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Masterful Setting Description Part 2

Setting description in most novels is the weakest element. As with character description, many writers don’t want to bother describing the setting. Or they don’t understand how vitally important it is, in order to paint a sensory picture of where characters are so that readers can feel as if they are right there with them, experiencing the action alongside them.

That’s hard to do if there is no setting; in many scenes I critique, the characters seem to be floating in a black void of nothingness. Which would be fine if that were the intent of the author. But, sad to say, the writer is probably assuming her readers are picturing the setting via some ESP into the author’s mind.

Probably the most prevalent reason for not writing great setting description is the author doesn’t know how. And yet . . . there are countless novels with beautiful setting descriptions. The whole key to becoming a masterful writer is to study masters of writing. And that’s what we’ve been doing in this series. Continue Reading…

A Look at Masterful Setting Description

Masterful writing must seep into every corner of a novel. We looked briefly at the description of characters in the last few posts, mostly drawing from just one novel of James Lee Burke’s. I could easily write a year’s posts highlighting masterful writing from any one of his novels. And in the series, I’ll be pulling more examples from his books.

When we talk about description, we’re covering wide territory. Narrative is, essentially, description, and via narrative we describe characters, setting, situations, and insights.

As we saw in those examples from Burke’s novel Wayfaring Stranger, description limited to merely physical components only goes so far to shine a light on the POV character’s personality. Every bit of narrative description needs to be purposeful in order to be masterful.

Yes, what a character notices about another’s hairstyle or clothing can bring out the POV character’s tastes and opinions, but there is so much more that great description can accomplish, and few writers think carefully about how to wield description in a powerful way.

When description is discussed, usually character and setting are the two most obvious novel components of concern. Every time your POV character moves into a new space—walks out a door into the outdoors, enters a building—some description is needed. Continue Reading…

Masterful Verbs and Adjectives Part 2

Last week we looked at some of the creative usages of nouns, verbs, and adjectives by my favorite author Patricia A. McKillip. Masterful writing isn’t just about big-picture stuff, such as crafting strong scenes or riveting action. It drills down to the individual words, for these sole bits are the building blocks of our sentences, paragraphs, worlds.

As I mentioned, simple five-cent words can pack powerful punches and be much more effective than using a pouch full of five-dollar words, but there is something to be said for a common word used in a perhaps unusual way or context. That word snags us, adding dimension, color, and new perspective. It gives us pause, sparks our imagination, enriches the meaning of a sentence.

This week I’m going to share with you a few more passages from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Robert Hansen. This novel, which is written to feel like a biography (and is practically one, since it’s a dramatization of the facts of James’s life), reveals a masterful use of words and phrasing, particularly in the verbs Hansen chooses.

Take a look at these passages and note these nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Consider how many writers would have opted for the dull, obvious words. But Hansen took time to come up with other, potent choices, and this elevates the writing from common to stellar. Continue Reading…