Creating a work of enduring value can be a difficult but rewarding process.
Most writers, at some point on their writing journey, discover that transferring the world that is in their mind, into a story that engages and excites readers can be a frustrating experience.
In this article, you will discover how Stephen King approaches this problem and how you can apply simple techniques that will transform your novels and help to create a magical world for your readers.
Many famous writers have tried to sum up the writing process in short, witty, and intelligent sound bites, but none seem to be more successful that horror writer Stephen King. In fact, his book, On Writing, seems to be an endless treasure trove of short quotes that cut to the heart of what it means to be a writer.
King provides us with the perfect analogy for writing when he writes:
“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”
So what is King saying?
The best way to think about writing is a process of transferring an image from your mind to the mind of the reader. As a writer, you conjure a mental picture of a scene; a location, populated by characters who say and do things. You can see the characters, the location, and the action. It is crystal clear.
Your job is to take this image and put it in the mind of the reader.
The problem you face is in taking the crystal-clear image from your mind and transferring it to the reader’s mind.
This is where many inexperienced writers go awry. The
instinctive approach is to describe the picture from your mind’s eye in as much
detail as possible. The theory being that the words on the page will conjure
the same image in the mind of the reader.
And why not? This makes sense; the more detailed your
description, the better the image you produce … right?
Actually, this is a bit of a rookie mistake.
The result is that, if your main character has blue eyes, the inexperienced writer will make them “piercing blue” or an “unusual shade of bright blue” or a “shade of blue that would bring the angels from the heavens”.
The problem is that, although the words of the English language are pretty good at describing stuff, they are nowhere near as detailed as the mind of the reader. The reader’s mind is full of detailed images, which go far beyond any written description.
As soon as you, the writer, try to pin down the description of an object, person, or location, you are moving in the wrong direction.
The key here is the opposite of what you think.
Less is more.
What experienced writers know is that their job is not to describe an object/person/location in detail but, instead, to give the reader just ENOUGH description to get the reader’s mind engaged and working, just enough description to allow the reader to recall a stored image within his or her mind.
As a writer, you are not trying to transfer the exact image in your mind but, instead, get the reader’s mind to build its own picture.
Let’s go back to those blue eyes.
What’s wrong with just saying they are blue?
What happens when you say blue is that you leave a gap. The reader’s mind needs more than blue. The result is that the reader’s mind jumps to fill in the gap. It uses its library of images, all intensely detailed, to conjure a suitable set of blue eyes. This set of blue eyes will go far beyond anything you could have described.
Take this example:
The old man knocked on the door.
I am betting you have already formed a picture in your mind’s eye. It is probably a vivid picture of an old man knocking on a door.
Now try this:
The old man knocked on the blue door.
Another layer of detail forces you to reassess and reform your picture. Now the door is blue. The shade of blue and the old man will be different for each reader, but who cares?
The old man knocked on the battered blue door.
Again, another picture. The door has changed. The words have forced your mind to add in detail that was not there with the previous sentence.
What about this:
The old man knocked on the battered blue door. The ancient paint peeling away in large strips, the rotten wood clearly visible beneath.
Once again you are forced to reimagine your perception of the old man and the door. Your mind will have focused further, adding more layers.
But which is best?
It all depends on the scene.
If your scene calls for any old man to be knocking on any old door, with neither the man nor the door having any real relevance to the plot, then the first example is the best. It allows the reader to paint a picture without any limitations. You give the reader just enough to paint the picture but not so much that you are manipulating the image.
However, let’s say that the door being old is important. In fact, the age of the door is a key plot point. Perhaps this is a portal to another dimension. The door shows its true age, not the age of the building. In this situation, you would want to add in more detail. You might find that battered is enough, though perhaps the peeling paint is inadequate.
The important concept here is that the plot and context will dictate the amount of description that is required.
In short, enough is enough.
How Much Description?
Many writers shy away from writing enough description. I am not suggesting that you have pages of flowery prose, but that you have adequate description to allow the reader to ‘paint’ a picture of the characters and locations in their mind’s eye.
Stephen King describes writing as an act of ‘telepathy’. He said the job of a writer was to pass a picture of a scene from the writer’s brain into the brain of the reader.
You have to get the images that are in the writer’s mind into the mind of the reader. The way this is done is via character and location description. There is no need to go over the top with these, but it is important that you give the reader enough to paint a picture.
As we have seen, you must also be aware that any words a writer uses will never be as powerful as the reader’s imagination. If you say, ‘door’ it will conjure an image in the reader’s mind. ‘Green door’ will conjure a different image, ‘green door with flaking paint and brass door handle’, still another image. The key is to use just enough words to allow the reader to paint a better picture than you are describing.
The reader is constantly painting a picture of the book’s current scene in their mind’s eye. You must also be constantly updating this picture, giving the reader enough information to ‘see’ the picture as you wish. This sounds a little complex, but the technique is actually pretty simple.
Here are a few rules:
- If a location changes then add a new description of the location. This means that if a character walks from one place to another, then you need a new description.
- If a new character enters a scene, add a description of that character.
This throws up the question of how much description; again, there are a few simple rules…
If the character/location is minor, then add a small amount of description. The waiter who makes a fleeting appearance delivering a meal might simply be ‘the waiter’. However, if the character is going to linger in a scene, but only one scene, then you will need a couple of lines. In this case, the waiter might become ‘the waiter was tall, perhaps six foot with neatly cut black hair, but with bushy eyebrows’.
If the character/location is major, then you need a large amount of description. As a general rule of thumb, if a character will be in more than one scene then they/it needs to be treated in this fashion. The best way to approach this type of character/location is to initially provide a couple of lines of description, then as appropriate, continue to layer in an occasional line of description, this way the reader can build an increasingly complex picture in their mind’s eye.
Writing description is always a balance. The reader will be constantly creating an image in their mind. They will do this whether or not you are providing description. The problem arises when the description in the reader’s mind is so different from that of the writer that the story starts to be confusing for the reader.
The job of the writer is simple – you must provide sufficient description to keep the reader’s view of the world close enough to that of the writer to avoid confusion.
In other words, writers must be telepathic.