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Last week’s WW – The Three Elements of Success


A guy walks into a room.

I think that sentence is missing something.  It’s that thing, you know, where you say what stuff is, how it is, what it looks like, what’s the word?  Oh, right, Description.  

As storytellers, we must craft a scene.  It’s up to us to tell the reader what we see when we channel a story.  Sure, we can see it in our heads.  We know these characters.  We know where they live, how they dress, what color car they drive… but if we don’t tell the reader, how will they know?

So let’s try it again.

A young man of fourteen entered the bridge of the space station.

Better.  We’ve got a couple details there.  He’s on a space station, he’s young.  But it needs more.

Tall for his age, Kade entered the bridge of the space station and took his position behind the blinking control panel.

Description can be aided by adding action or thoughts.

Kade swallowed hard and held his breath as the automatic doors opened.  Despite being barely a teenager, he had to duck to avoid smacking his head.  He entered the bridge.  The control panel at his station blinked in anticipation.  He sat at it, and stared out into space.

I think we’ve got a pretty good amount of description there.  We could maybe even take it one step farther.

Kade brushed his hands through his short brown hair.  It itched after having just gotten it cut.  His thin frame was in stark contrast to his height.   He was fourteen and tall, so tall that he had to duck when he entered the deck.  The double doors parted.   All around him, computers blinked.  Busy people manned their stations, sliding their fingers over the crystal controls.  This was his first day aboard the space station.   Summoning his courage, he sat at his own panel.  His fingers slid across the flat surface, and it came to life at his touch.

But let’s not go overboard.

Kade took his fingers and brushed them through his hair.  His cuticles were dry from the artificial air and snagged on the strands.  He scratched the newly shortened hair.  It now extended only about a quarter of an inch off his scalp.  The texture felt alien against his sensitive extremities.  The bristly follicles fought back against his finger tips as he pushed them…

Not bad description in and of itself, but a little much.  That whole paragraph, and we haven’t even entered the bridge yet.  All I know is he’s got short hair, and it’s new, and his fingers feel stuff.  And then I’m bored.

Here’s a tricky one.  Metaphors.  I’m not great at these.  In fact, I use very few metaphors or similes in my writing.   But I’ll be the first to admit that my strength is in dialogue, not description.

His hair was like a baby porcupine.


His head was a baby porcupine.

Instantly, the image of short, bristly protrusions from his head come to mind.  Might not be the best metaphor/simile, but hey, mission accomplished.  I did it!

One challenge with metaphors and similes is that it’s easy to be cliche.   I’ve read a lot of books on writing, (three or four is a lot, right?) and they all say the same thing: don’t be cliche.

A writing exercise I’ve used is one where you make a list of adjectives.  Do it now.  Write down ten.

Got them written?  Okay, good.  Now, write down ten nouns.

No cheating.  Write them.

Fine, I’ll do it too:

Adjective                                                           Noun
1)  Pretty                                                        1)  Tiger
2) Shiny                                                           2) Flower
3)  Quick                                                          3) Lightning

I’m going to stop at three, because I think you’ll be able to get the point.

Now, mismatch!  Having trouble shying away from the obvious?  Random number generator time.  Just set the max to ten, generate one for each column, and there ya go.  (thanks to Adam for originally teaching me this word game)

Now I’ve got: Pretty like a tiger.  Quick like a flower.  And Shiny like lightning.  Sometimes they come out sarcastic.  Sometimes you get really interesting ways of looking at things.  Just try to be as random as you can, because you’re only cheating yourself otherwise.

Let’s check in on our space boy:

His heart raced like a rabbit as he anticipated his first day on deck.  

He smiled nervously as he entered the deck.  His grin was wide and he had teeth like a picket fence.

Moral of the story:  use a lot of description, but know when to edit yourself.  Pull in thoughts, feelings, actions.   And don’t be afraid to get creative with it.  Some odd things can work really well if you give them a chance.