There is nothing more pleasurable than to read a book where the description and exposition is seamlessly woven into the narrative instead of an intrusion into the story. How many times have you skipped over the “grocery list” of description when a new character entered a room, or skip-read pages of “story set up” so you could get back to the action?
A good piece of advice I received from a creative writing instructor was to never stop a story to describe a room or a character. Utilize the POV of one of the characters to introduce details of a room or a person, and let them notice a little at a time while something interesting is happening. Use description to show character, establish mood or somehow move the story along. The story should not stop for description or a set up.
Some authors seem to think they need to explain a lot to the reader before they allow the story to proceed. That is often true in science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. It’s almost as if the author doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence; like he or she won’t ‘get it’ if the author doesn’t spell it out.
However, readers are smart, and good writing will set the stage in a compelling way. In Brother Termite by Patricia Anthony, the central character takes the stage and a lot of action takes place before the reader is given this little tidbit: “...he righted the case and lifted his opposable claw from the...” That is the first clue that this character is not human, and the only one for several pages. No pause to give the entire back-story of who he is or where he came from. All that is doled out in bits and pieces throughout the rest of the story. What a wonderful bit of writing.
The opening scenes from the first Terminator movie are also a classic example of a writer not cluttering up the action with lots of explanations.
I remember watching the movie with the producer I worked for, and I kept asking what was going on. Who was this guy that fell from the sky naked? The producer just kept telling me to wait. Stay with the action and the story and all my questions would be answered.
He was right.
So let's see how well we set our tables without making the characters stand along the wall waiting for us to get finished.
Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, she loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.