The journey from world building to prose is a long and twisted one. We know what a specific plaza in a specific city looks like. We have all of the elements: weather, sound, objects, people, etc. But unless we put them together in some kind of rational order and present them in a logical sequence, all we have are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered on a table. We need to employ structured descriptions to allow the puzzle pieces to fall into place.
Collecting The Pieces
In our first draft we’re probably going for speed. We don’t want to stop and edit too much. There’s a lot of stuff percolating up in that mind of ours and we need to spill it onto the page. We wind up with something like this:
The waves rolled violently against the dock, splashing over the mooring lines of a three-mast ship anchored in port, covering them in foam. Merchant booths lined the far end of the plaza that bordered the dock. Some people took shelter from the rain in the booths, but many stood on the dock looking out to sea. Two large frigates sat across from one another on the horizon, battered by the roiling water. Storm clouds blacked out the sun as the ships fired their cannons at one another. The people on the dock were dressed too lightly for such a fierce storm. They didn’t even have cloaks to pull around them to fend off the elements. The torrential rain pounded against the marble fountain in the center of the plaza.
Yep, definitely first draft material. Of course, when we’re writing the first draft it usually doesn’t come across that way. Everything makes perfect sense when we’re writing it.
Because it’s our world. We have the entire story, world, plot, characters, and critical events in our minds as we type. Of course it makes sense to us. We know everything. When we read our prose our minds will fill in the gaps for us.
If we were just writing for ourselves this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But we’re not. We’re writing for other people. To make sense of this mess [by the way, you realize your first draft is a mess, right? Don’t worry. It always is.] we need to take a step back and put ourselves in the shoes of the reader.
Our craft teaches us that words/phrases appearing at the beginning or end of a paragraph are automatically interpreted by the reader as having emphasis. Let’s use this to our advantage.
Storm clouds hid the sun as torrential rain struck the cobble plaza in sheets. The storm must have caught some of the people by surprise, because they ducked into nearby merchant booths for cover. Those who were prepared, dressed in heavy cloaks and hoods, stood in front of a large marble fountain and gazed out beyond the dock, beyond the three-masted ship moored in port, beyond the violent waves that covered the mooring lines in foam, to a sight they hoped never to see again. Two large battle frigates sat on the horizon, broadside to one another, firing dozens of demi-culverin cannons at each other.
Could use some work and tightening, no doubt, but how much more life does this version have? We immediately set the mood and tone by establishing the violent rain storm. Also, by leaving the important point for last we’ve increased the overall tension and added a hint of suspense, all leading up to the “Oh CRAP!” moment when the reader realizes that the unexpected battle had begun.
Description is another tool in our writer’s toolbox. It has a purpose. That purpose is not simply to reveal all of the wonderful research you did while building your world or structuring your plot! Description should serve the story, advance the plot, reveal important characterization, or adjust your pace. If you approach description in a structured fashion, your world will be more real, the overall tension will be increased (almost always good), and, most importantly, the reader will feel like they’ve given over control to capable hands.
Do you approach complex descriptions with a strategy? Let me know in the comments below.
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