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Describing persons in a way that conveys impressions to the reader

Discussion in 'Fanfic Discussion' started by Sesc, Jun 24, 2019.

  1. Sesc

    Sesc Slytherin at Heart Moderator

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    The problem -- and greatest challenge -- for writers in a technical sense is that it maps five senses in one. Everything a character hears, feels, smells, tastes and sees has to leave a similar impression in the reader, but exclusively through the latter sense. This can be complicated, because not everything we pick up as we move through the world is conscious, and easy to put into words.

    In particular, when we are talking with each other, about a million things that has nothing to do with the words spoken happens, that helps (and forces!) us to judge the person we are talking to. Typically there are signs in behaviour that mean certain things (it's a fun thing to do to watch people, in the train or bus etc. -- only seeing them, not hearing the conversation, and trying to infere what they might be talking about, just using body language). These can be used, when described in the story, to help get the reader (parts of) the impression the character in the story has.

    The idea of this thread is to collect those, and to discuss other techniques to help create such impressions where there are things that can't be put into words.

    For example, in the context of a conversation, a few obvious ones:

    • bending forward slightly --> eagerness
    • wide eyes, faster breathing, slight flush --> excitement, surprise, but also anger (at least for the latter two)
    • fidgeting, constant movement of hands etc. --> nervousness
    • avoiding to look into the eyes --> dishonesty
    etc.

    Feel free to add to the list if something pops into your head, I can update here, and maybe it'll help some writers.

    But how might things that can't be easily inferred from signs imparted on the reader? @Taure and I had a discussion in the context of a story, and I'll just copy the quote and his analysis, as well as my take; and a different quote for comparison. Would be interested in other opinions. Tangents allowed :p
     
  2. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    Copied from here. -Sesc

    This is characterisation on easy mode. We're told Pansy has a "cunning smile", which is just a way for the author to hide a character trait within a physical description (physically, there's no such thing as a cunning smile). Similarly, when Daphne and Pansy make eye contact the "temperature drops", even though we've given no real cue for what is causing this - Harry is receiving divine insight into these characters' attitudes to each other, without the reader really seeing through word or action how Harry is reaching those conclusions. And then the crowning jewel: a paragraph in which Pansy's core characteristic is told to the reader, all of it hanging off a single, innocuous piece of dialogue: "What relatives?"
     
  3. Sesc

    Sesc Slytherin at Heart Moderator

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    I contend this is fair way to characterise a new character in the story. The are other ways, but this one is not bad in any sense. You (or at least I) get often distinct impressions about people I just started talking to that I couldn't pin down to any objective thing. It's the sum of subconscious cues you pick up, and you can't relate those in a story, because neither you, nor the reader, knows them, so couldn't infer anything from it, even if they were written down.

    Is there an impression that can feel "gossipy", even if the words spoken where the only the ones above? I say yes. It's just that there is no direct, accessible, body-language sign that gives off the vibe "is a gossip". Or is there? Anyone noticed one?

    To contrast this with one of my own scenes:
    @Taure: Is this better? Worse? I'd say it's about the same -- the final inference is a leap, but it's Harry's leap, and the entire point of a story is to relay the thoughts of the character. So I'd argue regardless whether the conclusion is right or wrong, indeed, regardless of whether it follows or not, it's a fair way to characterise a person -- because we then see the person as the POV character sees her.

    With Pansy as much as here.
     
  4. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    A few choice quotes to include from our previous discussion:

    With respect to your scene, I think there's a big difference between it and the one with Pansy. It does precisely what I say above: it hangs Harry's impressions on words and actions, and then expands upon them:

    The speaker:

    - Has a determined facial expression,
    - Speaks with a resolute tone of voice,
    - Expresses an intention to work hard to achieve an aim.

    From these, Harry's impression is that she is someone who takes pride in her work, who won't rest until it's done. And that's proper characterisation.

    Now imagine you had written the scene like this:

    This is the equivalent of the Pansy scene: an impression without any basis in the words being spoken, the actions being taken, or the body language highlighted.

    As regards a person being a gossip, I maintain that the only real possible thing you can hang that on is observing the person engaging in the activity of gossip. People who gossip do not look any different to anyone else, or sound different to anyone else (except when they are engaged in gossip, when they will likely become animated). While it's possible to get the impression that a person is a gossip quite quickly, this will always be based on something they say or do - it doesn't just come out of the blue. It's normally most easily inferred from a person talking animatedly about the personal details of the lives of third parties who are not present.
     
  5. Zel

    Zel Professor

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    Since this scene is relying heavily on Harry's impressions, which are naturally influenced by his past experiences, why not compare it to similar incidents? A flash of insight, an old memory coming to surface as Harry watched her.

    Maybe something in her eye or expression reminded him of the groups of girls huddling in corners of his old school, hands over their mouths secretively as they enthusiastically exchanged stories about everyone else. Then how Harry felt (annoyance, anxiousness, whatever) when they turned and looked at him, then back to their little group, giggling to each other or talking loudly, maybe about his ratty clothes or lack of friends.
     
  6. Sesc

    Sesc Slytherin at Heart Moderator

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    I went through the first quote again, trying to note down my impressions.

    "cunning smile": This is nonsense in reality, yes. But then again a person with "stars in their eyes" or countless other phrases in literature don't exist either. The point is to convey the impression -- but even so, this could've been done better. There are smiles that hint at something more going on, some further angle, some deeper plan. That is what I imagined in that sentence. Pick a better descriptor, sure, but it sorta-kinda worked.

    "Harry thought the temperature fell a few degrees": I honestly don't see the issue. Naturally, you could write up ten details about their facial expressions instead or additionally. However, word-bloat? They look at each other and Harry thinks the temperature drops. It's not a divine insight, it's his thoughts. He could just as well think that tomorrow it's gonna rain or whatever. If this is what he thinks, this is what he thinks. It's neither objective, nor does it have to make sense outside his mind.

    And in terms of using this as a vehicle to show the reader what is going on -- or rather, what Harry thinks is going on -- I think this is very adequate. More is not always better.

    "gossip": I disagree that there is absolutely nothing there (or with the equivalent of my edited scene). Pansy asks clearly interested. I would not be interested, especially if the prior response came "coolly"; incidentally, because I hate gossiping.

    From that paragraph I took a certain eagerness that far exceeded simple small talk. Small talk is about superficial issues. All but interrogating someone where he lived exactly is not small talk.

    Funnily enough, the only problem I have here is with "cunning". Pansy is so blatantly obviously interested and digging for info that it's really not cunning. But because it's so obvious, Harry -- rightly or wrongly -- lumping her with gossiping people he encountered is not a stretch. (By the way, it says as much about him as about her: It now appears likely that Harry has never had someone interested in him in a genuine or caring way, and therefore directly leaps to the conclusion.)

    Which means I have found my "gossipy"-tell: It's nosiness. If you are too quickly too interested in too personal details, Imma stick you with the gossip crowd, yeah.
     
  7. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    "Cunning smile" - the amusing thing is that a smirk is the best contender for what this actually is. Author is attempting to do the classic "Slytherins sit around smirking to each other" session without using the word overly much.

    "Temperature drop" - I don't think you're quite on the same page as me as to what I am recommending. I am not saying "list out the body language components that justify the impression". I am saying that the character's impression needs to fit the interaction which they are observing. The author can't just attribute any characteristic they like to any character they like under the cloak of a character's impression. You can't have Voldemort rise out of the cauldron and then have Harry intuit that he seems like a jolly fellow. You can't have a character watch another person doing something completely nondescript and deduce, Sherlock-style, their essential character.

    This doesn't mean that you have to include an extensive description of how the character has reached their conclusion. It just means that what is occurring physically should be cohesive with what is occurring mentally - the two should reinforce each other. It's perfectly possible to show two characters at odds with each other through a single interaction.

    "Gossip" - the thing is, "clearly interested" is an impression too. The narrative is trying to hang one impression on another, but it can't be "turtles all the way down".
     
  8. Sesc

    Sesc Slytherin at Heart Moderator

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    Now we're reaching tomato-tomahto territory, though. "Interested" is an impression needing further clarification, but "determined" and "resolutely" is not? You can easily ask something in a way that shows disinterest or interest, but as opposed to "... said resolutely", "... said interestedly" just sounds broken, hence split off, and no adverb.


    But I'll try my hand at revamping the scene, taking into account what we discussed so far. Pansy Mk. II:
    So?

    Left the temperature drop out, because from flow perspectives, it's iffy anyway. Following that, you'd have to address Daphne vs. Pansy, really, and this scene's focus is Harry and Pansy.

    Anyone else feel free to comment and/or offer their versions.
     
  9. Garden

    Garden Chief Warlock

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    How do you balance this with avoiding overuse of dialogue tags?

    Do y'all just err on the side of too much dialogue tags ?
     
  10. Halt

    Halt 1/3 of the Note Bros. Moderator

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    One way I've dealt with this before is to give every line a tag in my first draft. Then, I include action beats. Finally, I start whittling away at tags that don't need it, either because the action tag better suggests it, or the dialogue and context work well on its own.
     
  11. Silirt

    Silirt Unspeakable DLP Supporter

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    In a two-person conversation, dialogue tags aren't infinitely necessary, but I don't really get people's objection to them, or the use of words apart from 'said'. I'll sometimes use them as an opportunity to provide additional information, as when I describe a new character ("Interesting" the dark-haired witch muttered) or when I'm showing someone's emotional state ("I see" Ron said, scratching his head.). I suppose the conversation may not need it, or I may be able to cut down on some of them, but the convention will just change again, within the next ten years at the least.
     
  12. Blorcyn

    Blorcyn Order Member DLP Supporter DLP Silver Supporter

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    I think this is a good general topic, but I'll move away from the specific review. This is something I've thought about in great detail, and although I'm no good at it in practice, I'm always on the look for it in something I read. With the exception of Chinese Webnovels (which have a wide stable of techniques by which they torture the eye and mind of a reader), I find it very difficult to read on beyond a good 'telling' (or editorial language, as I prefer).

    If I'm not hooked by the time I reach your ' "Dialogue, speech and conversation." Harry smiled savantly', we're probably not going to go much further.

    For reference, most of my thinking on the subject matter comes from The Writer's Eye: Observation & Inspiration for Creative Writers by Amy E. Weldon. She's an English Professor from Stateside, and her book deals with various topics and in typical academic style states nothing without referencing or quoting another body on it, which is ideal.

    1) Observing the world:


    To say the least about this, because it's the most time-intensive and thoughtful and obvious part. One of the biggest parts of good descriptive writing of both people and settings is to pay attention to those around you. When I was reading the review on the description of gossip and Sesc questioned whether it was a distinct phenomenon that could be identified, it struck a note in me. I absolutely see what he means, yet at the same time I can distinctly identify a spectrum of woman I'd call a 'gossip', just as I can (more clearly) for a dweeb, a jock or a class clown. Thinking about how you can identify an archetype for readers from media you consume and people you see in the world is fantastically helpful. For example, a jock is multifaceted and in many situations it won't be very apparent in a person - but, for them at least, throw a letterman jacket on them and it's very easy to pluck at that cultural resonance in someone's head, if you don't have a scene in which you can describe the behaviours they're going to display quickly.

    2) Images, painting a little at a time:

    An image is not just an image. An image should be a little quantum of emotion that you have been able to put into words. Suitably fluffy?

    More specifically, I think the challenge is to describe something in our stories as images "that have developed a life of their own in [your] senses". Like Sesc said previously, the challenge is to use one sense to evoke more than one sense.

    The images I'm most proud of writing, and most keen to read in other works, are always those that I feel captures the feelings I experienced when I first encountered something similar. For me, the reason I come back to HP is that sense of wonder at a magical world, and the feelings I got when Hagrid first appeared or when we first went to Diagon Alley. If you can tap into some emotion of the reader you've got the best chance of completely engaging them - and the best chance you've got is by tapping into something that really made you feel something.

    The tip regarding images and how to check if you've got something you can build into a story, is to think of the example from your own life you think could be useful, and just see if you can describe it frankly to another, and see if doing so triggers that same feeling in you or the person you're discussing it with (we have #write on IRC for example). To start with an image and an emotion for your story can be better than starting with an idea because you can build tone off an emotion much more easily than off an idea.

    Ok, so I think that's a really important distinction but I imagine it's come off a bit pretentious and you want the concrete so here's the bullet points:
    • Trust the reader - Language doesn't need to "fancy" to be effective. Wordsworth said, "A language arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings is a more permanent and far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it".
    - What I mean is: don't go purple and don't go on. A big emotion and a big image shouldn't need big words or big paragraphs. Conciseness is key, finding the simplest, quickest most essential way to express the essence of your image.
    - Better to describe your Gran's voice as 'sandpaper and smoke' and say she has 'gnarled' hands than say 'her hands were crooked with her fingers curled in towards the palm, veins crisscrossed their back, bulging out, worms that could start moving the very instant you turned your eyes away while her finger nails were yellow and split and her skin thin like papyrus, oversized for the muscles beneath, tenting and trailing after her whenever she reached for a sweet, or the grabber she kept at her chair at all times. Her palm was as coarse as the rest of her hand was thin and...

    If it's not the key thematic image of your character and story, you quickly suffer from marginal gains, while it compromises your pace and directs too much attention from your reader to something that they could get much, much quicker. Even if it is the keystone, don't linger. It's hard to cut the descriptions you really like, even if they don't serve the story. Be kind to your future self. Save yourself the heartache.

    • Sensory vs. editorial - a reskinning of that confusing aphorism "Show, don't tell" which I find to be much more intuitive when I think of it in these terms.
    When keeping your descriptions as concise and essential as possible, how do you find the most sensory, specific language you can? How do you recognise editorial language? Well, editorial language is what an editor does, what a director would to his actors, what a particularly angry Sey in WbA does: it tells you how to feel.

    - "Editorial language wants the reader to accept the writer's judgement of a description without giving the reader any of the sensory information on which that judgement is based and it shows up most often in adjectives and adverbs: beautiful, horrible, thrillingly, meaningfully"

    - It hands downs a ruling on the behaviour or picture in question from the writer's mind, into the readers. But this is bad because it strikes at the general and diverse rule of reading: everyone is bringing their own context to your words. You're going to lose them if you tell them your context and understanding of emotion. This may seem contradictory to my earlier spiel - but think if it like the general idea of colours. Your colour blue is not a Roman's colour blue, nor your neighbour's. You may agree to describe something with that word but the phenomenon is actually something different to everyone. Let them relate the scene to their own emotional repertoire, it's going to a very fine variance, but it is a real one.

    - In fact, the worst thing is that editorial language doesn't make you more specific. It makes you more vague. As Taure points out in the initial thread that spawned this, when you inform someone of your judgement without providing evidence you can create dissonance in your reader and many won't buy it.

    - If you tell someone that X is bitchy, but don't display it, you're going to jolt them out of the narrative. If you show X being bitchy on multiple occasions, your reader and author understanding will align in most cases, without you having to tell them what you're trying to create and possibly having the reader suffer an internal contradiction in their definitions of 'catty', 'bitchy' and 'playful' as regards to yours.
    - Peter Mendelsund says "Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader". The word river, he suggests, contains within it all the rivers you've experienced and read about, and a few words together can trigger all those ancillary associations that build a scene you can hang a hat off. It is easier to access those associations by making the reader think about the experience of being in a river than being told something is wet.
    - Example: The beautiful sunset over the lovely lake made her happy as she thought about all the wonderful things she had been blessed with in life and how much she loved her family, even if it was hard to tell them so sometimes. This may seem facetious it's so gratuitous but once you start looking and using adverbs and adjectives as a measure - this shit is everywhere.

    - What we need to do then is make things sensory. This part is actually quite simple: when you write 'the sunset made her happy'. Stop. Insert yourself opposite your character in that image and look at her behaviours and expressions. Decide what she'd be doing that would show she is happy that you could see. What evidence can you tender to the reader? Write that. Take away the judgement.

    - Lastly, as always, take a step back from your finished project for a good while and come back after you've forgotten the fugue state of writing. Parlticuarly, when it comes to despcrition, if you're too colse to the fsirt darft it's very difcfiult to spot whree you've decrsbied or not decrsbied thigns accaruetly. Our barnis are vrey good at autocotirrecng for waht we wnat to see, rthaer tahn waht's actaluly tehre.
    • Humans vs. Cliche - So apparently cliche comes from the french for 'click' which was the noise you'd get when you'd drop a load of moveable type into press at the same time - which you'd do for often repeated words or phrases where you kept all the letters together so you could throw it in and out quickly.
    - Cliche isn't always something to avoid. To be specific, we're talking about narrative here, of course dialogue can be filled with cliche depending on the character. Sometimes it can underscore an emotion because it treads familiar ground. A cliche has worn a groove into a particular sentiment or emotion.

    - However, in general, it's best to avoid cliche. If you're going to the effort of describing something, cliche undoes your work, precisely because of the above. It doesn't offer any unique insight into an event when described because it's so generic and broadly applicable. If you describe a wedding as 'the happiest day of their lives', you've missed a ripe opportunity to express something about the people, or the scene, or the importance of the event to the story. You can guarantee the eyes will skim over it and it will not land with any relevance. If you need it to land then don't use a cliched or hackneyed phrase.

    - This advice is particularly of relevance in fanfic. Popular tropes are cliches. Think about how you apply them so that the reader is reading your story, not all the other WBWLs.​

    "On the Amur steamer with me there was a prisoner in foot shackles who was going to Sakhalin for having murdered his wife. He had this six-year old daughter with him. I noticed that whenever the father went below to the lavatory from the upper deck, his escort and his daughter follow him, and while he sat in the lavatory, his daughter and a soldier with a gun stood outside the door. When he made his way back up the ladder, his daughter clambered up behind him holding onto the shackles. At night the girl slept in a pile with prisoners and soldiers."

    You get so much from this and never once are we told how to feel. You can project a lot onto that little girl about her circumstances, her feelings, her relationship with his father.

    He has another one about a child, just as good:

    "I remember once attending a funeral on Sakhalin. The wife of a settler who was away in Nikolayevsk was being buried. Four ex oficio convict pallbearers; the paymaster and I, in the capacity of Hamlet and Horatio wandering around the cemetery; a Circassian, who had been a border of the deceased and came out of idle curiousity; and a woman convict who came out of pity were all standing around the newly dug grave.

    "The woman had brought along the two children of the deceased, an infant and a four-year-old boy named Alyoshka who was wearing a woman's jacket and blue pants with bright patches on the knees. It was cold and damp, the grave had water in it, and the convicts were laughing. We were in sight of the ocean. Alyoshka peered into the grave with curiosity. He tried to wipe his chilled nose, but the jacket's long sleeves got in the way. While the grave was being filled in, I asked him, 'Alyoshka, where's your mother?' He made the gesture of a landowner who has been wiped out at cards, laughed and said, 'Buried!" The convicts laughed. The Circassian turned to us and asked what he was supposed to do with the children, since he's not obliged to feed them."


    Boom. So there's three things I like about this one. 1) It's a great example of how a great writer saw the world. These aren't from stories - these are from his letters about his travels to a place of misery to offer medical services to inmates. Look how observant he is of the environment and the people around him. 2) Chekhov being a dick, asking a kid about his deceased mother. 3) How the excerpt actually describes the setting and the atmosphere.

    3) Dialogue & scenes:

    • Symphonic dialogue - In John Truby's The Anatomy of Story, which is excellent, he is principally concerned with story structure, organic symbolism and the like. He does, however, have a couple of excellent sections on dialogue however and how to use it in service of describing a character.
    He points out two ends that people often turn dialogue toward - both of which would be better serviced by the events of the story or the narrative itself - which are dissecting the action of the plot rather than just getting on with it, and, reactionary discussion of character change. You could argue that these are just a function of the same problem. He advises to instead think of dialogue as a layered symphony of different sections of different weights. He actually advises compartmentalising things and layering in below as you revise.

    - Melody; Story dialogue: This is the story expressed through talk. It is talk about what they characters are actually doing. In this case action does not speak louder than words. This is where the characters talk about the main action line of the plot, and can progress the plot for a short period of time before the next event. This is people expressing their desires and the usual combatative talk between people with conflicting desires (there's not much too much to gain regarding description here, I suppose).

    - Harmony; Moral dialogue: This is where you begin to describe the character by their speech and the values which they express. Again returning to a gossip, this is the way in which you get to hint at that characterisation by their gossiping that aren't just plot-relevant and, also, their cavalier attitude to the secrets and feelings of others. In this section, you need to make it frank - but the key is that you're showing these traits inside the speech marks, rather than outside them with an action tag. Here, either the character themselves or the character opposing them, highlights the values character 1 is expressing by support or opposition. Think Dumbledore and McGonagall discussing the suitability of the Dursleys as people, how it moves from the plot reasons for it to their moral reasons for and against it, respectively.

    - Leitmotif; Repetition and variation: This is where you might stick in the character 'tagline' or the unique cliche (I know, I know. Shutup.) that will become their thing. This is the "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" or the "it wasn't just business to me." This is how you hammer home, over repeated encounters, the character's key traits and their manner of interacting with that world, that you set out earlier in more detail. Repetition of their moral position in brief is the key to making someone unique and identifiable. If they don't have a unique perspective - why are they in your story?
    • Scenes, and setting place - Choosing a setting, for many of us, has already been done to an extent. We're writing in an established universe. But, still, within that universe you have to think about how your character is being presented by the environment in which we're seeing them. Thinking about the gossip again - can you really show who they are if you put them in a one-on-one with Harry in the library? If so, how and what can the library offer you that nowhere else can?
    Both scene construction and setting have to do with consequence. By the very nature of events, it's going to have to carry a lot of weight, and if the reader doesn't have a good grasp of space and time it can be difficult for them to adequately follow the events of the scene. I'm sure we all have examples in our head, of the time you were reading an opening that didn't explain what and where it was and you had to keep re-evaluating your mental image while the characters talked about the Dark Lord and his magic dildo or whatever, because you had to keep filling in where they were - oh, they're in a castle hall. Oh, ok, they're seated at a feast. Oh, ok, it's actually just them having a private dinner. Oh, ok, they're actually being sucked off by an AU submissive!Snape.

    - Place: Deciding when to describe your place, knowing when to stop describing it and figuring out how to keep it brief while at the same time making it weighty is a function of experience, I expect. However, what you're trying to do is to reflect character in setting, to show challenges to character in setting and to use symbolism to hint at more about the world and the characters than you can with pure dialogue and narrative (without coming across as verbose and editorial).

    - For example, if you were bringing a gossip to Harry in the library - perhaps she's learnt something so juicy that she can't wait to share it, and ruin the esteem of some other character. Perhaps the library and Mrs. Pince represent a challenge to her ability to gossip, while also demonstrating her commitment to delivering the scoop. Maybe some book is titled How to guard your secrets from malicious intruders. Maybe she spills Harry's inkpot over his notes on wandless magic - try as he might, he can't lose himself in magic and ignore the social challenges of his peer-group. Lastly, maybe the narrow rows of the bookshelves and his decision to sit himself in the farthest corner hems him in, while she looms over him. Him seated, her standing. The library traps him, adrift in a sea of words, just as she does.
    - Scenes: "If images are the building blocks of a piece of writing, scenes are the next size larger". They should have a beginning, middle and end of their own and use the images within to show and describe a wider context. This is perfect for character description - because the character can be the common thread through a collection of images. They can tie it all together by showing a facet of themselves, like the gossip above.

    - Often, when layering scenes together, or creating one, the problems come from not knowing enough about when it/they are happening, both in terms of setting but also in terms of how time is flowing through them. This fluffiness translates to the reader and creates a morass. Specifity is what we want.

    - The two layers of time in a story are 1) the immediate and 2) the ongoing. The first is apparent. The second refers to the story world that is traveling on in the vicinity of the events we're currently experiencing, and both applies to the whole world, but also to the plot. It is the orientation between the immediate and the ongoing that you need to specify and pin down as you're writing to allow the reader to avoid the quagmire of not knowing how quickly/when events are progressing.

    - In terms of putting it into practice: Scenes need action that allows an intuitive measure of time, regardless of what that is. For the length of a conversation, having Ron and Dobby chat in the kitchen while the house-elves prepare a sandwich vs. a feast gives you a very different impression of time. Obviously, best practice is not a singular action. While that's going on, Ron could drink a hot cup of tea, and Dobby could darn a sock, while the other house-elves give the sock a wary distance.
    - This is not a precise art, but if you're considering it while you write your scene it will translate through and that extra effort will be rewarded by character engagment. I think difficulties often arise when it's not even thought about.
    - A good sense of time and the frenetic energy level of a character says a good amount about them.
    - However, most importantly in terms of character description, how can you focus on a character if all your mental effort is turned to figure out what's happening well. A well paced chapter is fertile ground for reader engagement with your characters and all the stuff that actually excited you when you were writing it.
    --
    Right, well that was tiring. I'll come back and read through and probably edit lots over the rest of the day. I hope it's not entirely the ramblings of a madman. I hope there's food for thought in it.

    Edit:-ed all the typos and paragraph problems away.

    Edit 2: I'm three posts away from 700, how annoying. I'll go review some things and we'll just say this was 700, yeah? Cheers, mate.
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2019
  13. Niez

    Niez Second Year

    Joined:
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    And I, just to juxtapose, will try to be very specific to the example discussed.

    When it comes to other character’s personalities, traits, motivations… the basic rules apply. You can tell or you can show, but if you tell you have to explain how your limited P.O.V character inferred whatever it is he/she knows.

    Using the previous case, in which Harry concludes that Pansy is a gossip (please forgive the iffy writing):

    1. Show:
    ***
    “Pansy Parkinson, at your service. I can’t say anyone was expecting you to be in Slytherin, or you know, to even exist.” She turned interested eyes to him. “Where have you been all these years?”

    “I lived with relatives until a month and a half ago,” Harry said. “For… security reasons.”

    “Really?” She leaned towards him. “What relatives?”

    Harry shifted around awkwardly.

    “You wouldn’t know them.”

    She smiled at him, showcasing her pearly white teeth.

    “Come on Harry, we’re housemates... share a little.”

    Knowing that he would have to either answer or come off as rude, Harry swallowed.

    “My mother’s sister. Muggles.”

    Pansy’s pupils widened, and her smile twitched.

    “Oh,” she breathed, “that must have been horrible for you.” But her eyes were no longer focused on him, but rather on something behind his back. Which was odd, because behind his back there was only the wall.

    [Next Morning at breakfast]

    Draco stomped to his side.

    “You were raised by muggles?!”

    Harry cursed; he was going to kill Pansy.

    ***

    This impression would ideally then be reinforced by several scenes in which Pansy is seen exhibiting ‘gossipy’ behaviour.


    1. 2). Tell:
    ***
    During the course of the meal Harry could tell that Pansy had half an ear on what the first years were talking about and the other half on the whispered discussion between two third-year students a few chairs to her left. She also had the tendency to ask questions that were a little bit too personal in nature whenever she deigned to enter the conversation. Harry resolved to stay away from her, as he knew the type. There had been a girl in his primary school who had delighted in spreading all sort of terrible gossip around him, and he did not much want to repeat the experience.

    ***

    This is faster and probably an easier route, but it also opens the possibility of Harry being wrong, since Pansy’s ‘gossipness’ is not something that the reader concludes, but rather something that Harry himself does. I would go this route personally when the trait illustrated is unimportant, or the character completely residual, only there to add 'flavour'.


    The problem I think arrives when there is a disconnect on what the reader can see (pansy being interested in Harry’s relatives) and what Harry concludes (that Pansy is a total gossip). But that is a problem of execution IMO.
     
  14. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    I have just remembered that there is a five second video which summarises my point neatly:



    Just as you cannot have a character announce how they feel, nor you can have a character announce how other characters feel.
     
  15. Salsa

    Salsa Seventh Year

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    I think both telling the readers something and showing them have a place in the story.

    In this case, for impressions.

    This isn't from a story, just some shit I typed up.

    Inspired by Halt's writing advice thread.

    "Daniel was angry."

    "Daniel's fists curled, knuckles turning white. His nostrils flared, skin taking a red tinge. He slightly bared his teeth."

    Now, I'll admit I'm an amateur writer, but I think the second one stands out more. First one is the sorta thing you skim over I think. However;

    This is a person looking at a serial killer.

    "I felt a chill like winter upon me, my gut lurching. I clenched my teeth, skin bone-white, staring out the window wide-eyed as John Johnson drove me away, to the underside of La Jolla pier."

    "The moment I got in the car, I was on edge."

    I feel like both can be used for impressions, but, as @Blorcyn brilliantly said, both have a place in different niches. Fully describing a character's actions, how they feel etc. is useful for fulfilling prose.

    "Daniel was angry" doesn't quite have the same impact as "Daniel's fists curled, knuckles turning white. His nostrils flared, skin taking a red tinge. He slightly bared his teeth."

    I feel the second just works better for gripping a reader's attention. It's more impactful.

    On the other hand, with our serial killer John Johnson, let's compare the quotes again.

    "I felt a chill like winter upon me, my gut lurching. I clenched my teeth, skin bone-white, staring out the window wide-eyed as John Johnson drove me away, to the underside of La Jolla pier."

    Doesn't this just feel cumbersome? And it's also vague. You don't quite get the same impact as the one with Daniel.

    On the other hand:

    "The moment I got in the car, I was on edge."

    Doesn't this just speak so much more than the cumbersome two lines above? And the message is delivered so much more concisely, so much more powerfully.

    I think intricate descriptions belong in certain places, simple descriptions in other places. The former runs the risk of word bloat, the latter runs the risk of bland writing.
     
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2019