Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 2

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description

Last week I discussed how I learned to pay attention to pacing and why I believe pacing is so important.  For last week’s post, click here.  This week I’ll get into tips and tricks writers can use to take control of their pacing.
Brushstrokes, You Don’t Have to Paint the Picture All at Once
Guess what?  Most of us are writing a whole entire book.  Some of us, that will be 80,000 words.  You don’t need to give your reader every single detail up front.  We are often tempted to, because as the author, we feel like everything in our story is important.  But that’s not the case.  We can reveal things over time.  Do we need to know that the main character has red frizzy hair, freckles, green eyes, small bones, knobby knees, tiny ears, pale skin, a birthmark on her elbow… all in the first chapter?  No.  We don’t.  You can paint her with brushstrokes a little bit at a time.  We have the whole book to get to know her.  Think of it as dating… We don’t need to know everything up front.  A first date where all is revealed doesn’t leave us with anything to wonder about, and that intrigue, that mystery is lost.  You’ll want to start with a basic picture, the essential details, but then let it grow, brushstroke by brushstroke, as the story continues.  Which brings us to Tip #1:
Pacing Tip #1: The Rule of Three
I honestly don’t remember where I heard this tip.  I looked on the internet for some hint as to who I learned it from, but all I could get was that it is general belief.  
Wikipedia states:

“The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes.  Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.  The Latin phrase, “omne trium perfectum” (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_three_(writing)

The way I’ve understood and employed the “rule of three” in terms of pacing and description: I don’t include more than three details about a person or place in my first description.  I think when I originally heard the “rule of three” I was told that a reader isn’t going to remember more than three details about a character.  Think of Harry Potter.  Three major physical details: Messy black hair, green eyes with glasses, lightning bolt scar.  Those are the three defining physical details everyone remembers.
Now, I’ll show you examples of the “Rule of Three” in action:
From my own WIP, a setting:

The first thing my aunt did upon returning from the funeral was take away my bedroom and force me into the small attic room above the boiler room.  The space could barely fit a bed, and there were crevices between the floorboards wide enough to stick your finger through.  The highlight of the room was a single grimy window.  

I only describe three things in Anne’s new bedroom: the small size, the floor, and the window.  All of which convey the sheer depressing nature of the room.  That’s all you need to know.  I definitely could have described more, but three things was enough.
From my WIP, a character:

“Oy!  Girlie!  You new?”  Pushing one of the screeching metal carts was a girl smaller than me.  Her brown hair was unbelievably short, cropped to her chin, but she wore a long gray skirt, so I knew she was a girl.

Again, I only describe three things: the girl’s small size, her short hair, and her skirt.  It’s enough for you to identify this girl in the future (the small girl with the cropped hair), you’ll remember it, and there’s plenty of space for her to grow as a character.
Here’s some examples from novels you might know:

“Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,” she said.  She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 105

J.K. Rowling describes three things about Hermione (voice, hair, and teeth) when we first meet her (though we later learn a great deal more).

The girl was gorgeous, the kind of girl Clary would have liked to draw–tall and ribbon-slim, with a long spill of black hair.  Even at this distance Clary could see the red pendant around her throat.  It pulsed under the lights of the dance floor like a separate, disembodied heart.
City of Bones, page 6

Cassandra Clare gives us three details about the girl: her body type, her hair, and her necklace.

Her name was Shay. She had long dark hair in pigtails, and her eyes were too wide apart. Her lips were full enough, but she was even skinnier than a new pretty. She’d come over to New Pretty Town on her own expedition, and had been hiding here by the river for an hour.
Uglies, page 27

This example does not stick to the rule of three, but I think Westerfeld still limited himself in terms of description.  A reason why I think he used four descriptors here is because he uses pairs effectively.  Shay is described in pairs of traits: one that is adequate (almost pretty) and one that is ugly.  This is important to the premise of his book, where the characters desire physical perfection more than anything else.  So the pairs were necessary for him, and he limited himself to two pairs and not more than that.  Six traits would have been too much at once, but four traits or two pairs was enough.
When is it okay to use longer description?
I think there are cases that warrant more description than the “Rule of Three” I present here.  I think particularly important characters often warrant more description.  For example, Dumbledore is described in much more than three traits in his first description on page 8 of Sorcerer’s Stone.  He was an incredibly important character across the entire series.  I’ve heard the rule that the length of a description should match the importance of a character or place (longer description = more important).  I generally agree with this rule, but often an author can be a little blind and think every detail is a little more important than it actually is.
I also think unusual settings warrant more description, and readers will be more patient with lengthier description of a strange setting because the strangeness intrigues them.  Readers aren’t bothered by descriptive paragraphs of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory because a secret candy factory is an intriguing and fabulous setting to read about.  I also think a setting that acts as a character, like Hogwarts, warrants a lengthier description.  Hogwarts isn’t just a place.  It has undiscovered secrets, presents challenges to the characters, and aids the characters in times of trouble.  Hogwarts, in order to become the living place that it is, required that kind of description.  A place that is ordinary, like a classroom or a schoolbus or a grocery store, probably shouldn’t be described in great detail, and I’d recommend the rule of three.  I’ve found the rule of three helps keep me in check and keeps the pace quick.  I can always go back and add more description if I need to.
Writing Exercise #1
Choose three characters and identify the three dominating physical traits of each character.  Then write a brief paragraph for each of them that introduces each character and their three physical traits.
And also, do three settings in your novel.  Choose three settings and identify three defining traits of that setting and write a brief paragraph introducing that setting and the three traits.
Stay tuned next week for my second quick pacing writing tip and another writing exercise!
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2 comments on “Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 2

  1. fakesteph says:

    I think I remember you writing about this rule before. I really like it and appreciate all the examples you use. Thanks for sharing a snippet of your WIP, too.

  2. You know, this is such a smart rule. I feel like I should heard about this before, but I can't really remember ever having learned about it. Thanks for the tip though!-lauren

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