Friday, March 5, 2010

Busted!—Kingsolver caught integrating her setting

Immediately inside the door she saw a red carpet. At the end of the carpet sat a gray cat, licking a paw. A clock pendulum ticked and tocked on a nearby table. Classic Stickley, judging by the table’s bold, clean lines. Beside the table an orange shawl had been tossed over the arm of a leather chair. Two feet to the left of that…

Okay, I’ll spare you. If you’ve done any amount of reading in your life you’ll recognize in the above description a wall of words that many readers will choose not to scale. Or perhaps you won’t recognize the wall at all, because as a reader you’ve always skirted around it. In her September 18, 2009 Blood-Red Pencil post, our own Maryann Miller cautioned us to keep such laundry lists pocketed when our characters first enter a room.

But now you’re a writer, not a reader. You are eager to get on with the good stuff! And it’s just so tempting, isn’t it? Put your character in the room, show her glancing around at this, that and the other thing in an active voice until you think your reader is oriented, and then let the action rip.

Problem is, that kind of “showing” is an awful lot like “telling.” Your reader wants to feel smart, and figure a few things out for herself. Because this kind of laundry-list description tends to stay centered on “what your character sees” instead of “what facts are relevant to the story,” it often obscures a wonderful opportunity to create meaning.

That’s why I love the following passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer. The description in this paragraph is so well integrated with the plot—so meaningful—it needs no set-up:
His presence filled her tiny cabin so, she felt distracted trying to cook breakfast. Slamming cupboards, looking for things in the wrong places, she wasn’t used to company here. She had only a single ladderback chair, plus the old bedraggled armchair out on the porch with holes in its arms from which phoebes pulled white shreds of stuffing to line their nests. That was all. She pulled the ladderback chair away from the table, set its tall back against the logs of the opposite wall, and asked him to sit, just to get a little space around her as she stood at the propane stove scrambling powdered eggs and boiling water for the grits. Off to his right stood her iron-framed cot with its wildly disheveled mattress, the night table piled with her books and field journals, and the kerosene lantern they’d nearly knocked over last night in some mad haste to burn themselves down.
Now that is a description with some impulsion behind it. By “field journals” you are able to guess that the protagonist is a scientist who spends most of her time outdoors; this passage is from page 27, the first time we’ve spent any length of time her cabin. And yet we know everything we need to about her spare existence, where this character’s priorities lie, and what happened in that room the night before. Never once did I wonder, "But what is to be found to the left once the character comes through the door?" Kingsolver honors the life experience of the reader: haven’t we all had trouble locating our cookware with the addition of someone new in the kitchen? (Let alone someone who collaborated in the wild dishevelment of our mattress?)

If you review your manuscript draft you’ll be able to find the descriptive passages that could use plot integration rather quickly: the paragraphs tend to be longer and denser than the surrounding prose, and they read like that parlor game where you get a few seconds to look around a room before you must write down all the things you can remember.

Take your time. Have patience. Revise. Choose setting details that reveal plot and deepen characterization. And then maybe, like Kingsolver, you’ll blast through that first wall of words that blocked your reader from the very story you had hoped to invite her to enter.

And if, when reviewing your manuscript, you find a big beefy paragraph that reads like this one that Kingsolver wrote, let it be.


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."
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  1. This is incredibly helpful. Thank you.

  2. A great example of how to do description right. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Excellent illustration and yes I would have skipped that first paragraph.

  4. This is one thing I don't have to worry about. I've been busted for have not enough description!

    Morgan Mandel

  5. The timing is great on this post as I'm currently working on manuscript revisions. Good post.

  6. Great post, and I think using the example of the integrated description really brings the message home.

  7. It's an intriguing piece of writing. Thanks for sharing this.

    Elle Neal

  8. I learn something every time I stop in! Thanks.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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