October 20, 2009

Stephen R. Lawhead - Bring it to Life with Description!

Stephen R. Lawhead

About two and a half years ago, I discovered the work of Stephen R. Lawhead. His book Hood (from the King Raven Trilogy) was the first one I read, followed quickly by the Song of Albion Trilogy and the Dragon King Trilogy (while I was waiting eagerly for Scarlet and Tuck to come out).

Mr. Lawhead is a seasoned veteran of the Christian writing industry, so I decided to make him my next subject in my series, Learn from the Pros.

The main thing I’ve learned about writing from reading Mr. Lawhead’s work is that descriptive detail is okay. Most writing experts will tell you to keep description to a necessary minimum and “let the readers fill in the details”. To a person like me, who loves describing the characters, scenery, and architecture in my stories, that advice is far from uplifting. But if we want to succeed, we just have to grin and bear it, right?

Not according to Stephen R. Lawhead.

Read his work and you’ll find it rich with vivid description – towering cities that leave you speechless, sweeping scenery so real that you feel like you’ve been there, monsters that make your stomach turn, and characters you would recognize on the street. From the breathtaking ramparts of Askelon to the ancient forests of Wales, Stephen Lawhead leaves you feeling like you’ve been there. Lived it. Touched it.

How does he do that? He describes it!

Experts tell us to let the readers use their own imagination to fill in the details. But how does that make you feel like you’re really there? When you step off of a plane in New York City, you see exactly what it looks like. You don’t have to use your imagination to “fill in the details”. The details are already there, waiting for you. And when you leave, you feel like you’ve been there, because you have been there! You craned your neck to see the tops of the skyscrapers. You stood on a sidewalk and heard the noise of rush-hour traffic. You smelled the cafes you walked past. You didn’t just see the city, you experienced the city.

Now, granted: you didn’t read every billboard you passed. You didn’t examine the physical appearance and clothing of every pedestrian you met on the sidewalk. You could not possibly take in every detail there was to take in, nor should descriptions in your writing give the reader every possible detail about the subject being described. Your story should not get lost in your descriptions, and the plot and action should still be clearly visible. (i.e. after six pages of solid description, the readers have probably forgotten what the characters are doing and why they’re doing it in the first place) But don’t get the idea that the plot and action are all you’re allowed to have. Plot is the story’s skeleton. Action is the story’s muscle. Don’t leave her at that! Put skin on her; dress her up; maybe even give her some makeup and jewelry.

Writers – especially those in the fantasy genre – don’t throw a bunch of nondescript characters into a blurry, vague world and expect them to act out some excruciatingly detailed plot. Give the characters character! Make them unique and distinct. Don’t leave your readers to wonder where they are. When a reader picks up your book, they’re accepting your invitation to enter your world. Be a good host – don’t leave them to find their own way around. Take them by the hand and show them around.

Read Stephen R. Lawhead’s work and you’ll see: there’s nothing like entering the world of a story and feeling like you really lived it!

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