One of the more baffling problems I see with my clients is that they’re not keeping their writing real. Their stories might be full of tension and clever plot twists, their characters people I might like to know, but their writing is not rooted in life.
This problem most often shows up in descriptions. Their characters’ hair is “silky,” or wool socks “scratchy.” Hearts “pound,” muscles “ripple,” eyelids “flutter.” Sunsets “glow” or rain “pours.” They are simply writing the sorts of things that other writers have written, time and time again. It’s just as damaging when they go generic. Rooms are “large” or “opulent,” gardens are full of “flowers” surrounded by “trees,” lipstick is “red,” their characters eat “food.”
When you’re creating your fictional world, details matter. A clever story can be entertaining, but readers can’t lose themselves in your fictional world unless it feels real, concrete, definite. Clichés are tired and overly familiar. Generic descriptions are just filler, Pablum rather than steak.
Of course, most writers already know this. So why do they so often fall back on generic commonplaces and clichés?
They’re easy. They’re what comes to mind first. And they often look just good enough on the page that it’s possible to skip over them while you revise and never realize you have a problem. You have to deliberately focus to spot the places where you’ve taken the easy way out.
Other writers, I suspect, fall into commonplaces because they’re more interested in other parts of their stories. They want to get past the descriptions so they can dig into more dialogue, or they’re so caught up in the upcoming plot twist that their characters start talking banalities to get the dialogue out of the way more quickly. And all of that might be fine for a first draft. But when you’re revising, you need to rip out cliches like the weeds that they are.
Replacing them isn’t simply a matter of pulling out a Thesaurus and looking for alternatives to “silky.” You have to pay attention to the actual, real world. That’s where you go to find the distinctive, often surprising details that will make your fictional world real. For instance, the received wisdom is that teakettles whistle. But if you actually pay attention when one is coming up to a boil, you’ll find that it often bangs and pops (depending on how hard your water is) and then begins to hiss. If your readers have never noticed just how kettles boil, showing them that detail can make your fictional world feel more real than their everyday life.
To give you an example of the impact clear, reality-based details can have, Rex Stout once described Archie Goodwin visiting a witness’s apartment. [Read more…]