If you’ve ever read Charles Dickens, you will have noticed that he often goes on and on. And on. And on. The most well-known reason for this excessive time spent on description is that Dickens was paid by the word. Therefore, like so many college students after him, he tended to expand upon each point to a nauseating extreme.
These days, articles or short works to be published in magazines may have a required word count, but short stories and longer works are more flexible. A writer is paid by the article, by the story, by the book, etc. Waxing eloquent is more or a less a thing of the past and is often frowned upon now. Breaking from your story to describe your character’s face in great detail is seen as a faux pas rather than literary.
But don’t let this stop you from waxing poetic.
Description, lyrical and flowing description, is a powerful ability of words. Every story needs it, just not quite in the way you might think. In most cases, the way you spend time describing things in your work depends on the context. Sometimes it makes sense to stop and describe a character’s eyes for an entire paragraph, the lines around the edges, the creases of the skin, the freckles that seemed to cross the bridge of the nose from one eye to the other.
Timing and relevance is all-important. Think of these moments as detailed close-ups in movies; they don’t work all the time, but sometimes they’re like pulling the audience back to the reality of the character within the flow of the story. Don’t hold back from focusing on these moments. In rewriting, some of these glorious poeticisms may be cut from the story, but some may turn out to be nicely timed gems.
Dozens of well-meaning advisories will disagree. But your drafts are your own.
Dickens it up.
You might just discover something new in your writing style.
We’re not psychic, or very few of us are, and, if we were, we wouldn’t be focusing on that random woman’s baby name list while the world is ending in several natural disasters. We don’t know what futuristic names would actually be like and that means ‘futuristic’ name suggestions are either gibberish versions of current names or just no significant change in names, in most cases.
For near-future fiction, set in America for example, it makes sense for a good chunk of the population to have those gibberish names like Jessielle or Skyleigh because that’s a trend happening now, as is the extra respelling of original names (as in from Ashley to Ashleigh) or pop culture inspired names or even names with extra vowels and more obscure consonants (Xzavier or Ayla come to mind). Fiction set in the next 100 to 200 years should match some of the current baby name trends, especially for older characters, and then a reasonable extension of that for the generations they created. For fiction set way further ahead, it’s not a predictable kind of variable. But that doesn’t mean we should always expect the future to come with men named Liyam and women named Jexa.
Of course, this all depends on how ‘realistic’ your fiction is. If you’re set in some fantasyland far far away, where current real-life names don’t even matter then that’s all a moot point. There are, however, rationalities to be considered. While tossing out a bunch of scrabble pieces and writing down whatever comes up may seem like a thoroughly original thought (it’s not), it will produce more gibberish and less character.
For Pity’s Sake, Consider Your Reader
Xionamus Azander may look bomb on your computer as you type but who the heck is gonna want to try to pronounce that? Out loud? Multiple times? In excited discussion? Remember that ‘Hermione’ was enough to baffle many readers when Harry Potter first came out. If you’re going the extreme Scrabble points route, take pity on the readers and give the dope a nickname at the very least. Xionamus can become Xion – because I’m sure even his parents would get very tired of saying ‘Xionamus.’
Consider the Consistency
You probably shouldn’t name the male character Xionamus Azander and surround him with a red shirt named Smith, a love interest named Amy, and a dog named Spot (bonus suck-points for just foreign language names like Juan the red shirt, Aika the girlfriend, and a dog named Tache). There needs to be consistency. Not all the same kind of names – like not all variations of Xion or Azander – but similar enough to be reasonable in your setting: Xionamus Azander, with Melba Kase, Tray the red shirt, and Dax the dog. Melba Kase may not be as extra as Xionamus but they sound like people more likely to find each other in the same room than Xionamus and Amy do. However, a woman named Amy could fit in a different kind of future, with people named something like Fry and Hermes.
Don’t Get Caught in the Void
Remember that your characters are people, not walking spelling disasters. Don’t get caught up in extravagant ridiculous names and forget to build & explore the actual character. Xionamus Azander sounds great but it’s just a name unless you remember to write him. Whether he’s a space captain with a love of hot dogs and a fear of insects or a kid who dreams of exploring the ocean and hates sweaters, Xion is a person you’re writing about and should be treated as such. They’re not just little pawns with gibberish names who just have something happen to them and then it’s fixed and then it’s all good and Xion has saved the day (even though it was probably really Melba). So don’t write them that way. Otherwise, this story is really going to suck.
As a student I was fortunate enough to attend a Eugene O’Neill student day; O’Neill was a playwright and, though my scripts weren’t that well received, I did pick up a few writing techniques for any kind of writing form. One exercise in particular was used to create and ‘meet’ one’s characters, letting the imagination do most of the work.
In the adapted exercise below the goal is to meet the character without overworking the conscious mind but instead using the visual abilities of your subconscious.
The first step of the exercise is to visualize a door – no edits, just let your mind pick the color and the type and the door knob and the shape and anything else. Once visualized, describe the door, either aloud (perhaps into a recording app, so you can keep the image inside your mind with closed eyes) or in writing. While visualizing the door is still a great way to do the exercise, I have also simplified the process with a Pinterest board full of all kinds of doors. Whether one matches with your character or one inspires a new character, the board is there to help motivate the exercise.
After discovering your door, knock. Or ring the doorbell. Or use the knocker.
Describe who opens the door, in detail. This is the perfect place and time for info-dumping.
The exercise can extend to an interview with the character, and it can go on for any depth or any amount of time. Remember this is not a story scene. This is an exercise for you to build your character into a person.
To jumpstart the exercise this Friday, here is a door featured on my Pinterest board:
(c) My Marrakesh
Part 1: This door is down a bright alley; it’s a soft light pink shade, without a handle on the outside, and with a knocker at about eye-level, not too far right from a solitary keyhole. The door is also arched, featuring circular decorations lining the wall above it. A light brown stone arch overhangs the door; the arch is modeled with two columns on the side and a crest of sorts at the center on the top. Description can continue for as long as you want and can span as far wide as you want – including the area of the town or the time of day or the weather conditions or even how you came to find this door.
Part 2: In this case, there is a knocker available, so imagine you used it to knock on the door. The door is opened – who opened it? What do they look like? How old do they look? What are they wearing? What is their face doing (Were they expecting you)? Ask their name and take in some basic information. What is their name? How does their voice sound? How old do they say they are? Do they tell you their real age immediately? Is this their house? Is this a public building? If it is their house, do they live here alone? Who with? If not their house, what is this building? Why is there no knob on the outside of the door? The interview can go as long as you see fit, answering any or all questions you need answered.
The beauty of this exercise is the pressure it takes off of your conscious mind to develop a character and it provides a mental space for you to find your character(s) and interact with them outside of your story. Conducting mental interviews with your characters while narrating aloud might seem slightly strange but, if you really want to be a writer, you have to be okay with being strange.
Comment Below: Who did you meet behind the door? How did the exercise work for you?
‘Instant world-building’ isn’t quite as thrifty as it sounds – it doesn’t involve rolling dice or scrambling names for towns – because it’s based on the simple idea of stream of consciousness.
As writers, we easily get bogged down in researching time periods or naming ships or deciding if Town A hates Town B and if it’s really Town C’s fault, but often we can be saved by something many of us loathe during the writing time: socializing. Instead of spending hours deciding if Town C is named This and Town B is named ThisThat, use rapid fire questioning to make the executive decision, with confidence as you’re with a potential reader. Bringing in another person and attempting to explain your work is a terrifying notion but, unfortunately, extremely helpful, and instant world-building buds from this.
When you talk with another person and explain to them about your work, it forces you to put your work in a perspective understandable to someone who doesn’t live in it with you. They don’t know all that backstory and detail and random information rolling around in your head. But, sometimes, neither do you, once you get passed government and religion and climate and bigger things like that.
‘Instant World-building’ uses your creativity without your inner questioning editor, because it depends on you creating details quickly and confidently. When your person asks, “What type of trees are predominant in this forest?”, you answer without hesitation, “Eucalyptus,” without hemming and hawing over if it’s biologically possible in that forest along the coast anyway because that’s something your inner editor can handle later.
The point is to answer as many random questions as possible, and take notes, to create your world ‘instantly.’ Your creative mind, your imagination, is doing the work for you. And then all that is left is auditing a bit later on – making sure you don’t have goldfish dominating a salt water lake or 19th century thinking in a 17th century town or palm trees by your northward town experiencing a blizzard, unless you have good back-end explanations for the break from our reality’s science (or history, etc).
Instant world-building makes the process fun and less pressured. You can sit for long sessions pulling out random details you’d never even think of, just because someone else’s mind is thinking of it. Invite a friend over, order a pizza, have some wine, maybe record the conversation so you don’t have to worry your memory, and get that world expanded!
A quick compilation of questions to get the session going:
Which are the fishing towns? The cold towns? The tropical?
What are the common illnesses?
Which fish are eaten most?
What’s the fancy cuisine like?
What are some more expensive purchases?
Which place exports this and imports that?
What are the main crops? Which crops grow where? Do some towns have crop monopolies?
Which animals are often hunted? Which are protected?
Is marriage secular, legal, religious? Who can marry whom? Is there an age barrier?
What are the community events like? How is community represented?
Do most people go to school? For how long? Is school meant more for certain people rather than others?
How ‘woke’ are the people? Are most people ignorant of current events, or is there a working news system?
What is poverty? Are there homeless? How is poverty and homelessness handled?
What is the majority species/race? Who are the minorities?
Prompt updates! Here are the latest bauble word prompts, added to baubles posted over the last few years. Have a Bits & Baubles suggestion? Contact us with the bauble number and your suggested bit!
“The James, at Lake & Honor, welcomes our luxury guests to this exclusive all-inclusive weekend. Be sure to check in at the front desk – we wouldn’t want any… oversights, would we?”
“Look at that.” “What?” “He’s… Well, he’s smiling.” “He was laughing only a few minutes ago.” … “We’ll have to find his fiance.” “What? Why?” “He was getting married, Miss Jones, I’m sure the bride will want to know he’s dead.”
“Has she done this in front of an audience before?” “What do you mean?” “Radio talents don’t always hold up on stage. I just want to be sure of my… investment.” “Don’t you worry, Mr. Connor, I’d say your investment is safe.” “It had better be, Mr. Reed. It’d better be.”
One of the other girls found her and assumed she had passed out drunk. The champagne bottle nearby was empty and no one questioned it until the governess tried to wake her up. She was dead and everyone panicked.
She paused as she reached out, the jellyfish pulling back from her. The group glowed with a soft blue light and shimmered as they floated around the room. She took a deep breath, partially to steady herself and partially to prove to herself that she wasn’t dead.
“It almost feels like your real wings, I’m sure.” His words echoed in her mind with every step as the golden feathers brushed against her bare skin, every touch a reminder of what he stole. It was a game, but she refused to play by his rules.
The smoky ring swirled over him and the deserted road, as if it knew he was the sole witness. Who else could he tell at two in the morning? No one. But he knew, from the twisting knot in his gut, that someone needed to know.
“What?” Her hand wavered over the girl’s ear. The girl shrugged and started to walk away, but she grabbed her arm. “What did that mean?”
The girl smiled at her and said, “I get it. She chose you for a good reason, didn’t she, Violet?”
Violet tightened her grip, searching for the meaning behind the girl’s words. She let go: “I don’t know what you mean.”
She wasn’t quite queen yet, but no one was particularly surprised by how eager she was to inherit the crown as her father became weaker and weaker. Her stepmother was furious but didn’t dare speak out for fear the princess’ wrath would fall on her too. Survival outweighed common sense in this court as everyone waited for the coming storm.
The energy throbbed around and through the outer hall, emerging at the back and dying off as it reached the front, with small sparks and a whine. The observer stood at the deck rail and carefully avoided the walls; they eyed the semi-hidden door in the smooth wall surface, taking a deep steadying breath.
“Let my hand be steady, my heart be strong, and my mind be firm.” The blade shone dimly as it wavered in her hands. With a deep breath she lowered her arms and gazed through the mist. “Today is a dark day. I’ll be fighting the fear before I even reach the battle.”
To the crowd, they were pretty bows. To her, they were part of a high-fashion straitjacket, and the people who forced her into it weren’t going to let her out any time soon.
The sheer fabric over her eyes did little to obscure their route through the building. She supposed it was purely ceremonial, until she noticed the other girls voluntarily keeping their eyes tight shut.
Stay tuned for more prompt updates!