The Secret to Really Good Descriptive Layering

Lucy’s blog post  last week has me thinking about my own first draft, how much it’s changed during revisions, and how I got it from there to here.

 

Writing a novel is, I think, like building a house. When you begin you have little more than a vision of how it will look when it’s done. You’re not thinking yet about paint color, counter tops, rose bushes, or crown molding.

All you know to do is take a shovel in your bare hands and break open the earth by writing these magical words on a blank page: Chapter One.

I had a lot to learn about writing when I began, but I wrote at a fever pace with a self-discipline I can only attribute to God, dumping everything from the shovel into my story, lumps, roots, and all. I guessed at some of it, skipped over things that were beyond my imagination, and a few months later, I was finished. I held it out with pride to my first and dearest beta reader, my sister.

She was polite about it, I’m grateful to say. But when I look back on that first draft, I see nothing but wall studs, sub floor, and ceiling rafters. There were so many gaps in the plot. The setting was vague, and could have taken place anywhere. I had written a bevy of under-developed characters with under-whelming problems.

But it was done, and that’s not for nothing. Studs, flooring and rafters are good and necessary components, after all. You can’t move to the next stage without those foundational things in place.

In the last two years, I’ve been adding layers to the foundation. Plumbing, electrical wiring, and yes, crown molding.

My story gets better, richer, with each revision.

Take this excerpt from the first draft:

“Wait.” She stopped and pulled on his hand until he turned to face her. “I’m not entirely sure this is a good idea.” She knew she should say this but she had longed for this moment and could not be sure how emphatically she would refuse his offer if he persisted.
“What is it?”
“My father.”
“He disapproves?”
Disapproval was an understatement. He expressly forbade exactly what they were about to do. Mara had not set out to defy her father but no amount of obedience had yet earned his approval. She’d always followed his lead and done as she was bid and it seemed to make no difference to him. “Father can’t know,” she said quietly.

It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. Lots of “telling,” right? Do you have a picture in your mind? Probably  not.

Now compare it with this:

“I don’t think I can.” She pulled her hand from his grasp and let her empty fingers drift between them in the air made thick by all the words she couldn’t say.
“Why not?”
“Father.” She gulped and fixed her eyes on the buttons of his shirt. She hated the sound of the word coming from her mouth, the obstacle it created.
He gently opened her fingers, which were still curled in mid-air as if they held something in them. He pressed his flattened palm against hers and slid his solid fingers between her slender ones until their hands were clasped.
“Please?”
“He can’t know,” she said.
She could feel his smile without looking up at him because the air between them grew thinner somehow, simpler
.

Can’t you see the tension and tenderness in their hands? You “see” the male character too, even though all she really describes is his buttons.

This did not come to me during the second revision, or the third, or fourth. It will probably morph again before I’m done with it. I can’t say exactly when the moment sprang to life in my mind. There’s no easy way to do it, no switch to turn on.

But there’s a secret to writing really good descriptive layering, and this is it:

STEPPING AWAY FROM YOUR WORK

I know it sounds contradictory, but it’s true. Just as the architect can only improve his design by looking up from the draft board and taking inspiration from nature, other designs, and other designers, the writer must also close the laptop and take in the world around him or her.

I’ve gotten into the habit of doing these 4 essential things to facilitate and feed the creativity needed for descriptive layering.

1. Live your life. 

-Go out to dinner: notice the scraggly, chewed fingernails of the waitress. There’s an unusual character description.
-Do the dishes: take note of the stinging cut and the way the blood pools on the counter when you accidentally slice your finger on the knife hidden beneath the suds. How do your kids react? Your spouse? This is all useful writing material, despite the difficulty typing for the next few days.
-Spend time maintaining your home: pull weeds and watch them pile up, shriveled, dead and useless next to you. There’s a useful metaphor there, I’m sure.

I could go on and on. Your characters are living their lives in their world, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, watching. You need to do the same.

2. Go outside.

Wherever you are, go outside. You may be writing an exotic locale, or a fictional world, but you don’t need to be on location to be blinded by sun, or to feel it warm your skin, or to feel sweat trickle down the middle of your back. You don’t need to be in the city your story takes place to watch the storm clouds move in, or hear the screeching of cicadas, or smell the sweet earthiness of fresh-cut grass. Yes, you can imagine those things, but something special happens when you’re feeling and seeing it, doesn’t it? It breathes life into your setting with believable, unmistakable authenticity. Don’t miss it.

3. Be intentional.

I have an hour long commute to bible study twice a week. That time is for thinking about my story. The night before, I re-read whatever chapter I’m working on, and I get a place in my head to begin. Maybe it’s a line of dialogue. A setting. Part of a scene I’ve been struggling with. The layering and complexity flows from there during that quiet, uninterrupted time. I keep a notebook with me to jot things down when I get there.

 I also go for walks. I use a four mile walking path near my house several times a week, and that time is exclusively for thinking about what I’m writing. I can’t begin to number the wonderful literary gems that have come to me during that time. That’s when I get to know my characters best.

4. Read good writing.
This is nonnegotiable. You must not neglect reading. You can’t. It’s unthinkable that a writer who expects to be good would not be continuously learning from the greats, whose contribution to our craft line the shelves of every library. Don’t just read things in your genre. You’ll settle into a comfortable place, thinking your writing is just fine, thank you, and you won’t be challenged and convicted to do the hard work of getting better. And it can always be better.

You’re probably reading this and thinking, “All that time! Pulling weeds? Walking four miles? That must take, like…hours! Who has time for this?” True, it’s a lot of time away from the screen. But I’ve discovered that roughly 50% of what I write happens at the computer. The other 50% happens when I’m living my life. Standing in the shower. Folding laundry. Swinging my daughter at the playground. Stirring pasta at the stove. I’m always thinking intentionally about my characters. Real life filters into the story and descriptive layering flows out of that.

I would love to hear some tips and methods you use to enhance the descriptive layering in your own writing. Please leave a comment below.

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