It feels strange going back over old pieces of writing. It’s not that it’s woefully bad. Well, the terrible quality of it isn’t why it’s strange. I vaguely remember writing bits and pieces of it, and can pinpoint the source to back when I was seventeen, though there’s now another seventeen years of life thrown on top of my running tally. What I find strange about the writing, is how very different the style is.
The following comes from “The Road to Ravecia”, a trope-soaked fantasy that definitely plays a few notes of the Hero’s Journey. A total staple – the recently orphaned boy, the unnatural armies of an evil wizard, and some kind of prophecy. It had a hero that was either Cale or Collis, depending on what name took my fancy at the time.
There was (naturally), a villain. Not a tortured individual doing terrible acts with regret, or an understandable bad guy, but a straight-up evil bastard named Dali Mor, with an undead army of Ravyni, which were somewhere between mindless zombie soldiers and possessed dead guys. Yeah, Dudley Moore’s Evil Ravioli. As a premise, it’s been done, but it could work. I’m a firm believer that any writer with sufficient ability can make any story readable, in the same way that listening to Morgan Freeman talk about accounting could be entertaining.
Seventeen year old me was NOT that writer.
What I had was adjective heavy and weighed down by description.
In a corner of the room, near the door, away for many of the boarded windows is a man seated on a chair. He wears a drab bluish-grey tunic, covered in dirt and grime. His face is old and withered, through age or through experiences, it is impossible to tell. His pants are dirty grey, though light enough to suggest the original cloth was white. The boots upon his feet, though sturdy, look very worn, the former black fading through to a dark grey. His eyes are crystal blue, and remain locked on the door in front of him. The bloodshot nature of them hinting he has been awake for some time, that hint backed up by the greasy blonde mess of the man’s hair.
The details paint a picture, but there are too many of them. Reading it now, there are unwritten details that form my current mental picture, and the most telling one is that the man in question should have a beard. I start reading it through, and I can’t help but picture Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s portrayal of unkempt Jaime Lannister. What’s happening here? My imagination is taking the words, and adding more.
If you read the paragraph, you mightn’t see the character the same way as described. I’m fairly certain that my initial concept for the character didn’t have a beard (otherwise I would have no doubt gone to excruciating detail about said beard). Some of the details are definitely important, but oh man, there’s just too much going on, which absolutely kills the momentum of what’s meant to be a tense moment.
In his right hand, he grips a rusty farmer’s scythe, its blade dull from use in the fields. With his other, he clutches a young infant to his body. The baby is wrapped in a patchwork quilt, and is quiet. The first strands of his soft hair, dark. The only sounds are the soft, almost non-existent cracklings of the fire, the old man’s heavy breathing, and echoes of the unearthly howl of the wind outside, the prelude to the forces that would take this youth away.
Too much. Entirely too much! I think it’s overwrought nonsense, and that very last annotation, ‘the prelude to the forces that would take this youth away‘ is just pretentious nonsense. No Teenage-Self, don’t do that! Saying it’s a farmer’s scythe, and then mentioning why it’s dull? It makes the paragraph dull, and talks down to the reader. I’m sure they understand that a farmer farms!
We have a man, sitting shaky on his stool and watching the door. He’s holding a baby tight against his chest, right up against his greasy clothes and matted hair. He’s leaning on a worn scythe. There’s obviously lots of showing going on here, and I think there’s just too damn much of it, because we’re not using the second greatest resource available to any writer.
We have our own “greatest resource”, which is our imagination – where the ideas come from, the bit that puts them all together to tell a story. Writing might be a lonely pursuit, but storytelling is not a one-person affair, though the parties involved never directly interact with one another. A book is a contract between a writer, and a reader. The writer says “I have something to tell you” and the reader responds “Tell me.”
The reader’s work doesn’t end there. As a writer, the second greatest resource available to you is your reader’s imagination. They’re the ones piecing your words together, imagining how the Kabser Mountains look when the moonlight refracts from the icy peaks, imagining the smell of the sweet-spiced ham that the Elven Hosts have laid out for their guests, and then also imagining how your characters should look and sound.
I repeat this anecdote ALL THE TIME, but here we go again. I handed out copies of Shimmer, my first NaNoWriMo novel, to a whole bunch of people, as I was writing it. After two of my coworkers had been reading for a while, I asked them about the characters, specifically how they’d pictured them.
The other, Mott, was older, though not as ancient as Cavan. A deep mottled scar ran across the back of his bleak, left hand.
Minimal, right? That’s the first introduction of the character Mott, who I’d pictured as the surly veteran type, physically intimidating, easily annoyed, and resentful of the main character. Short on words, but a deep voice when it was needed. One person pictured him as Michael Clarke Duncan, while another pictured him as Vinnie Jones. Mott’s character was short on physical details, though his demeanour, potential history, and general personality were always fixed. If I’d gone with the old style, such a thing would not have been possible.
It’s something that has definitely changed how I approach description in my writing on a more permanent basis. A mix of general painting of the setting, and then small detailed touches, will probably be my preferred style. There will be times when the characters are unequivocally of a specific appearance, but it won’t always be mentioned. You don’t need to describe every detail of a fireplace, and talk about the ash-stained bricks or other things that every fireplace has. You have to trust that the reader knows what a typical fireplace looks like, and if they exist, provide the details that set it apart from the generic doodads.