Q&A: Description is Context

tinker-tanner said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on how to write description? Whenever I think of something to write it’s purely dialogue, not even minimal stage directions like a Shakespeare play. Just voices in a white void.

Then, that’s what you start with.

Write the scene purely as dialogue so you get it out of your head. If you can tell who is talking, you’re golden. So, it will look something like this:

“How’s it going?” Jayse asked.

“Seeing the other Blooded’s problem,” Chastity said.

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

“Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914,” Isolde said.

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” Isolde hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

“You would know all local bus routes, Chaz,” Jayse said.

Think about description as context, filling in the blanks and that white noise. Once you’ve got the dialogue out on the page, you have the luxury of asking yourself what the hell is happening in this scene. Your best friends are: What? Where? Why? When? How?

Once you’ve got your dialogue out, ask yourself some questions:

What are the characters doing?

In this case, they’re hunting some sort of monster and we know from “time dilation” it (probably) has supernatural powers.

Where are they?

Well, they’re clearly somewhere modern because they’re referencing the bus routes.

What is the monster doing? Why are they trying to catch it?

This we don’t know, because we have no description. It can look like anything. So try and figure out what you want it to look like, think about it.

Okay, so think about that. Let it take shape in your mind, imagine how the world sounds, tastes, feels. What do your characters hear? What are they looking for? What do they want? How do they plan to get it? What do they think inside their heads that they wouldn’t say out loud?

Got it? Let’s try again.

Chastity Dumont lunged across the open space between buildings. Foot slamming down on the ground and thrusting her body back up in a great leap, she flew over the busy street below. Her mind barely had time to register the cars whizzing past as she tucked, landed on her shoulder, rolled to her feet and raced after her prey.

He wasn’t too far ahead of her, long arms flailing as he tried to run. A short creature with a bulbous head and slick gray skin in a violently bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey. Thick webbed feet slapped the concrete roof. His pace a leisurely jog level rather than someone running for their lives.

He is running, she thought. He just doesn’t think I can catch him. Time wrapped around him, sped him up. In his wake, she slowed immeasurably.

“How’s it going?” crackled a voice in her ear, snapping electricity down her jaw.

Chastity slid over an air conditioner unit. “Seeing the other Blooded’s problem.”

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah.”

Okay, we have the first half of the dialogue. Now we can see how Chastity came to her conclusion of time dilation while hunting her prey. This means that this is a problem she can deal with, unlike the other Blooded she referenced. We know what the monster looks like, we know we’re in a city, and we’ve got some action going on.

Pay special attention when you’re reading over the dialogue you’ve written for breaks that feel unnatural, where it feels like something else should be there. The comment, “Whiz shit” is an unnatural jump.

Ahead of her, the bulbous head alien dropped off the roof edge and disappeared into the darkness between brightly colored apartment buildings.

Chastity came to a stop, watching fluorescent orange and gleaming white bounce between steel fire escapes down into a thin alley. As he hit the ground, his form shifted, lengthened, and grew more human. She suspected he’d put on pants and maybe shoes too, just to fill out the shit sundae. Her head tilted backwards, filled with the familiar whine of a large, heavy vehicle sliding to a stop. She inhaled deeply, air full of greasy ass diesel. “Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914.”

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” she hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

That got a laugh. “You would know all local bus routes, Chaz.”

Figuring out your own creative process can be difficult, so if you don’t have the right images or words don’t be afraid to turn to outside sources. Google Image Search is your friend. That can help you get the necessary context to filling out your narrative if the images don’t come on their own.

Think about the dialogue you write, and how your characters might react to the comments. How do they feel? Do they scrunch up their eyebrows or nose, curl their lips, sneer or smile? Do they laugh? What do they look like when they’re talking? Are they animated, sedate, or somewhere in between? What does they look like, just in general?

The alien stepped forward, purple-blue light shimmered between two round paws. Same color as the crystal burning beneath the jersey, rays spilling out through the holes. Illuminating the bus’ roof in a dazzling array of tiny pentagons, shifting, shimmering, and spinning round across the cracked white surface like a 70s disco ball.

I suppose this would be the wrong time to joke about stayin’ alive, Chastity thought. Jumbled bits of numbers, words, lines of code flashed around his fingertips. Rattling off a few thousand sigils in rapid succession. Spell type. Detonation rank. Expected area of damage. Electromagnetic region detonation. Grade B spell. Class Type D. In an attempt to stop her, he’d vaporize half the city block and everyone in the radius. Well, everyone except his intended target. Her hands clenched around the rebars. Metal spur piercing out of her heel, slicing through cotton, leather, and rubber of her boot to grip the metal. She jerked upright as her wings thrust her to her feet.

The alien blinked.

Throwing herself forward, Chastity drove the rebar in her left hand through the glowing purple ball. Sudden impact of iron disrupted the electricity, sending arcs across the bus widows and splashing out over the asphalt. As his eyes widened, she drove the right rebar into his stomach. She felt the first blow crush sensitive internal organs, burst the stomach sack, and sent him flying.

It’s seems silly to ask, but what are they wearing? Really, what are they wearing? Are their bangs short or long? Do they tug at their hair when they’re nervous? Does their hair fall across their eyes when they tilt their head?

Getting what you already have in your head out on the page means you don’t have to worry about losing what you’ve come up with and can focus on the parts of your story which are eluding you. The more practice you get, the better you get. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to art, photographs, and other images if they help you. Pulling up some images of a lake at sunset when you want to write about your characters confessing their love by the lake at sunset, can really help with the visualization for the scenery. Is the grass short or tall? How large are the strands? How big is the lake? Do people commonly visit this lake or is it out in the middle of nowhere? Are there ducks, geese, swans, other birds that make noise? How does the light reflect off the water? Is the sun low enough for a true red or are we fading into purple twilight?

Your style is going to determine the amount of description you need, and how much is too much. You want to experiment and practice. Writers can be successful with incredibly sparse and prose so flowery it turns purple, all that really matters is whether or not the reader is given the context they need to understand the character’s behavior, reactions, and surroundings.

The more you add in, the more questions you can ask and continue refining down your image. Sometimes, you have to start out general to end up specific. This can be simple as “What does Character B look like?”

Your answers might start out general like: female, medium height, blonde, blue eyes, nose, mouth, long fingers, etc.

Take the vague image you have, and sharpen up the detail.

Then, Chastity turned her head. The gold-yellow irises surrounded by a black cornea turned a warm crystal blue, the rest of the eye fading into the usual human color. The silver and ruby wings retracted, slipping back through the ripped gaps in her leather jacket and white cotton shirt. Silver gashes in her skin cutting out of her jaw disappeared and smoothed back to the usual soft pink. Clawed gauntlets slipped back beneath the human skin coating finely boned, delicate hands.

One could easily see a slightly battered seventeen year old in a grungy shirt, torn apart jacket, and ripped jeans, but Jayse knew better than anyone — Chastity Dumont had never been a human girl.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Start with what your brain has already given you and start filling in the blanks. Probing questions are important. Use your What, Where, When, Why, How. Think about your five senses. Get curious about your dialogue. If your story excites you, you should want to know more. Why did your character say what they did? What was their motivation? What did they look like when they said it? How do they feel?

If you get: anger, ask yourself what anger looks like. What is the bodily response? How do they deal with confrontation? Do they stare the other person down, lock gazes, drop their eyes, look up, look away, or physically turn away?

Ahead of Chastity, the alien had fallen in another attempt to crawl away and trapped himself between the cars. His frantic head turned back in her direction, massive eyes blinking. Sparks crackled across his hands, the remnants of his disrupted spell. Small body slumped, squirmed, wriggling as he inched his way down the road.

Coming to a stop over him, Chastity lifted the last rebar. Her wings flared wide, casting long shadows across the road, blacking out the twilight sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

The alien rolled, weakly lifting his hands.

Chastity rammed the rebar down, through the lower torso, and into the asphalt.

Gray-green blood splattered a black surface.

This time, the alien shrieked.

“Turnabout,” Chastity said.

Her Comm implant snapped her jaw, flickers of electricity singing up her ear. Jayse’s voice came in loud. “Got him?”

One hand dropped to her jeans pocket, and Chastity fished out a small silver coin. Held it up between her thumb and forefinger. Gave it a squeeze. She tossed the coin onto the alien’s torso. Eight silver spider legs extended off the disc, latching into his chest. A tiny blue light beeped. She brushed her jaw with a finger. “Beam us up, Scotty.”

Jayse groaned.

Chastity grinned as she and the alien disappeared in a brilliant flash of bright white-blue light.

-Michi

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