I have a couple stories to tell you.
Two weeks ago, I was in Europe, touring with my orchestra around Austria and the Czech Republic. At the very beginning, we drove out to a place in Austria called Gmunden. The site of our first concert, we found it nestled inside a circle of mountains, on the shores of a vibrant blue lake. The concert hall was right up against a little wall that dropped down to the water. Swans swam around looking for crumbs from us, the mountains towered over the sailboats gliding over the serene blue water, and the air was clear and cool. As for scenery, it was probably my favorite place on the trip. (The picture on the right, while also of an Austrian lake surrounded by mountains, is actually a different lake we stopped near. Apologies for pictorial inaccuracy. Picture by me.)
Now hold that thought. Last April, while I was writing Gifts of Rith, I decided I would slow down and make sure I was using the right words to tell my story. I posted my resolution here; I decided I wasn’t going to race ahead and write whatever I wanted, but make sure everything I wrote was relevant to the story. Unfortunately, I realized as I reread the novel on my trip to Europe, I had left out too much. Indeed, instead of merely taking out the fluff, I also took out some of the necessary pieces for telling a good story. I took out almost all the descriptions.
Never let it be said that I make small mistakes.
No sounds, no smells, no images, except that which the plot required. If people were fighting, I described their movements. In more peaceful scenes, however, I pointedly did not describe the vistas, the people around them, or even the characters themselves. I gave their dialogue and described their body language, but that was all. In my imagination they could have been a place prettier than Gmunden, but that didn’t matter if I didn’t describe it. Brian Jacques said the secret to writing is to paint pictures with words— to describe every scene so a blind person could imagine it. I described it like a blind person would.
As with anything in writing, what affects one part affects the whole. Removing the descriptions in key places had a larger effect than I knew. It meant that at the beginning of every chapter, every scene, readers had a more jarring experience getting into the head of the viewpoint character. Instead of carefully placing them in the scene, making sure they knew where everything was and who was present, I smashed them into the scene with nary an introduction, forcing them to scramble for information. It wasn’t nice. Occasionally a scene or chapter will call for an In Medias Res beginning, where you begin in the middle of the action and slowly fill people in— I did that all the time, without filling people in. Bad writer.
Another thing the lack of descriptions caused was a strange perception of time. Time in prose is strange anyway; for a slow reader, a scene will take much longer than for a fast reader. However, there are a few constants with regard to portraying time in prose. The more words you put between one thing and another, for instance, the more time passes between those two things. (I’ve posted about this before, sort of.) There were many instances in Gifts of Rith where I could have used descriptions to change timing, but without those descriptions everything felt too fast. Here’s an example:
“Do you like ukuleles or kazoos better?” “Kazoos.”
That’s a quick snippet of dialogue. It flies by, and you get the feeling that the person replying to the question knew the answer beforehand and didn’t have to think about it. Now look at another example:
“Do you like ukuleles or kazoos better?” Bill found himself rotating slowly as he waited for Dave to answer. The rough hemp of the rope had been biting into his ankles over the past hour as they hung upside-down in the tannery. The air was nigh unbreathable, full of putrid chemicals from the cured hides. He had given up trying to get his hands free long ago, and they had fallen asleep in retribution for his carelessness. “Kazoos,” Dave finally replied.
That took significantly longer to say, read, and imagine, just because of the block of description in the middle. You get the sense that Dave actually had to think about his answer. You also get a little bit of a sense that Bill is terribly, terribly bored. (Just a tiny sense of it.)
And that’s the third thing I missed when I forgot to describe things: character. Descriptions, as setting-based as they are, portray character as well. When Bill starts thinking about the hemp in the rope, or the chemicals in the tannery, you get a sense of his mood. If he was asking Dave whether their mortal enemy deserved a sword or death by rubber duck, you’d get an entirely different sense of his attitude toward the moment.
It’s a little disappointing to reach the end of a novel and realize you forgot to actually, you know, acknowledge the setting nine times out of ten. But realizing that is a lot better than forgetting descriptions and having no idea anything is wrong. I’ve got all the time in the world to edit this novel to perfection (and this time I mean perfection). I’m going to get this right this time. The setting I imagined for Gifts is too good to go unnoticed, just like Gmunden. Thus, I offer a word of warning to you: if you’re going to leave something out, make sure you know exactly what you’re doing. It doesn’t pay to forget it and find out you messed up the timing of your entire novel.