Using Descriptions to Enhance Theme and Mood - 2019-10-19 - Eleanor Roth

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  • 20 attending

Intro (Jenny)

Workshop on Descriptions (Ellie)

  • Tim (NewMexicoKid) - since 2003 - Fantasy - Book of Lost Dreams
  • Jenny (Gwen Tolios) - 11th NaNo - SF/Fantasy -> Contemporary Romance
  • Sam McAdams (samcadams) - X NaNos - NaNo rebel for the last several years; this year will do the traditional writing from scratch
  • Daniel (DJRM) - 10th year doing NaNo - member of the Journey since days of the Pledge - SF/Fantasy; this year SF retelling of Alice of Wonderland
  • Jim Ronan - first NaNo - Children's books/YA
  • Leslie - aware of NaNo for a long time; last year first time all the way through because of the Journey; non-fiction last year; YA this year. What little tricks do I not know?
  • Annette - not writing anything, but like to read mysteries
  • Meifong - first time - memoir - any information is good
  • Tanasha - (anitairons) NaNo for 4-5 years - SF/Fantasy/YA - write the action and dialogue first; then when reading, scanning description; have been making myself read it so I can get better at it.
  • Sherri - first NNo - Romance
  • Cassie - first NaNo - fantasy -
  • Lee - first NaNo - not sure on genre (lots of ideas) - here to learn and find some motivation to get going (and some accountability; easily procrastinating)
  • Sarah (icicleferret) - NaNo since college (not every year) - probably 10-11 times - Have won every time seriously have tried it. Generally like to write soft SF or Fantasy (science fantasy).
  • Barbara Lipkin (first NaNo five years ago) - just published fourth book; will be in the Local Author's forum Nov 2nd - writes mysteries.
  • Elaine Fisher (fishmama) - 7th attempt at NaNo (6 wins) - most challenging one (others were experiments with a lot of different genres; many became short stories in the anthologies) - This NaNo will do my memoir - true, very emotional story (happened 6 weeks ago) where my husband nearly died from a widowmaker heart attack (had triple bypass surgery); four days after that went to our son's wedding in San Francisco. A friend of his at the tennis court did compressions. Very emotional. Will be a different experience.
  • Catherine - 10th NaNo - have won every year. Have done mostly fantasy in the past with a historical bent. This year is a historical novel (maybe magical realism). I like being in a different world in historical novels; want to be there without putting people to sleep.
  • Amelia - first NaNo - genre = Romance-mystery
  • Bonnie - me-n-Jesus - 8 times, going for 5th win - (won hand writing) - will try to type at least part of it this years. Have counted Journaling words in previous wins; this year will only count story words.
  • Todd Hogan - 9th NaNo - Love learning about the character - many genres (whatever strikes my fancy)
  • Ellie - 6th NaNo (won once) - Love the community of NaNo; love being more productive, but 50k is a huge reach.
    • Agency assistant at Browne & Miller Literary Associates
    • read queries and client things, including developmental editing
    • Book reviewer and blogger for Booklist (trade magazine) - YA/middle grade
    • student at the UCLA Extension writer's program
    • Futurescapes orkshop alumna
    • BA in English

Questions

  • Do you add description in afterwards (write story first)?
  • How to decide what to include in the descriptions
  • What is the limit between descriptive writing and purply prose
  • How do you keep description short enough to give enough information and not put in too much
  • Sensory description: do you notice smells
  • Similes, metaphors, onamatapeias -- still appropriate for YA?
  • How do you manipulate description to change the mood?
  • Want to figure out how much descriptive text to put in.
  • How to make descriptions occur more naturally and add more detail to them.
  • Hard to describe sounds (due to allergies); what is too much description
  • When is enough enough? People don't want to read a lot of descriptions but you need to have something to set the time and place.
  • For character description, instead of describing things, hints, sprinkling them all the way through from behaviors and actions. How can we sprinkle in descriptions? Pairing descriptions with actions is good; and we'll get into: is he tall in a way that is threatening or sexy? Is he filling the doorway (that you want to run out of? or oooh?)
  • How to avoid putting people to sleep with description.
  • Feel that my descriptions are immature, not the right tone, not conveying what I want.
  • Emotion is a huge part of any story; how can description trigger mood and emotion in the reader.

Using Descriptions to Enhance Theme and Mood

  • Why this topic? Feedback I find myself giving: we're in a empty room with headless people talking (don't know what people look like or feeling)
  • What is tone?
    • feeling or attitude of the narrative voice (separate from personality)
    • it creates mood
    • the same physical setting people will have different attitudes to it
      • e.g., football stadium (some people think it "holy"; others are terrified by it)
    • any feeling is a feeling

Think of movies

  • Movies do this with tools like camera angle, music, lighting
  • Low angle shot builds power
    • e.g., Batman Darkest Knight (joker says "Hit me!")

Dutch Angles clip

  • See the intentionality of the story writer
  • Setting, characters look the same; tools to do the same effect
  • Unsettling moment
  • Identify the moment where something big happens
  • Mission Impossible - Ethan Hunt arrives at a restaurant in Prague
    • Boss thinks that Ethan has murdered his own team
    • climax of Act 1
  • Shot 1: medium close up (MCU) - eye level - single
  • Shot 2: Kittridge: MCU
  • Shot 3: see characters connect (WIDE profile two shot framing)
  • Kittridge passes the documents to Hunt
  • Ethan asks: why was there another team?
  • Kittridge lies
  • Dutch angle: the moment when something is wrong and the visual changes
    • makes the viewer seem uneasy
  • Ethan points out the other agents in the room
  • shots 4 and 5: two different dutch angles
    • shot 4: eye level - we can empathize (Ethan)
    • shot 5: low angle - villainy (Kittridge)
  • Becomes claustrophobic - tension is racheted
  • Switching from normal to extreme framing -> larger shift in the scene



  • Part of the power of the impact of the special technique is that things have been normal till now; this cues the reader to expect something. Stephen King does this really well. Moments when you are so uneasy but nothing has happened yet. He doesn't have to tell you it is a spooky scene.
  • You can transform a reader by NOT OVERDOING IT.

Writers

  • Word choice
  • Sentence structure
  • Imagery
  • setting
  • It's not what you say but how you say it
  • Sensory descriptions help the reader connect with a character and get in the story (see, hear, touch, taste, feel)
  • In the agency, in every genre, the highest praise: it is compulsively readable
  • What contributes most to the feeling is getting the reader in the story and invested.
  • Don't just describe the physical setting.
  • When we're bored of descriptions is that it is a laundry list of descriptions.
  • Is the coffee comforting? Why is it important? What does it convey? What does it tell me about the character?
  • Smell of bacon will be different for a corporate fat cat vs. someone starving.
  • This is NOT about melodrama and being obvious.
    • Happy person in the rain; sad person in the sun
    • filter environment through tone

Thrill me: essays on fiction, Benjamin Percy

  • Ellie's favorite book
  • Never give us a generic description. Show us a new space but through a particular lens: your character's point of view, modified by mood. Every time we jumpt o a new setting, we need to feel immediately stabilized. Make it action, make it come alive.
  • Elevate the description to be really active and mood setting.

Passages from different books

  • Everything that rises must converge by Flannery O'Connor
    • doesn't sound like a place the character likes
    • sky has a dying violet sunset
      • make your description fit the tone and mood of the character
      • think about the mood of the character and how they feel
    • grubby children sitting in the dirt vs. playing in their yards
  • Todd: Flannery O'Connor was primarily a short story writer; this was a very punchy description, more apt for a short story than a longer book?
  • Ellie: In both cases it is about balance. Not suggesting this level of word smithery in every instance. Sometimes a sunset just cues a reader to the time. But there are moments where you can slow down and describe the scene.
  • Defamiliarization - Gabriel Garcia Marquez is known for
    • scene: a town is a utopian, isolated place where gypsies show/sell interesting technologies
    • what happened in this scene: a guy touches ice for the first time
    • never says it was cold
      • "it's boiling"
      • largely it defamiliarizes something that to most of us is a very familiar thing
      • underline the words creating the tone: holy scriptures, intoxicated, delirious, ...
  • Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
    • no description is in this one
    • father is really angry (only adjective not in dialogue)
    • strategy isn't always more description, more adjectives; sometimes from minimalism tells the character has a real sense of detachment that describes the tone of the character and his memory
  • Jenny: Main character is autistic; would this strategy of detachment work for a character who isn't?
  • Ellie: Yes. Depends on that character's relationship is with the memory.
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    • In this scene, description creates a sense of connection with the narrator. The narrative style up until this point has been very tradition; this gets borderline experimental.
    • we feel exhausted; not super coherent thought
    • no capitalization; characters' voices muddling together
    • character is drug-addled, coming off of a high
    • the description can diverge to create a certain mood or effect
  • Drugs and narrator's bewildered, panicked state of mind infect the page.
  • Thriller syntax: chapters are short, paragraphs are shorter, controls the speed of moving through the story.
  • Have the reader feel what the characters do.
  • Length of sentences is one way to do that.

Three versions of the same paragraph from Ellie's novel

  • 1st draft: chapter had 2500 words
    • Tim Akers' note: no sensory description in the chapter even though there were physical descriptions; no sense of how the character felt
  • 2nd draft - longer passage, starting to get a little creepier
    • projects barely conscious
    • you can hear a bit of sound
  • Futurescapes feedback
    • Emily King: some nice descriptions are in there but hissing of automatic doors is really aggressive; can you do more of that? Soft brushing doesn't sound as negative.
    • DonWong Song: I don't care about your character yet
  • 3rd draft - longer yet
    • lot more words (yay for NaNo)
    • process of thinking of how to describe this place and make it feel creepy -- very helpful
    • tone words help
      • super-secret compound but they've grown lazy: only two attendants
      • barely conscious, starched, distingush them to their handlers (dehumanizing)
      • quiet, corase whispering, hissing, intense lighting, scurrying, clinging
      • not a positive space

Group exercise

  • Five images
  • Come up with: what are some different people who might be in this setting
    • Principal: excited because it's the last day of his year as Principal
    • janitor: really proud of how it looks
    • new kid: isn't sure where their classroom is, what will happen next, intimidation
    • Principal who just heard a gun shot
    • claustrophobic prison for someone who wants to be outside
    • alumni member: someone back at their high school
      • bullied at high school
      • peaked at HS (remembering glory days)
  • Light at the end of the tunnel
    • describe the way the principal is walking towards the light in a trance
  • blood red or cherry red
  • night cityscape
    • Spiderman
    • tourist
    • commuter
    • lost child
    • celebrity on a press junket
  • Episode of Glee: someone has arrived in NY who wants to be a Broadway star -> working as a waitress
  • They will feel different about the sounds, lights
  • Church:
    • widow
    • mourner
    • murderer who is feeling guilty
    • priest
    • floors before the wedding
    • someone who is pious vs. someone who walked away from faith
    • architect
  • Different might describe completely different things (architect looking up vs. someone looking only at their feet)
  • prairie with buffalo
    • native Americans
    • bicyclists
    • tourists getting too close when playing Pokomon Go
    • biologist
    • someone on the Oberland trail
    • fracker
    • lost hiker
  • Some might find this exciting and beautiful; others might find it boring
  • Dread the chiggers
  • grocery store
    • overwhelmed before Thanksgiving
    • trying to keep kid quiet in the cart
    • health food nut
    • sone you have a panty on your head (Raising Arizona)
    • dissatisfied employee
    • someone who only has $2.56 in their pocket
  • A man imprisoned for decades was overwhelmed by options at a grocery store (when he went in, there was just onen).

Exercise

  • Pick one scene and write a descriptive chunk
  • What would your character notice and how would they describe them?
  • Prairie

I stepped through the timeway. One moment the world around me was glass, austere, ordered, the very air conditioned and clean. The next I felt a brisk, hot breeze lift and tussle my hair. My feet stumbled a little as I settled into the lumpy earth beneath the tall, golden prairie grass that whipped around me, driven by the wind.

Off in the distance were large, slowly moving brown objects. I did not know what kind of animals they were.

Suddenly I became aware of a sharply pungent scent. I looked down. I had stepped into a still squishy, brown substance. Not mud. I grimaced.

This wasn't Kansas City. Where were the Oxford Hotel? The brick lined streets? The horse-drawn carriages? My colleagues who were sent ahead to prepare the way?

I looked around. Every where I turned there was no end to the damned prairie grass. It covered everything from my immediate surroundings to the faraway hills.

Some of the large, brown animals were suddenly much closer.

  • School hallway
    • new student - described the glaring light, the mandatory shoes they have to wear, the clicking shoes, the metal lockers with built in combinations, red lockers with white columns that stretch like nightmares that lead to nowhere
    • principal - he hated seeing the school like this (empty); he preferred it filled with rowdy children
    • new teacher - stiff pumps echoing off of the hallway floor; peeking into one of the classrooms; coffee gets on the floor
  • The movie Signs - very tense, threw popcorn when the dog barked
  • Times Square
    • young prostitute who didn't want to be one: tried to blend into shadows that don't exist, knowing the pimp was in the crowd watching her
  • Sometimes when we're drafting, not everything needs to be described; slowing down can be a way to tell the reader something is important; or stabilizing the reader in a new setting. Description can tell the reader how the character feels in their space; then when there is dialogue or action, they feel stronger to me b
  • Grocery store
    • ghost whose house was torn down and they built a grocery store on top; depressed: how do you haunt the grocery store? Nobody actually lives there, everyone is gone by a certain time; no one to focus hiss ghostly rage on.
  • Church
    • stop and go; inside of the church is silent (you could be shot in here and nobody would know)
    • cathedral churches are cold inside
    • reading a prayer; church is cold, mist rising (could be a ghost); buried my head in the hymnal, thinking I would feel warm, protected, but I only felt lost
  • Compound is temperature controlled, humidity controlled; the way different characters feel inside tells you if they are good (feels chilled) or bad (AC feels good). Emotional response/thematic response of how they interact with it.
  • There is a movie: Orange comes on screen, somebody dies? Harbinger of death.
    • you can use description in a thematic way (what you give importance to)

Q&A

  • How much is too much? Purple prose is when it is too obvious. You're resting in your own genius but the reader doesn't care. Too obviously infused. When it becomes special, when you're cueing the reader into something--that's better. It also is a functional of personal style. E.g., Tanya French makes the woods so scary. Find your own rhythm.
  • Layering it in over multiple drafts -- this is natural to do. Sometimes slowing down--it's not wasted words to think about how a character feels; helpful free write to know the character's space.
  • Literary devices with descriptions - this works
  • What to include:
  • make it special
  • e.g., whenever they see a door with a certain kind of lock -> invokes a memory
  • Finding the right descriptions that feel natural
  • Where to sprinkle descriptions in?
  • There is a Writing Excuses episode about writing fight scenes, blocking and staging.
    • The camera starts at one end of the hall and moves backwards; you get to see the setup of where the rooms are and what's in them; and the reader knows what the set up is as the fight progresses.
    • You have to establish the space first; then you don't have to slow down the fight scene to show this.
  • Depends on genre too. Pet Cemetary--takes so long to have someone get hit by a truck on the road; but you've been primed (foreshadowing). Chekov's gun--you don't want it to be too obvious.
  • Do you have time to describe what they notice? Does the character notice it? Do they have time to notice it? Slow-mo, move-in focus. Does the reader need to know it? If you slow down to describe the thing, you're slowing down to do it; how does that impact the mood and tone for the reader?
  • Q: Many people like to make their environment match the mood (raining at a funeral). How do you make your scene match your mood without having it rain at a funeral?
    • A: Stephen King reference: Revival has a preacher turned mad scientist; climax has to do with lightning; builds for many chapters that there is a storm coming (in the news). The finale with the evil scientist in a cabin in a hill with lightning doesn't feel stupid. You can pre-cue the storm so that it feels more natural.
    • A: If someone is sad, it feels wrong that it is so beautiful and I am at my kid's funeral. They can filter that setting through the feelings of the character. You can control the weather in your scene. Depends on the effect you're going for.
  • Describing things in unexpected ways can yield striking imagery.
  • Ellie (professional reader) netgalley website