How do you make your writing come alive in the minds of your readers? Here, in a four-minute TED-Ed talk, Nalo Hopkinson shares her thoughts:
How do you make your writing come alive in the minds of your readers? Here, in a four-minute TED-Ed talk, Nalo Hopkinson shares her thoughts:
One of my challenges in writing prose is coming up with good descriptions, because in screenwriting (which has been the bulk of my work) you tend to keep descriptions extremely short and don't get much into how things feel or smell. Before we can describe, we have to see (and smell, and hear, and feel). Visual perception is the topic of this five-minute illustrated TED-Ed talk.
The speaker is Amy Herman, who teaches, police officers, FBI agents, nurses, medical students and others how to develop their observational skills. Her main tool is art from all over the world.
(The "full" version of this lesson on the TED-Ed site is exactly the same)
Amy Herman has written a book called Visual Intelligence. The subtitle is "Sharpen your perception, change your life." Well, I guess getting really good at describing characters and settings could change a writer's life. I haven't read the book yet, but I'll return with a review when I have.
Next Post: How to write descriptively - Nalo Hopkinson
Author and agent Chuck Sambuchino recently made an important observation about modern novels: they should start inside and go out. In other words, you start with a character and his or her actions and thoughts, and then place them in a setting.
Many of the great novels—from a time when readers had more time or at least more patience—started outside and then went into a character. You’d have several pages of description of the landscape, the weather, and maybe the ancestry of the protagonist before you ever met him or her.
If you want to grab readers, focus on what we find most interesting: people. Introduce us to someone who find intriguing, or lovable, or mysterious, or fascinatingly evil. Make us wonder what’s going on with them. Then, when you’ve hooked us, you’ll have the luxury of describing the setting and other aspects of their lives.
Of course I’ve overstated the case; not every book needs to start with a shocking or mysterious event featuring the protagonist, but many writers err in the other direction, assuming that we’ll stick around to meet the main characters once the authors have finished setting the scene.
(For friendly guidance on all aspects of writing, get a copy of my book "Your Writing Coach," published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
Anton Chekhov gave this advice to a writer: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
The way to make a character or a setting or an action come alive in the imagination of the reader is to provide specific details. Compare these two descriptions:
Howard was a clinically obese man. He found it difficult to walk very far and stopped frequently to rest.
Howard wheezed with the effort of carrying his weight. Every ten steps he had had to stop and lean against the nearest wall.
Not only is the second description more specific (not just stopping but leaning against the nearest wall), it brings in another sense--the sound of wheezing. The more you can bring in not only what things look like but also their smell, their feel, their taste, the more real they become to the reader.
Often the best specific to mention is one that is unexpected. For instance, it might be that despite his bulk Howard has dainty feet.
Different details will have different effects in terms of how the reader perceives the character or the setting. For example, if we want the reader to feel some sympathy for Howard, we might show him enduring the embarrassment of having to buy shoes in the children’s department.
One warning: don’t overdo it. It’s easy to overload the reader with details. Adjectives are especially dangerous! One usually is enough. “Grimy fingernails” is fine; “Grimy, misshapen, yellowed, gnawed fingernails” is too much.
Adverbs can be even worse--generally it’s better to describe the action rather than characterize it. For instance, instead of “He ate the donut greedily,” you might write, “He stuffed the entire donut into his mouth so fast that jam squirted out of his mouth.”
Checking to make sure that you have been specific in your descriptions is one of the key things to do when you go over your first draft.
If you want to see how it's done, read some of Chekhov's short stories. They constitute a great masterclass.
(And to learn even more, see my book, "Your Creative Writing Masterclass," published by Nicholas Brealey. Not only does it contain more of Chekhov's advice, but also guidance from Dickens, Austen, Hemingway and many others. You can get it from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
One thing a lot of writers don't use to its full advantage is the power of setting. Where your scene takes place can add a lot to the reader's experience. Naturally your plot will be the main thing that determines where the action takes place, but often you have quite a bit of leeway.
Here are a few questions to consider when thinking about where to set a scene:
1. What does the setting tell us about the character?
Does your protagonist hang out at seedy bars? Does she make her local Starbucks her second home? Is he used to eating in the finest restaurants or at the local burger joint? Put the protagonist in places that let the reader draw some conclusions about the character's values and habits.
2. How does the character feel about the setting?
If you want to put your characters under extra pressure, put them in settings that make them uncomfortable. If he's a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and worried about being tempted to backslide, make it necessary for him to go into a bar. If she's desperately trying to lose weight, put her in a cafe that features the best cakes in town.
3. How does the setting relate to that action of the scene?
A husband meets the man he thinks is cheating with his wife. That will play out differently in a classroom on Parents' Night, with lots of kids and parents around, than if he meets him in a parking lot, for instance. You can use the setting to heighten the drama or to provide some comic relief. It can create an ironic effect--e.g., one crook tells another that they have to stay out of sight, and the setting is the TV department of a store with 50 sets all on the same channel--which features a newscast and a mug shot of the two.
4. How are changes in your protagonist mirrored by changes in the setting?
Many stories have a character arc--a sequence of events that transform the character. For instance, it might be a romantic comedy in which a woman scared of committment eventually takes the risk of falling in love. At the beginning, her apartment is totally neutral, there's nothing that reflects who lives there. As the story goes on she puts some pictures on the wall, gets different furniture, etc. She may think it's just to please her new boyfriend but we also get the idea that she's getting more confident in risking letting others see who he really is.
Another example would be a change in the kinds of places in which a man hangs out as his life falls apart. He might transition from coffee shops to nice bars to not so nice bars.
To get the full impact of a setting, refer to all the senses. What does it look like, what sounds are there, what odors? What kind of feelings does it evoke for the character (and maybe for the reader, too)?
(The best writers of all time used the full power of settings. What advice do they have for you about how to do the same? It's in my book, "Your Creative Writing Masterclass," published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
What does this look like in practice? This is my interpretation of how you could use it when self-publishing an ebook:
1. Start a website that relates to the book. If it's a non-fiction book it's easy to decide on the topic. If it's a novel, what aspect do you think people would find most interesting and likely to make them buy the book?
This is not always obvious. For instance, a mystery set in a ski resort will not necessarily appeal more to skiers than others. In fact, sometimes people who know a lot about a topic don't read fiction about it because they know so many authors get things wrong. And people who will eagerly read non-fiction may not read fiction at all.
Here's a tip: find a successful book similar to yours in a significant way. Look at the author's website, the comments and reviews people have left on Amazon and YouTube, and use Google to track down articles about them, fan sites, etc. You'll get lots of clues about where this author's fans hang out. Go there. Be unobtrusive at first, and then start posting but not about your book. Without spamming or forcing it, let people know you have a blog or site they might find of interest (and make sure it is interesting, of course).
The sooner you do this, the better. This model works only if you start early.
2. Involve your followers in the writing of the book. For instance, invite their questions. If a lot of people have the same question, that's a great indicator that you should be answering it in your book or featuring the topic in some way.
3. Let your followers read chapters as you go along. Be clear that these are early drafts and you welcome input. Pay attention to what makes sense, ignore what doesn't. But start with an open mind. If you find that the book you want to write isn't the same one people want to read, adjust accordingly.
In works of fiction, pay attention to feedback like "I got mixed up between Brian and Bruce," or "It' wasn't clear to me whether Samantha knew about John's previous marriage or not." If the reader is supposed to know that, maybe you need to state it more clearly.
4. Let followers vote. Ask them to help you pick the best title, the best cover image, the best copy for the back cover. You can get a lot of useful information. Again, it helps if you are able to put aside your ego. If 80 of a hundred people voting clearly prefer one cover over the other you'd be silly not to listen, even if you like the other one better.
5.Tell about the steps of the publishing process, including a bit of gossip here and there (naturally, nothing that will upset your publisher). Your followers will feel like insiders and at the same time will know when the expect the book.
6. In the book, acknowledge by name any followers whose comments have been helpful. It's a nice thing to do, plus people buy more copies of a book when their name is in it.
7. Have an online launch party. Invite your followers and ask them to invite their friends as well. Do something special, maybe a live video feed from an actual party, or set up a webinar in which people can ask you questions. Give away prizes including copies of your book.
8. Keep your followers involved after the book is published. Blog about your experiences--did you have a signing and 100 people turned up? Great, tell us about it. Did you have a signing and nobody turned up? Not so great for you, but possibliy a more entertaining story. Put reviews on the site and invite your followers to do their own reviews on YouTube and post links to those (or embed them) on your site. Give a prize for the best review every month (not the most fawning but the most entetaining).
9. Get their input on what you should write next--hook them early so they'll stay with you.
10. If your book has timely content, update it as often as necessary. With e-books this is simple and costs nothing or very little. Let your followers know that you're keeping up to date and ask them for input on what changes you should make.
Have I done all these? Nope. But writing this has given me some good ideas...
(You can also get loads of good ideas for inexpensive and innovative ways to market yourself or your work, in my book, "Do Something Different," published by Virgin Books.)
I've written before about Elmore Leonard's writing rules, but recently I came across a slightly extended version, and I think they're worth a (re) visit.
His first one is:
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
I'd add a few more things not to open with, just based on what I've read (and these apply just as much to screenplays, by the way):
YOUR PRORTAGONIST WAKING UP, LOOKING AT THE ALARM CLOCK AND KNOCKING IT OFF THE TABLE. This usually is followed by him getting up and shaving, bleary-eyed, going to his fridge and finding all it contains is a jar of mustard and a can of beer.
YOUR PROTAGONIST DRIVING TO WORK. This is especially tempting for films becausae it's an easy thing to stick under the titles, but we've seen it too often.
A DREAM. The problem is that often the dream is much more interesting than what happens when your character is awake.
One of the big problems with all three of these is that they happen before anything interesting happens. I'm not saying you have to start with an explosion or a murder or something, but if you're going to show me the details of your character's everyday life, figure out how to make it interesting.
For instance, what small quirks make this person different? Don't go too far in the direction of zaniness, look for authentic characteristics. A good starting point might be the things your significant other or best friend do that really annoy you. Of course if this person is self-aware you might pay the price when they read what you've written, but I'm sure you expect to suffer for your art.
A MAD SEARCH FOR THE RINGING MOBILE PHONE. OK, I admit it, I lose mine in the sofa, too, or bury it under a pile of papers. But this scene been seen too often to be funny.
A FUNERAL. Especially a funeral on a rainy day. You might as well write "insert cliche here."
I'm sure there are more--feel free to add your own unfavorite openings in the comments.
(Want to get help in making sure your writing is fresh? Sign up for my online Writing Breakthrough Stratetgy program. There's a group version and a one-to-one version in which I read and give you feedback on your material. You can get the details at www.WritingBreakthroughStrategy.com )
If you’re interesting in hearing real stories from real people all over the world, then broadcastr.com might interest you. The idea is that anybody can record a narrative that’s linked to a place. Their categories include childhood, citizen journalism, crime, events, family, history, reviews, work and in case your story doesn’t fit any of the others, there’s one called WTF!? You can also browse or search by location or name of author.
On their website they say, “Just like in human memory, every story is bound to a place. Whether dishing last night’s details to friends, uncovering local lore, perusing restaurant reviews, listening to travel guides, tuning in to citizen journalism, contemplating oral histories, or sharing hilarious anecdotes, Broadcastr amplifies all our voices.”
You can include a picture of yourself or the place and the related place will be pinpointed on a world map. The recordings vary from half a minute to five and a half minutes At the moment it’s still in beta.
One way this could be useful, especially once there are a lot more recordings, would be to get some insights into a place you’re writing about but are not able to visit yourself. Or if you found any contributors who seem to be experts in that location (or at least live there), you might be able to contact them and ask them a few questions to help your research.
If you’re intrigued, why not check it out and maybe add a recording of your own? You can find instructions via their ‘about’ page (bottom of the home page).
One of the great things about being a writer is that wherever you go, whatever you hear, and whatever happens to you, "It's all material."
Yesterday I experienced one of the stranger usually mundane settings: a barbershop here in Palm Springs (I'm travelling at the moment--off to LA tomorrow). The barber, who is also the owner, was pleasant enough, but all around the shop there were angry signs.
One read, "Sit still in your chair, don't use your phone, let us do our job!"
Another was a large poster with advice for keeping your hair and skin nice, saying, among other things, that "most shampoo is crap," and "if you don't shower for at least 20 minutes a day, and you have bad skin, it's your own fault."
Another warned, "Come in with clean hair! No gels, no shampoo, no sweat!" (This is an old-fashioned place that doesn't do shampooing, but in a place where the summer temperature often rises to 110 degrees F, I'm not sure the 'no sweat' idea is totally realistic).
I was tempted to comment on all these signs, but the man did have a sharp object in his hand...
Still, it's all material.