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The Hero Placement Agency

I’m still working on The Hungry Dragon Cookie Company, which is the collection of short stories set in The Unconventional Heroes Series. Unfortunately, it’s taking longer than I anticipated since some of the short stories are turning out to be not so short (e.g., the final version of the first short story comes in at around 14,000 words…), and I’ve been dealing with a variety of matters not directly related to writing. I hope to be done by some point in October or November at the very latest.

In the meantime, I’ve also had some other ideas for shorter stories (e.g., something as long as The Galactic Peace Committee). I thought I’d share one of them with you today, albeit in a fairly rough form. It’s called The Hero Placement Agency.

Enjoy.


Australia was notorious for its deadly wildlife. If the deadly spiders didn’t kill you, then the deadly snakes would. The ocean wasn’t any better. In between the deadly sharks and the deadly jellyfish, it was only natural that Australia had won more than its fair share of swimming gold medals at the Olympics. And then there were the marsupials. Sure, they looked cute and cuddly, but they had survived in Australia for millions of years. They had to be hiding something, possibly expertise in knife fighting.

But everything had changed in 1960 when the first person with super powers appeared in the United States. Admittedly, being able to levitate a tea spoon of water a distance of two metres was hardly impressive, but it was a start.

By 1980, there were super villains capable of levelling a small city with their powers.

To deal with the escalating threat posed by increasingly power and deranged super villains, governments across the world began to hire heroes. It turned out that actually paying people to fight super villains was a lot more successful than simply waiting for some good natured person with powers to do it for free. True, there was the occasional billionaire with a vigilante complex and the powers to back it up, but that particular group was hardly reliable from a mental and emotional standpoint.

Cue the Hero Placement Agency (HPA), Australia’s premier specialist in finding the right hero for the right job. With offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, and Canberra but not Hobart (because super villains had seized control of Tasmania in 1992, declaring it the Villainous Republic of Southern Evil Land), the HPA was the Australian government’s company of choice when it came to recruiting and training heroes.

The HPA had given Australia luminaries like Captain Cyclone and Lady Lava. The former gained the ability transform his body into a living cyclone after being struck by lightning while being thrown about by a cyclone. The latter can shoot lava from her eyes, an ability she developed after being struck by a meteor she mistook for a traffic light during a horrendous case of conjunctivitis.

However, the HPA has also given Australia less stellar heroes like Hamster Master and Miss Malfunction. The former is the leader of a team of illegally imported hamsters who serve as his familiars. The latter has the ability to make machinery and electronics malfunction, which would be useful if her ability wasn’t always on.

Follow the adventures of the brave men and women of the HPA as they attempt to match each and every hero to their perfect job.

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Make Different Points of View Different

One of the most common techniques used by writers to help make their story more engaging is to use multiple points of view. This can certainly be quite a refreshing change for a reader, and it can be extremely interesting to see how characters on different sides and with different information react to the same situation. However, it is not with pitfalls. Perhaps the most common mistake is that of sameness. Having different points of view does not help a story if those points of view end up being too similar.

Consider two characters: one is a battle-hardened soldier and the other is a rookie who has only just arrived at the front. The contrast between the two should be obvious here. The battle-hardened soldier is likely more adept at analysing and responding to combat situations due to his superior training and experience. He might also be more cynical and jaded about the conflict due to the loss of comrades in battle or simply from the stress of being at the front for so long. In contrast, the rookie might be expected to make more mistakes and to be more naive about the true realities of warfare.

The two points of view offered by the veteran and the rookie thus have the potential to offer the reader two very different sides of the story. But what if both points of view end up sounding the same? What if the rookie is some kind of combat genius who immediately acquires the skills and nous of the veteran, along with the weariness and mental exhaustion common to those who have been at the front for a long time? If that happens, then what is the point of having two different points of view?

A simple test is to imagine switching the names for each point of view. If you can do that without it coming across as weird, then it’s likely the different points of view aren’t different enough. Each character should be a character unto themselves, someone the reader can distinguish from others and whom the reader sees as unique and engaging in their own right.

When handled properly, different points of view can also be used to distinguish characters who would, at first glance, seem quite similar, perhaps even too similar. Consider the snippets below concerning two bureaucrats, both of whom have been working the same job for the better part of twenty years. Nevertheless, their points of view give each of them a unique feel and personality.

Bob stared at the form in front of him. Another piece of paperwork to add to the pile. His lips curled, and his gaze drifted to the poor schmuck who had to deal with Form A-10 Section C. The poor bastard had no idea what he was in for. Even if he somehow managed to get this notarised by the right person, there was no way he’d get it processed in the month before it was due for submission. He might as well set it on fire. It would do the same amount of good, and at least it would be fun.

“Next!” Bob barked as he added the form to the towering stack on his desk. When no one moved, quite possibly because spending too much time in this place had robbed them of their will to live, he raised his voice, “Next!”

Another person. Another form. Another damn number. He sighed. Where had all the years gone? Wasn’t he supposed to be promoted out of this place by now? He finally forced himself to study the form in front of him. He sighed again. Had this person even bothered to read the instructions?

“Please, read the instructions carefully,” he began, reciting the words he’d spoken so many times they were burned into his brain. “You’re supposed to put your identification number in Box 2A and your name in Box 2B. Please, take the form back with you and resubmit it once you’ve made the necessary changes. Next.”

They stammered. “Wait! I’ve been here for five hours and -”

“Next!”

As you can see, Bob isn’t exactly enamoured with his job. How about someone else in his line of work?

Jim flipped through the stack of paperwork with brisk efficiency. With unerring accuracy and unmatched speed, he spotted each mistake and circled them in pencil. The awestruck customer could only gape in stunned disbelief at his incredible display of bureaucratic kung fu.

“Just make those changes and hand it back. No need to wait in line. Everything else checks out.” The customer stumbled off in a daze, and Jim shifted his attention to the line of people waiting to submit their forms. “Next, please.”

He almost made a little tutting sound as he spotted the mistake on the next customer’s form. The name and identification number had been put into the wrong boxes. It was such a common mistake that he’d actually lobbied the higher ups to change it. Alas, they had yet to reply to one of his twenty emails on the subject. Oh well. Persistence would eventually pay off as it always did when it came to bureaucracy. He fixed the mistake and checked the details once to be sure before motioning the next customer forward.

“Next!”

As you can see, Bob and Jim have two very different viewpoints. Any story involving the two of them will look very different depending on who is telling it. This is likely to help interest and engage the reader because instead of just being different view points in name, they are different view points in substance. Bob and Jim have a different way of seeing the world, and it is reflected in their points of view.

The key to using different points of view is to ensure that they really are different points of view. No two characters are identical. Their viewpoints shouldn’t be either.

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 Decline of the Short Story in Conventional Publishing

Once upon a time, short stories were very popular. There were countless genre magazines (the most famous/infamous of which were undoubtedly those devoted to horror) that regularly released collections of short stories not only by popular and well-established authors but also by newcomers.

This is no longer the case.

There are a variety of factors at play, but perhaps the most relevant is simple economics. As traditional publishing costs increased, it became harder and harder for genre magazines specialising in short stories to survive. Some of the most famous managed to hold on through to the 1990s and even the early 2000s. However, virtually all of them are now dead.

The ones that survived have generally been forced to make the switch over to a digital format. This switch is a good idea for several reasons, the most relevant of which is cost reduction. Compared to printing, mailing, or stocking a paper magazine in stores, simply creating a high-quality digital document and emailing it to subscribers is far, far cheaper.

This has led to the rise of new genre magazines over the past decade or so which exist solely in digital form. Some of these have been successful. Some of them have not. But going digital is not without problems.

The internet is a big, big place. Standing out from the crowd can be incredibly difficult, and this applies as much to genre magazines as it does to random blogs. It doesn’t matter if there are millions of people who want to read your magazine if none of them can find it. Likewise, the low cost of starting a digital magazine means that the market can become something of a shark tank, with the different competitors fragmenting the market so much that none of them makes enough money to survive.

There is also a subset of individuals who do not like digital media as much as paper media. I’ll admit that I am one of them. I love the way a book feels in my hands, and I just like having a physical copy of anything I really like. Obviously, this is a bit ironic since I sell eBooks through Amazon, but it’s largely an emotional response rather than anything logical. Of course, you can use print-to-order solutions to offer print copies, but then you have to factor in things like the cost and logistics of mailing them to the people who’ve ordered them, as well as quality control.

One of the more interesting consequences of the shift to a digital format combined with the struggle for profitability is the heavy reliance on established authors to provide short stories. This is not in itself a bad thing. If someone has demonstrated the ability to deliver enjoyable and engaging short stories, then it would be foolish not to seek them out.

However, genre magazines once served an important purpose: identifying and fostering new talent. Any genre that fails to consistently produce new talent will eventually die as the established authors either move on or, well, die. Although the genre magazines certainly published a lot of work by established authors, they also published a lot of work by relative newcomers. This provided them with exposure, which in turn often led to further growth both commercially and as a writer.

With profit margins in the modern era often being razor thin, taking a risk on a newcomer can be scary. If a magazine publishes a collection of twelve short stories a month, they cannot afford to have too many ‘misses’ in any given issue, or they may find themselves losing readers. Established authors are a solid bet since they come with an establish fan base and name recognition.

A further complication is that short stories are not the same as novels. There are writers who are excellent in one format and relatively poor in the other. Someone who specialises in novels is not going to experience the same difficulty getting published as someone who specialises in short stories. The cold, brutal truth is that unless you are already an established author with significant sales, then no traditional publishing house in the world will even consider publishing a collection of your short stories.

In other words, authors who specialise in short stories are unlikely to ever see their work published as a collection by traditional publishers unless they can also demonstrate strong sales in the novel format. As you can imagine, this is not easy. And given the declines in short story publishing mentioned above, the implications are clear. It is not easy to get short stories published via traditional channels.

This is where self-publishing comes in handy. It has clearly been demonstrated on Amazon (and on other retailers) that a collection of short stories, even by a newcomer, will sell if it is good enough and fills the right niche. And self-publishing is a format uniquely suited to newcomers since it has virtually no upfront costs, reducing the financial risk the newcomer has to take. Of course, the problem of exposure remains. There are many people self-publishing. A newcomer must, somehow, distinguish themselves from the rest, which requires a combination of effort, skill, talent, and luck.

As someone who has always loved short stories, I watched their decline with a heavy heart. Yet the advent of self-publishing and digital publishing have brought new life to the short story. I can only hope that we might, maybe, be entering another golden age, like the one that gave us luminaries like H. P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, and all the rest.

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.

Character Design: Part 1 (Introduction)

Today, I’d like to discuss character design. I guess the question on everyone’s lips is: what is the best way to design interesting and engaging characters? The answer is that there isn’t an objectively best way. Each writer has their own approach, and some approaches will work better for some people than for others. If an approach doesn’t suit you, the best course of action may be to keep trying different approaches until you find one that does suit you.

That said, in this series of posts, I will be going over one approach to character design that I’ve found useful.

The Five-Fold Approach

I’ve found that if often helps to consider five different areas when it comes to character design. The aim is to develop an interesting and engaging character by developing a solid grasp of the character across all five areas. These areas are:

  • Looks, appearance, and mannerisms
  • Personality
  • Intelligence
  • Other abilities
  • History

Looks, Appearance, and Mannerisms

For many people, this will be the easiest area to flesh out. Essentially, it boils down to what your character looks like. This extends beyond their physical features to the clothes they wear and even the way they carry themselves. In other words, it covers all of the visual cues that other people would perceive when looking at your character.

Here is a brief list of things that you might want to consider:

  • Physical appearance
    • Eye colour (e.g., blue or dark brown)
    • Hair colour (e.g., long or short, black or blond)
    • Height (e.g., tall or shot)
    • Build (e.g., skinny or stout)
    • Distinguishing features (e.g., scars, tattoos, etc.)
  • Clothing
    • Upper body (e.g., shirt or tunic)
    • Lower body (e.g., trousers or shorts)
    • Footwear (e.g., shoes, boots, or sandals)
    • Other accessories (e.g., glasses, hats, gloves, etc.)
  • Mannerisms
    • Posture (e.g., slouching or standing up straight)
    • Walking style (e.g., slow, measured walk vs a quick, determined stride)
    • Facial expressions (e.g., a tendency to scowl or a tendency to smile a lot)
    • Verbal tendencies (e.g., speaking overly quickly or loudly, stuttering, etc.)
    • Eye contact (e.g., avoiding or meeting the eyes of others)

Remember, you don’t have to go into too much detail when describing a character’s appearance. Let the reader build their own image of the character in their mind, albeit one shaped by the most important features of the character.

It’s also important to remember that visual cues can and will be interpreted in certain ways. A powerfully built character who gets right into the faces of other people will be perceived as pushy and aggressive. A character who slouches all the time and refuses to make eye contact may be perceived as timid or withdrawn.

Personality

Personality is about how someone thinks, feels, and behaves. Given the background that I come from, I’ve often conceptualised the personality of characters using the Big Five Personality Theory. The theory posits five major groups of personality traits:

  • Openness to experience. This is basically how open to new experiences someone is. Someone who is rated highly on it will generally be imaginative, original, daring, and will seek out variety over fixed routines.
  • Conscientiousness. A character who rates highly on conscientiousness will typically be hardworking, persevering, energetic, and likely to plan things in advance.
  • Extroversion. Someone who rates highly on extroversion is likely to be sociable, fun-loving, affectionate, friendly, and will be energised by social activity.
  • Agreeableness. This is to do with getting along with others. People who rate highly on agreeableness are often kind, sympathetic, and disposed toward charity, volunteer work, and other pro-social behaviour.
  • Neuroticism. This is basically about emotional stability. Someone who rates highly on it will tend to worry a lot, be temperamental, self-conscious, and insecure.

As you can imagine, situating your character on all five of these dimensions should give you a fairly good idea of their personality and how they are likely to react in a given situation. There are, of course, other models of personality. Rather than argue about their validity and reliability here, I will simply say that you should use whichever model helps you structure your thoughts best since the objective is to create an interesting and engaging character, not to create a valid and reliable model of personality (let’s leave that to the psychologists).

Intelligence

This shouldn’t need too much of an explanation. Your character’s intelligence is all about the intellectual weaponry they can bring to bear against the challenges they face. However, intelligence can be a tricky thing. People can be very good at one thing and quite poor at another (e.g., someone might excel with numbers but be hopeless when it comes to writing essays).

Here are some of the dimensions along which characters might vary in terms of their intelligence:

  • Short-term memory
  • Long-term memory
  • Visuospatial ability (i.e., how well they deal with visual and spatial information)
  • Knowledge (i.e., how much knowledge they’ve accumulated and how good they are at using it)
  • Learning and adaptation (i.e., how quickly they can learn and adapt to novel situations)
  • Problem solving (i.e., how adept they are at solving problems)
  • Processing speed (i.e., how quickly they can process information)
  • Listening skills (i.e., how good they are at interpreting and using auditory information)

Again, these are just some of the facets of intelligence, and you can’t simply declare that a character has excellent short-term memory. You need to put these abilities into context and give readers reasons to believe that character possess the abilities they do. For instance, if you want readers to believe that a character has an excellent memory in a world with magic in it, you could have the character memorise an entire book of spells in an extremely short period of time.

Other Abilities

This area is a grab bag of all the different abilities that your character might have. These can vary wildly depending on the genre and setting that you’re using.

Consider a spy thriller. Your main character might have the following abilities:

  • Expert marksman
  • Multilingual
  • Excellent computer hacker
  • Good at stealth and infiltration

In contrast, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, your character might have abilities like:

  • Elite swordsman
  • Master of ice magic
  • Can read ancient runes
  • Can transform into a dragon

One of the most important things to realise is that the abilities your character has will strongly influence the actions that they take. If someone is an expert swordsman, then they might try to fight their way out of a situation. However, if they’re an expert negotiator or someone who can control the minds of others, they might opt for a less bloody approach.

Always keep in mind what abilities your character has and how they might influence their actions. More importantly, try to develop a solid enough grasp of your character’s abilities that you can imagine how they would react or use their abilities in a diverse array of situations.

History

This is all about your character’s past – where they’ve come from and how it has influence them. Some of the things you should definitely establish, at least for yourself if not immediately for the readers (keeping them in suspense can be a good thing), are:

  • Family and friends
  • Upbringing
  • Pivotal events
  • Schooling/education/training

For many people, their family and friends will be the biggest influence on them. Does your character have brothers or sisters? If so, how do they feel about them? Did they have a best friend as a child? If they did, did that friendship last into adulthood? If not, why did it fail? If you want to create an in-depth, engaging character, you need to be able to answer questions like this.

Similarly, what sort of upbringing did your character have? Someone who was raised by both of their parents in a wealthy household will obviously see the world quite differently from someone who scratched out a living as an orphan on the back streets of a dingy city. Understanding your character’s upbringing will help you to understand how they see the world and what they may want in the future.

It is also critical to make a note of any pivotal events in your character’s life. For instance, if someone lived in a city that was burned to the ground during a brutal war, this is likely to influence their behaviour and views later on. Likewise, if someone found themselves stranded in the wilderness as a child and was forced to fend off wild beasts and survive alone for several months, that too will influence them in the future. In many ways, life is a series of milestones. You need to know what the biggest ones in your character’s life were.

The schooling, education, and other training that a character receives can also prove to be enormously influential. First of all, was your character schooled at all? In many scenarios (e.g., fantasy settings), it may not be common for everyone to be literate. Knowing how to read would thus be a powerful advantage. If they have been schooled, did they pursue further studies? In a fantasy setting, this might mean going to a magical academy. In a more realistic setting, it might mean a normal university, or, in the case of a soldier, a military academy. In all of these examples, the schooling, education, and training that a character has received will undoubtedly influence not only their views but also their abilities and even their intelligence and personality.

To know where someone is going, look to where they have been. To understand where your character is going, you have to understand where they have been and where they’ve come from.

Summary

Designing interesting and engaging characters isn’t always easy. It can take a lot of time and effort. However, you can often make your life easier by making use of a mental scaffold to help structure your thoughts and direct your energy. If you’re not sure what to do, then think of the five areas outlined above:

  • Looks, appearance, and mannerisms
  • Personality
  • Intelligence
  • Other abilities
  • History

If you can honestly say that you’ve got a thorough understanding of your character in all five areas, then you’re well on your way to creating a great character.

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.

Some Public Speaking Tips

I will go into public speaking in more depth in later posts, but I thought I’d offer a few tips, relatively easy things that can make an immediate difference.

  1. Rehearse your speech. This might sound obvious, but I’ve encountered so many people who are perfectly willing to write up their entire speech but won’t do more than skim through it once or twice before they have to give the speech. If you’ve written your speech out in full, then rehearse it. Practice delivering it in exactly the same way as you would to your eventual audience. This means including things like pauses, changes in tone and inflection, and even gestures. It makes a tremendous difference because when you’re tired or nervous or anxious, you default back to what you’ve practiced, and if you haven’t practiced anything… well, it can get ugly.
  2. Do not talk faster to get under the time limit. Many speeches have time limits (e.g., for school or university). It’s tempting to simply speak faster, so you can cover more ground, but that’s not something you should do. Instead, look closely at your speech. Are all of the points you’re making actually that relevant? Are you being as clear and concise as you could be? Speaking faster might get you under the time limit, but you’ll sound ridiculous.
  3. Make sure you know how to use any equipment involved in your speech. This is another common mistake that I’ve seen far too often. If you have to use a projector, or a laptop, or any other piece of equipment for your speech, then make sure you know how to use it. It comes across as terribly unprofessional if you have to call someone over just to operate the slides of your presentation. If possible, it’s often a great idea to speak to whomever is in charge of the venue beforehand to organise an opportunity to test things out. Alternatively, you can arrive early to try things out.
  4. Vary your pace and tone when you speak. Nobody speaks with the exact same pace and tone all of the time. Anyone who does ends up sounding like a robot. Think of your speech as a conversation with a friend. Would you talk to your friend without varying your pace and tone? Of course not. Varying your pace and tone can not only communicate enthusiasm for the subject but also authority and wisdom.
  5. A speech is a story. Your speech should have a structure that facilitates its message. If you’re giving an informational talk, then you could start with the basics and work your way up from there. If you’re arguing a point of view, then you need to explain your position and then provide evidence to support it. If you’re debating, then you need to attack weaknesses in the opponent’s argument and interpretation of the fact before showing how your interpretation is superior. Your audience doesn’t have the benefit of being able to simply glance back at what you’ve said, the way they would for an essay, so your speech needs to be set up in a way that makes it as easy as possible for them to follow your ideas.

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

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

Progress Report (16-07-2016)

Today, I’d like to give you guys some idea of what I’m up. At the moment, I’m working on a collection of short stories set before, after, and during the first three parts of The Unconventional Heroes Series. At the moment, the collection has fourteen stories in it. Here are the current names for those stories:

  1. Hungry
  2. Food Supply
  3. Piracy
  4. Uncle Gerald
  5. First Meeting
  6. Tomb Raider
  7. Impostor
  8. The Bank
  9. Gardening
  10. Research and Development
  11. The Rules
  12. Adventure Time
  13. Mr Sparkles
  14. The Beach

That isn’t necessarily the final order the stories will be, but it’s the order they were originally written in. At the moment, the total length (at the first draft stage) of the collection is approximately 54,000 words. Based on what I’ve seen from the four stories that have already undergone a second draft, that word count is going to increase substantially (perhaps even by as much as 50% or more).

There’s a good balance of characters there with some of the stories focusing on our favourite necromancer duo while others offer glimpses into the lives (and pasts) of some of the other characters. You’ll even get to see what Timmy, James, and Vicky were like when they were younger (hint: Timmy and James get along about as well as you’d expect).

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.