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Writing descriptively - what readers skip.

William King

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Writing descriptively versus just telling the story – things to avoid.

A lot of stories read like an essay, the kind of homework you would be given by your school teacher, “write 2000 words on why the Normandy landings led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.” To which the response is – On the morning of June 6th 1944 Allied troops, consisting of British, American, Canadian and Commonwealth forces, landed on the beaches of Omaha, Utah, and Sword, in Normandy, not the expected invasion point which Hitler was convinced would be the shortest crossing to Calais. 

Then you go on to explain numbers and facts, telling what happened. Now often writers will take the same format, one they are familiar with, and superimpose their characters. Thus it becomes - On the morning of June 6th 1944 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. Private Williams was eighteen, with deep blue eyes and blond hair, he was in the landing craft with his best buddy Jake, they were frightened, but knew what they had to do, etc.

It's not so bad you’re thinking, and no it isn’t, then it goes on the say how there was a lot of firing, but they moved up the beach, even though many comrades got killed. You can kind of picture it.

Now consider something more descriptive – The dark clouds skittled across the grey sky that morning, like an ominous premonition of what was to come. No one spoke as they clambered down the side of the ship and into the landing craft, the only sound was the churning of the engine, everything else he had blotted out. The boat rolled and bounced as it turned towards the beach, Private Williams’ stomach churned, not because of the sea, but with fear and apprehension. Not even the glance at his buddy Jake could dispel the knot in the pit of his belly.

He followed the others down the ramp and splashed into the cold water that was up to their waist. Jake was beside him as they struggled towards the beach, his rifle held high over his head. It was as if someone had turned down the volume, everything seemed quiet, but the bullets zipping all around were real enough. The bodies floating in the water and lying on the sand in front of him were a vision from hell. 

Matt Williams was never a great believer when the family listened to the preacher on Sundays, but for the first time in his life he prayed to almighty God to save him. He stumbled crouched over up the beach towards the dunes, there was nowhere else to go. Now the roar of gun fire, shouting, and screams, were everywhere. The zizz of a bullet whizzed past his face, he moved as if in a trance, the adrenalin coursed through his veins, just one goal – the dunes.

He collapsed to the ground, curled up against the meagre protection from the little ridge. He wanted to make a hole and crawl into it. His clothes were soaked, from the sea and from his own urine.

There was a thud beside him, Jake was there in the sand. His buddy looked over at a ghost whose face was drained white, a tiny smile formed on his lips as he reached out a hand. Matt couldn't feel anything but fear, he silently implored his mom to come and get him. When he realised that would never happen, he prayed if he was hit that he would die instantly.

Jake's grip tried to calm his friend’s trembling body. He saw the blood on his cheek, Matt was not even aware he'd been hit.

In a recent discussion about what parts of stories readers skip, an author and reader wrote the following, which gives a good insight and summarises a lot of what other people where saying:

“If I read 'lake' or 'house' or 'school' four or five times in a short paragraph, I'm on guard, and if it keeps up, it has to be one hell of a story for me to stick with it.. Yes, maybe we use that repetition in life, but it changes when it's on the screen or page. As authors we need to use a little ingenuity. It's the same as seeing every sentence start with 'He' or 'They' or 'This.' It's entirely unnecessary. Sentence structure can be changed. And overuse of names and speech tags. I was soooo guilty of that when I first started writing. I'm surprised my readers could stomach it.

I like detail, but only when it is presented cleanly. But, the opposite isn't much better. To me, there can be such a thing as too clean. We write fiction... escape... and I for one want to be moved... I want to feel the scene, and that, to me, means descriptions... ones that add, and don't make my eyes glaze over... but don't leave me wondering or scratching my head. It's the little nuances and shadings that suck me in and keep me reading. Too clean, and an author can sometimes get to the point of the scene or story too soon, and lose something in the process. 

Dialogue, yeah. I love great dialogue. If it is stilted, or out of character, or unrealistic, or confusing, I usually close the story. We all talk. We should spend as much time listening to how people converse and express themselves. Bad dialogue... bad!”

There is no one right way to author a story, but there are a lot of things we can take into account to improve the way we write and get people reading it.

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  • 5 months later...

Thank you for this insight William,

I know I have the bad habit of try to write too quickly to get to a self imposed deadline and often loose sight of the descriptions. I will counter with over use of descriptions can also kill the pace of a story. If I start reading a story and it takes me four days to read 1 hour of story time, well I am out. Its difficult at best to find that perfect balance between details and pace. 

This is something I as an amateur author struggle with. I use easily found excuses like I am so busy and I don't have time to focus on my writing. And its true I am a very busy person. Most people would faint if they saw my calendar. (and yes it is color coded). I have a very high demand Career and am very active in my community as well. Plus I volunteer as an Admin for the castle. But I have noticed through feedback from other authors and readers that I need to work on my descriptive style so now I am slowing down on writing and taking my time. I know the loyal followers will groan at this but trust me it will be worth the wait. some of the stuff that I am close to finishing and posting is by far way better than my early stuff. 

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