on providing the students with a scaffold for formal writing. That is, give them the basic structure of the different forms of writing and teach them how to fill out that structure.

In the case of an essay this would involve not only teaching them the basic structure of an essay (introduction, body, and conclusion) but also how these parts fit together.

For example, the introduction must provide the basic context of the topic (i.e., what you’re talking about and why it matters) as well as provide some idea of the direction the essay will take (e.g., what thesis you will be putting forward/what ideas you will be exploring). From there, the body of the essay discusses the points put forward in the introduction, expanding on them and addressing their relevance to the topic while supporting and advancing your thesis. Furthermore, each paragraph of the body should flow logically into the next, ideally in a manner that steadily builds a foundation for the soundness of your thesis. The conclusion, then, should summarise the main ideas and round off the essay, stating your conclusion while perhaps pointing to future avenues of inquiry.

Critically, I believe these things should be taught in context. That is, students should be given copies of good, mediocre, and bad essays (or other forms of formal writing) and taught what makes each example good, mediocre, or bad. I believe that seeing examples and learning what makes them tick, so to speak, would help so many students develop a stronger grasp of the intricacies of formal writing. Teach them how to take an essay apart, so they can build one of their own.

This would, of course, necessitate taking time away from the study of set texts, but I think this would be time well spent. Once someone knows how to write a good essay, they can use that skill over and over and over again in the years to come. In contrast, learning the details of a particular text will not help someone as much since they will eventually have to move on to another text.

In summary, the basics matter. A strong foundation will not only last for years but also serve a student well across a variety of areas. Knowing how to properly handle negative numbers will make not only high school math but also university math far easier. Knowing how to write a good essay will help not just for the study of one text but also in the study of other texts and even in other subjects (e.g., the social sciences).

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.