But yesterday it dawned on me that SIWC 2012 is now just six months away, so there's no reason I should still be holding onto these notes. Of which I think there are only two or three more sets. So today I present to you a real treat: my notes from Diana Gabaldon's master class on description.
Remember: these are my notes, and not a substitute for taking the actual class. And if there's something you'd like me to clarify, feel free to leave a comment and I'll try my best to clarify things.
Master Class: The Devil is in the Details Diana Gabaldon
- Details are important, but they’re not the whole story.
- Details are not action.
- Details are not story. Make sure you’re telling the story first. The story itself should work without the details.
- Can pull you into the story
- Sensory involvement
- Underpainting: Using the details not to change the flow of the story, but to give dialogue a more vivid feel
Technique: Rule of 3 (common in jokes):
- If using any element twice, it will resonate subconsciously, but the third time people notice.
- Only use it the 3rd time if you want people to notice. (e.g. comedy)
- For senses: use any 3 of the 5 senses, and you’ll create a vivid scene.
- Not just sight and sound, but also smell, touch, taste.
What details can do:
- Details can pull you into the page, for reader involvement. Sensory involvement.
- Details can provide you information without being obvious or direct (e.g. describing bloodshot eyes instead of saying “exhausted”).
- Body language can help convey the story
- Details can set the setting: can slip into the story
- Inconspicuous logistics
- Use to enrich story but also for stage management
- Use to introduce objects you’ll need later (hide in plain sight) – technique: use distraction, hide in the underpainting – the first appearance of the object or detail, so the scene can be doing multiple things at once
- Advanced: Use details to add a thematic layer: e.g. love, marriage/committment, self/identity, berayal, being stuck/trapped
- It's easier to see theme more clearly in literary fiction, not so much in genre fiction (because genre fiction is usually more focused on the action), but genre fiction can do this, too. Can be a good book.
- Little details can change the painting (the story). Helps develop a whole new layer of meaning.
- The key to writing any scene that is deeply moving is to tell it simply. Use restraint. Don’t tell readers about the emotion, let them feel it.
FYI: Sex and Violence
- Layering: sex and violence can be added as layers and themes to a story.
- People are interested in sex automatically. Where many writers screw up is in the assumption that sex scenes are about sex.
- People are similarily interested in violence/blood.
- Sex and violence get people’s attention.
- That being so, don’t abuse it, it has to be appropriate, and it has to come organically.
More about details:
- What’s important in the layout is the white space.
- What’s left out? That says a lot, and is as important.
- Things have to be important to the view of the protagonist.
- And If it’s important to the protagonist, then the protagonist will notice it.
- Details are not just for literary style – can be used as insight and metaphor for any story
- Keep in mind the style of your story. What are you writing? E.g. if writing a thriller or mystery, probably won’t stop to notice the setting.
- The problem with details is that details are everywhere, you just have to figure out which ones are important.
- Quality, not quantity: Can use any amount of detail, but need to know which details matter.
- Step out of the way of the story, keep what’s going on simple.
- The add in the distinct details to colour the scene without the details get in the way.
- Be exact, use specific details.
- Choose the right details.
- What is the unique detail about this scene, this character
- Can add to the sense of immediacy.
- There can be power in what’s left out.
- When dealing with a new person, start in media res (saying or doing something).
- Character must be in action.
- When it’s somebody else, don’t say, “He was a Scottish Hawaiian who came to the city as a teenager and got a job with...(etc)”
- Can have them doing something that illustrates the traits instead.
- Timing is important in detail. Don’t dump it on the reader.
- Can use details after the character enters the scene.
- How does a viewpoint character describe themselves? You don’t want to focus on that.
- Word choice in description (if writing first person) betray’s the speaker’s attitude and beliefs
- Whose point of view is important, and what they notice reveals their character. They notice different things. They see different details.
Have an artist’s eye.
- Have a different way of seeing: describe plainly, rahther than a tortured description.
- If deeply into the point of view character, what they notice about another character can help describe them (e.g. having to look up says they’re taller, mentioning he’s missed a patch of whiskers while shaving to get that he’s a bit slovenly)
- See with their eyes.
- Only you know the heart of this story, what’s inside these characters. Use the details to make it unique.
- How does the light fall?
Give it a rest.
- Don’t just keep trying to describe things. It’s more important to tell the story.
- Don’t let the details get in the way.
- Let the emotion emerge from the story, don’t say “I feel this” or “He was enraged/angry”.
- Pack a scene with details while being focused on the action/dialogue driving the scene.
A sentence needs to be graceful. Details need to fit in the story.
- Be simple. Describe things simply.
- Use the right details so that the language is beautiful, so that it flows.
Any story is defined by the character and what they want, whether they get it or not, what they’ll do to get it, and how it changes them (what do they give up?) That drives the story.
- List a number of details to induce a sense of awareness in the reader, help pull the reader deep into a point of view
- Details that the character is aware of
- Specific details (e.g. name the tree species rather than calling it a tree, if the character knows what it is)
- Give the reader what’s unique about the characer’s viewpoint
- Can induce a sense of hypnosis
- Not just a list, do it delicately so that it fits the rhythm
- Repeat rhythm and style
- Be graceful in the chant.
Other Thoughts and Techniques:
- Dialogue helps break things up.
- Description is not the story itself, but description helps bring it to life.
- Use movement: we are genetically hardwired to focus on anything that moves. Any flicker of movement. If large chunks of description are needed, have your character move through it. We pay attention to it because movement gets us aware. The reader will absorb it peripherally. So use at least one sentence of movement, because just that will lead the reader through description.
- It makes the story richer and deeper if the scene is doing more than one thing.
- Try taking details out from the scene. If the scene still reads well, then maybe the details aren’t necessary.
- Have a sense of character, have a sense of place. Details help convey this.
Note: technique is not style.
- Diana Learned from Dickens (little details and nuances to deliniate character and the narrator in David Copperfield), PG Wodehouse (humour), Dorothy Sayers (social nuance)
Unrelated to the main topic:
Diana’s 3 rules for writing:
- Writers have no secrets (except from themselves). We know everything she knows as long as we know how to read a book.
- 1. Read everything. Read a lot of everything. Helps you decide what you don’t like. And what you do like. You need to know it’s something you enjoy. You have to like to write. This is where you begin to learn to write—by reading. Read widely, in and out of your genre. Learn how to analyze why something does or does not work.
- 2. Write. The only thing that will teach you to write is the act of putting words on paper. The important thing is that you keep doing it. Try to fit it in when and where you can. If forced away for a bit, disorientation may be natural, but you’ll get back into it. But not writing may cause inertia.
- 3. Don’t stop writing. Don’t give up. If you get stuck, switch to something else (another project) to get yourself unstuck. If only one project, write a synopsis or character study. Anything that helps you get words on the page is the right way to do it.
“Any way to get words on a page is the right way to write.”
Don’t write to market expectations or the market’s demand.
A good mystery involves the external events and the character’s personal life, and how they intertwine.
You can teach people the craft of writing, but you can’t teach people how to tell stories or invent characters. The more you do anything, the better you get. Even if you’re born with the ability to write stories, writing is *work*.
If writing from an unfamiliar point of view, remember that we all want the same things. That can help to get into the character.