Thursday, April 24, 2014

Writing 101: Lecturing vs. Describing

So, I love historical fiction. I don't know why; I always hated history in school. And while I do love it, I've noticed something wrong with it: many writers start lecturing their readers instead of just describing the story to them. And while I've noticed it with historical writers more than others, this is an attitude into which even the most skillful can slip. So how do you prevent it? 

Blah, Blah, Blah

A novel should read a bit like a discussion. I should almost be able to hear your voice, and the voices of your characters, as I'm going through it. And that voice should have a natural rhythm, a specific rise and fall, a certain melody to it. It should not feel like a sermon. 

Even the best writers can start lecturing, and apparently never really realize that they're doing it. There was a book series, once, that I loved. The books were enormous but that was okay because I loved the story so much, and the author took such pains to make it accurate. And I mean, she really took pains. She told me about the plant life, the animal life, how to hunt them and where to pick it, the bugs, the leaves, the blades of grass, the wind a certain point, it got to be a real drag. 

Not that I'm not into grass, or anything, but there was a problem with all this very rich description: it didn't have any interaction

Because I'm analytical, I started paying attention to the moments when I was most annoyed with the books in this particular series. And I found that I was most aggravated when the characters weren't doing much of anything but traveling past scenery, the latter described in exhausting detail. Seriously, if I wanted to look at scenery then I wouldn't be reading a book. 

So there's your first rule of avoiding the pitfall of lecturing your readers: interact with everything you're describing. Your characters shouldn't just look at the tree, or the peach on the counter. I want them to walk up and stand in the shade of the tree. I want to pick up the peach and taste it. If you're going to describe, then describe. Don't simply tell me how tall the oak tree is and how it makes a shadow on the grass. Put me in that cool spot and shield me from the sun. This is the difference between lecturing and describing. 

It's just not the only difference. Writers who slip into lecture mode have something else in common: specific details that just don't fit. I've caught myself doing this so many times, I've had to make a real effort to avoid it. When you're writing and you have all the research at your fingertips and you already know all the facts, it's very easy to start lecturing by making one very easy-to-make mistake: technicality. You know the oak tree is 80 feet tall, so you write it. Then I read it, and I realize I'm in the middle of the lecture. Because the 16 year-old-girl who is the central character in the story doesn't know that the tree is 80 feet. How the hell could she? Now I know you're lecturing me, because now I'm no longer seeing the story through that girl's eyes. 

It seems like a fine point to pick at, I know, but trust me it makes a big difference. Everything should be coming from the right point of view, and in almost all novels that point of view is not going to be your own. So don't tell me that the tree is 80 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Tell me that it's even taller than the 6-story apartment building where so-and-so lives, and even wider than the long driveway in front of it. Everything should come from a frame of reference that's familiar to the characters in the story, not one that's familiar to you. This is a little harder to write, but this makes your story much more authentic. It also puts an end to the lecturing. 

Don't lecture to me by simply telling me what something looks like. Put me right in that space with that thing, and allow me to see it through your character's eyes. I don't want you to draw a picture of a tree for me with your words, because I've seen trees and if I need a description of a tree I'll go to the online encyclopedia. There are only 200 of them. What I want is to know how this tree is affecting the character, or the space around the character, what it means and why it matters. I already know how I see trees. I'm reading because I want to know how someone else sees trees. That's your job. And if you're not lecturing, then that means you're doing your job the right way.

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  1. This! You have described perfectly something that has bothered me too about some books I have read and had difficulty getting through. I suspect there was a time when it was vogue to describe every detail down to the grass blade and some authors did it well by "frame of reference that's familiar to the characters in the story" and others botched it by describing the micro details.