The Craft of Writing with Randall “Jay” Andrews | Writing from Within
The best writing comes from within. I don’t mean it is hatched from within, but rather the succinct thoughts you feel about who you are, about what you feel, about the love, the shit, the hate, the jocularity, the sadness, the fear, and any other emotion YOU FEEL, is the best way to tell a story. It works best because you are so focused on what it is, you come across laconically, and brevity is beautiful. All too often, a writer wants to create a passage that is so convoluted that it stilts the reading. That isn’t to say a description can’t be long, but it is saying it must be necessary. What is necessary? Writers will say everything about what your protagonist looks like is important, but believe it or not, it’s not important! That average man does not need to be described from the outside in, he needs to be described from the inside out. If you never see him in a mirror, the reader will take over and your character will be all things to all readers, he may even be them, and that’s okay. To make the reader believe the protagonist is them is the talent of creating a world in which the reader can walk through. The nicks and abrasions he receives along the way are the delight of the writer to paint upon the canvas of the unusual, and it is the unusual which is best suited for the reader.
Yet you find it necessary to create a ledger, and on that ledger is a litany of things your protagonist must be, he must be a certain height, a certain weight, he must have a certain gait to his walk and his eyes and hair must have that certain color. To what do you owe it to the reader to let them know that, and how best should you impart that information to them? This is for that writer who can’t accept the non-descript protagonist, this is for the control freak in all of us. Don’t mirror your description. It’s not that you can’t do it with striking imagery, but rather it’s that the method doesn’t provide a forward movement in the story. It is the writing from the outside in, and it’s painful to read. Instead, the pink in her hair should be defined by someone else’s observation in dialogue. That color of his shirt should be defined by the ridiculous coffee stain you write happening in the moment when the meeting is about to take place. “A brown stain against the sea of soft yellow running down from his breast pocket like a teardrop left him in a panic. His meeting with Mr. Douglas and the board of regents was thirty seconds on the other side of those two oak doors.”
Don’t give away all the nuggets of great writing by falling on the ax of a quick checklist of description. For me, if he is average height, average build, and has a hair color every other person has, you will never know because it’s unimportant. If he is the only black man in an all white meeting—THAT you will know. If she is pregnant—THAT you will know. If he is wearing a white shirt and brown slacks and has dishwater blonde hair, chances are you will never know that. Why? If there is a WHY as to it being important, THEN I will tell you. Just because it means “so much to me” IS NOT A GOOD ANSWER.
However, if my non-descript character decides to get a crew cut, I’m pretty sure his wife is going to say, “What the hell did you do to your head?”
“I’m honoring my father with a haircut.”
“Your father was a jarhead Marine. You are a third grade elementary teacher!”
“I’m thinking about dying it orange, would that help?”
I can give you more information, and do it in a way that carries the story along, far better in dialogue than I can in description. Likewise, I can do it from the inside out.
I fear the issue with new writers is hearing the words SHOW don’t TELL. Showing something isn’t as obvious as you may think. Showing is more a product of keeping author intrusion out of the scene, and giving a mirror checklist puts the author so far in the scene, they are nearly up your butt. Showing requires you allow the scene to carry on without LOOKING, NOTICING, and SEEING things. You don’t write, John SAW the Time Square Ball lower. Instead, John shivered in the night air, delighted to spend New Year’s Eve with Pamela.
“Are you ready John!” Pamela held her watch up. “Ten…nine…” The Time Square Ball dropped with each second, “eight…seven…six.”
John pulled Pamela close and together they kept the chill at bay. “Five…four.” All his life he thought about the right woman at the right moment. “Three…two.”
Pamela raised her head, and together they shouted, “ONE!” They kissed metaphorically for the rest of their lives.
We know they looked at the ball but we never had to say the word. Since they kissed we know when she raised her head, they saw each other. I hope you are aware, as poignantly as that scene turned out, we have no idea what they looked like, BUT, every one of you gave them your own spin, and THAT’S OKAY!
Back to the top! The best writing comes from within. Write the emotion of the scene and don’t worry about clouding up the scene with description. Allow for characters to breathe the life of what they see, and allow yourself the reality to make the determination of what’s important in the eyes of the characters.