DBW Review: Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle

Description and SettingI have a confession to make: I’m one of those readers who has been known to skip over passages full of description to get to the “good stuff.” I love the story of The Lord of the Rings, for example, but my attention wanes during those meandering sections sandwiched between poignant character moments and violent epic battles. With my avoidance of excessive elaboration (and my admittedly poor visual observation skills), I sometimes find it challenging to imbue my own writing with the right level of descriptive pizzazz.

And I know I’m not the only one. So I thought it was time to read through the book Description & Setting by author and creative writing teacher Ron Rozelle. His book is part of the Write Great Fiction series by Writer’s Digest, which features some helpful books on a variety of writing topics. I hadn’t read this one yet, and I thought it could be helpful for those of us who feel descriptively challenged.

What I Liked

This book covers a wide variety of topics relating to description — even more than I anticipated. Rozelle talks about how to describe both characters and settings. He includes tips for improving dialogue as well as techniques to strengthen exposition. He focuses on the small things, such as the use of adverbs and placement of punctuation, as well as the large things, like establishing the big picture of time and place. There’s a useful chapter on sensory description that includes lots of great examples.

I especially enjoyed his chapter “Too Little, Too Much,” which includes some fantastic thoughts on how to avoid repetition, prevent yourself from wandering off track, and recognize when no description at all is perhaps the better approach.

What Could Be Better

This book is an odd mix of wordiness and not enough detail. The introductions to some of the chapters are lengthier than they need to be, while many of the subtopics are not covered in as much detail as they could be. I was looking forward to the chapter on different considerations for different genres, for example, but most of the tips in there are straightforward common sense and didn’t really add to my knowledge.

It also suffers from an issue that I find common across many writing books – the examples are taken from older works, and samples from genre fiction are neglected in favour of literary fiction. Since most of the writers I know write genre fiction, I find this to be an unfortunate gap.

Favourite Learning Moment

In Rozelle’s chapter “Using Description and Setting to Drive the Story,” he talks about how to use description and setting to magnify a theme. But instead of focusing on the usual idea of an overall theme, he points out that each scene in the story has its own theme and that you can focus on one scene at a time when determining how the description can be improved. I loved the practical nature of this approach.

Many people come away from their English classes thinking that literary themes are a precious few haughty ideals—like pride, truth, or equality—that are chiseled deep into granite…My idea of a theme is anything that the writer is attempting to convey in a particular scene. So, instead of everlasting love, your theme in the sixth scene of your story might be trying to get a date. (p. 154)

Verdict

If you don’t have a lot of practice writing fiction yet, or you are looking for a general overview on the topic of description, then I believe this book will be helpful for you. But if you are searching for more in-depth content, I would look for detailed articles relating to your specific interests rather than buying this book.

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If you are interested in reading about other writing resources, you may want to take a look at my Resources page. One of these resources is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which has a great chapter on showing vs. telling.

How much description do you like to see in the books you read? What are some of the challenges you face when describing things? Are there techniques that have helped you?

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

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The Erasure of Black Widow: Do We Need to Write Female Characters Differently?

Age of Ultron Black WidowI saw the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron last week. I had been looking forward to watching this movie for a long time, so I did my utmost to avoid encountering any spoilers. I enjoyed it, though I felt that parts of it were uneven and that it didn’t come together as well as the first Avengers movie.

Once I’d seen the movie, I checked out what other people had thought of it. That’s when I discovered the complaints about the character development of Black Widow.

I realized that the movie I saw was not the same movie that others had seen.

*character spoilers ahead*

What Some People Saw

A betrayal of Black Widow’s character through

– making her “the girlfriend”

– making her a damsel in distress

– making her a mother figure

– making her feel monstrous for not being able to have children.

What I Saw

An evolution of Black Widow’s character, as shown through

– her attempt to develop a romantic relationship

– her demonstrated ability to protect her other team members and fulfill critical missions (without super powers)

– her yearning for family and connections

– her acknowledgement that she feels monstrous due to her training as an assassin.

 

What happened here? How could these interpretations be so different?

I certainly don’t think that the portrayal of Black Widow’s character was perfect. I’ve complained before about the lack of strong female characters in action movies, and this movie doesn’t break any new ground on this issue. Outside of the movie itself, Marvel is not impressing me with their failure to produce Black Widow action figures. They have even erased her from her own key movie scene.

But still. I didn’t pick up on all the negative nuances that others found in this movie.

This leads me to the question of how to treat female characters in a male-dominated genre. Should writers be treating female characters differently from male ones? And how should gender issues be addressed?

Female Characters as Human Beings

I’d like to think that all characters are simply human beings. When Black Widow needed to be rescued in the film, I didn’t see her as a damsel in distress that needed to be saved by a boyfriend. I saw her as a valuable team member that needed to be rescued by another member of the team, just as the Avengers would do for any team member. The fact that she was female and in a relationship just didn’t make any difference to me.

But I can see why others found this disturbing. We’re constantly surrounded by stories that portray women as the girlfriend, the damsel in distress, the mother figure…so we understandably get twitchy when we keep running into these tropes.

In reading up on this issue, I came across a fantastic article by Kate Elliott (one of my favourite fantasy authors) called Writing Women Characters as Human Beings. She shares three key pieces of advice, which I am paraphrasing here.

1. Have enough women in the story that they can talk to each other.

In this respect, Age of Ultron fails the grade. Although there are multiple female characters, they don’t have meaningful moments with each other. I can’t even remember if Scarlet Witch and Black Widow ever talked to each other.

2. Pay attention to how you are assigning minor roles.

In many stories, the tertiary-level characters are played by men. Age of Ultron does include several female characters in minor roles, including Dr. Cho, Laura, and Madame B.

3. Your female characters should exist for themselves, and have their own agency in the plot of the story.

I would say that Scarlet Witch is the female character that has the most agency in this movie. Her decisions and actions drive many of the key plot points. Black Widow has less agency in the plot, but I would argue that she does have her own dreams and desires that she acts upon in the movie. It’s just that those desires do not line up with the idea of a “kick butt” female action hero. Is that wrong? Maybe not. But in the context of male-dominated superhero action movies, it clearly doesn’t work for a large segment of the audience.

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Have you seen Age of Ultron? How did you feel female characters were portrayed in the movie? Do you think female characters need to be treated any differently than male ones?

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

DBW Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

I’m taking a course in substantive editing, so I’ve been immersing myself in books on storytelling. Today’s DBW Review is about a helpful book called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksI’ve read several books describing how to write great stories, and many of them fail to deliver. They focus on providing lists of what not to do. This is all well and good, but not positive or useful for someone who is trying to learn what they should do. Larry Brooks has written a comprehensive book on what he calls the six core competencies to build a successful story. Four of them are the basic elements of a story: concept, character, theme, and story structure (plot).  The remaining two are narrative skills: scene execution and writing voice. For each competency, Brooks goes into detail to describe why it is important, how to execute it, and where it fits in with the other competencies. For those who want to learn more about Larry Brooks, you can visit his website Storyfix.

What I Liked

One of the things I liked was how Brooks works hard at relating all of the parts together, rather than providing separate laundry lists of items to consider. Each section builds on the next, until you feel like you have a full grasp of the entire process.

The sections themselves are covered in a great level of depth. The section on character, for example, describes the three dimensions of character, how to create backstory, interior vs. exterior conflict, crafting a character arc, and many other topics. I honed in on this section because I enjoy character-driven stories. I had to laugh when he called me out for this in a part called “Character Is Not Story”:

More than one writing guru and established writer has described the essence of storytelling as character-focused […] But that’s like saying the essence of baseball is pitching, the essence of music is singing, the essence of medicine is diagnosis, and the essence of cooking is salt and pepper. It’s not wrong, it’s just not right enough. Because there is so much more to consider. (p. 58)

He then goes on to relate character to all of the other elements in a deft fashion that is both convincing and helpful. Brooks has an engaging writing style that helps to carry his messages forward.

I know I’ll be referring back to this book often.

What Could Be Better

The first twenty-eight pages of this book introduce the six core competencies and Brooks’s approach for his storytelling model. This section contains repetitive sales pitches on why his model works better than other models. It also includes several references to Stephen King’s On Writing and why none of us should follow his advice. (In a nutshell: because we don’t have an instinctive grasp of storytelling principles like he does after his many years of reading and writing.) I liked On Writing, so I felt my hackles rise every time this point came up. Even if I understood his point.

Brooks also spends too much time throughout the book on planners vs. pantsers. He often points out how story pantsers can benefit from his approach, even if they don’t like to spend a lot of time outlining. (For those who are not familiar with the term, a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This contrasts with a planner, who likes to plan ahead before writing a story.)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

I have yet to read a great storytelling guide written by a sci-fi/fantasy writer. (Suggestions, anyone?) As a fan of the genre, this is so disappointing. Brooks writes thrillers, and uses this genre for a lot of his examples. The only sci-fi reference in this book is to the movie Avatar, where Brooks describes James Cameron’s use of backstory to build the main character.

Verdict

This is a solid resource on storytelling that is worth multiple reads. Whether you are a writer/editor of fiction or simply a person who enjoys reading stories, you will find a lot of valuable information here. Highly recommended.

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For those of you who have read up on storytelling, what is your favourite resource, and why? If you’ve read Story Engineering, what did you think? And for you readers out there (which I should hope is all of you), what do you pay attention to the most? Character, theme, or plot?