Saturday, February 9, 2013

How to blend story ingredients…

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. Today, I’m posting an email I recently sent to a friend who asked how I decide which ingredients to include in a story. I thought the information might be of help to others.

Hi, Belinda:
Thanks so much for touching base; it’s always great to hear from you. I appreciate your kind comments regarding my February 2nd blog  “unique descriptions in story.”

Regarding your question about which ingredients I include in a story, I would first ask that you trust your own judgment over everything else. Every writer should tell her or his own style of story. After all, that is the only way you can truly stand out in the market. Your voice is your signature, so you should always strive to tell your story your way. However I, like you, prefer to learn as much as I can so that I’m at least aware of my options before I make any final decisions. I do have a few thoughts, but please keep in mind it’s all opinion and that I fail to follow my own advice a fair amount of the time. Those things said, here goes:
First and foremost, I like to use a point of view so tight that story is seen ONLY through the eyes of the point-of-view character. If I want to change the point of view, I jump to a new section or chapter then switch. Please keep in mind that oodles and tons of authors use much broader points of view, with some being fully omniscient, and they do it well and successfully. I have heard, however, that the modern trend does tend to agree with me and be very narrow.  

The advantage of telling a story from a one-person, close perspective is that most of the storytelling decisions are made for you. What I mean is that if you can imagine yourself as the character in any given scene, it becomes easier to realize what she or he would see, hear and say. It also becomes easier to know what she or he would do next. For instance, in an early scene from my novel “Under-Heaven,” five-year-old Jesse is describing his father’s expression in the middle of a McDonald’s restaurant. Putting myself in Jessie’s frightened mindset made it easy to describe his father’s expression: “Anger was scribbled like red crayon across his face.” Most of my other descriptors in Jessie’s scenes were also described in childlike terms. In other words, my narration echoed his age and personality. However, because my narration was not first person and my narrator was NOT Jessie, I was also able to use out-of-character descriptors when I thought they were better.
I know that I have traveled far afield of your question, but I’d like to make two remaining points about close vantage points-of-view. Even when you’re telling the story in first person, past tense—like I did in “The Santa Shop”—you can stray slightly away from your character because the presumption is that the narrator is more experienced and worldly and therefore knows more than her or his past self. In other words, it would be okay to use a higher vocabulary for an uneducated character as long as he or she became educated before writing the story. I would still keep a flavor of her or his ignorance, however, so that the reader can more closely relate to the scenes. That brings me to my final point about closely reflecting your characters: it’s easy to overdo anything. Let’s say you have a character that lisps—as I did in my Zachary Pill fantasy series—it’s important to keep the lisping to a minimum. In other words, flavor your story but don’t make it hard to read. The same thing is true of a character who swears, uses slang or foreign phrases. It’s much better to gently salt your story with those terms than it is, for instance, to use the F-word in every sentence. The former provides atmosphere while the latter is just plain irritating. In short, I think your descriptions and dialog should echo your characters but not be overwhelmed by your characters.

So, to get back to your question, I would first advise you to see what your character sees, hear what your character hears and smell what your character smells. Then write those descriptions in that order and in that way. As your character enters a room, write what she sees, feels and hears as the door opens, as she takes her first step, as she walks fully into the room. When I’m writing first draft, I’m often oblivious to the world around me because I’m actually inside the scene and experiencing it while I’m typing. It is not uncommon for me to cry or laugh as the scene dictates.
Additionally, I do think that it’s important for most stories to be told with visuals being the largest ingredient, and with strong references to the moods and feelings of the characters being second. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. For instance, in a thriller you would downplay emotions, but in a romance you might actually raise their importance above visuals to be the focal point of the story. 

What other ingredients are there? Basically, I’m referring to all five senses. Most readers tend to be either visual or emotional, which is why I advise most writers to use those descriptions the most. But a linguist, for instance, would not typically pay attention to “sights” as much as to sounds. Kinesthetic people would focus on tactile senses (an ingredient I fear I might not project enough). There are also two small groups of readers who focus on tastes and smell more than anything else. Those are the readers who love big meal scenes or lengthy descriptions about a character’s perfume.  Because those groups are small, I tend to include those descriptive details least of all. The best writers, however, manage to insert a few of all the above ingredients all throughout their stories.  In short, I think we all need to strive to create a fictional scene that will satisfy most personalities.
In closing, I might also note that as my stories progress I tend to reduce the visuals. This is because my readers will already have established their own mental descriptions for the main characters and places, and any lengthy repeats are redundant. Instead, I use tags for those people and places toward the end of the story. In my Zachary Pill novels, for instance, I often reference Zachary’s green hair and Robin’s red hair. I also refer to Bret’s coughing, thin frame or pale complexion simply to remind readers that he is weak/sick.

I hope the information is of help, Belinda, but I again would suggest that after you stew on my list of ingredients, your own instincts are the best guide to your story.  
I look forward to seeing your finished novel!

End email.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. If you have writing, music or art advice that you'd like to share, email me. I'd be happy to post it as a guest blog!


  1. Tim, terrific comments on POV. At times I've had to remind a writer I'm working with that when writing from a first-person POV, the narrator isn't going to know how another character feels, only what he thinks he sees on the other person's face.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jan. I really appreciate it. I think we can all use occasional reminders about the basics. Please let me know if you'd ever like to guest post some of your own pointers. I'd love to share your ideas as well :-)


Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment! :-)