Monday, November 10, 2014

Connecting the Dots

When I’m starting the first draft of a new project, I tend get caught up in the world building. If I’ve reached a point where I know my settings so well they become almost tangible to me, I’ll usually start out with far more description than would ever be necessary. I just give in to the keyboard frenzy, convinced that each insignificant detail I add will be the perfect touch of color needed to make that whole world come to life, precisely the way I want the reader to imagine it.

Luckily I eventually remember that it’s more my job to just shut up and get the story rolling.

A creative writing professor of mine once compared effective descriptive writing to creating a connect-the-dots drawing, explaining how the writer only needs to provide a few sensory touchstones in description, allowing the reader to fill the spaces in between on their own and build whatever version of that world they’ll inhabit while engaged in the story.

A few years back I was working with an eleven-year-old student who showed some real aptitude for writing. She often fell victim to overdone descriptive passages much in the same way I did (and sometimes still do). I brought up the whole dot-to-dot idea with her once, to try and break her of the habit. Since she was one of those kids who was always neck-deep in extra-curricular activities that required traveling, I stayed in her wheelhouse and told her to visualize a hotel room.

“You walk in and you can hear the shower dripping,” I said. “Then you see a hole from a cigarette burn on the carpeting, and an old water stain on the wall just below the air conditioner. So what would you say about this room?”

She gave me a look of mild revulsion. “I’d say it’s a pretty crappy room.”

“How did you decide that so quickly?” I asked. “I only told you three things.” She thought about that, then I got to have one of those joyous teacher moments when you get to be there and see the wheels actually turn as the student begins to understand.

Handing over control of story elements you feel strongly about can be a hard thing about writing, but it’s essential to remember. No matter what you do to tell your story the best you can, it will eventually belong to the readers you wrote it for. Will their version be exactly the same as how you see it? Probably not. But do you think you, as a reader, have ever precisely realized an author’s vision as she or he intended? Not likely. But that’s okay. When kids get their hands on a dot-to-dot picture or a coloring sheet, they see it as just a starting point. They could bring that picture to life with a palette of vivid colors, or complete it with some fantastical background, or turn it into such a carefully crafted bit of art it simply demands your attention.

Kids read the same way they color. All you need to do is provide enough description to start them in the direction you’d like them to explore. After that, just give them room to find a pathway there all by themselves, and see where their discoveries take them.


Kiri Jorgensen said...

Thanks for this! I love the idea of just giving dots, so the reader can detail build the world they want to inhabit. Great post!

Mirka Breen said...

Too much description has sunk many middle grade novels. It is also a matter of contemporary style. In all story telling the leisurely description of yore are gone.

Tom Mulroy said...

Thanks for your comments! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Tom Mulroy said...

Good points. I can love a book with heavy description in my own reading, especially when there's so much artful language to absorb and appreciate. But in my experience, the attention of middle grade readers can quickly fade unless the story pulls them forward. I think all we can hope to achieve as writers is to find the best possible balance of critical story elements.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

This is great. Catching up on old Newbery winners recently made me realize how much has MG literature has changed. Description may be gorgeous, but if it doesn't move the story forward, most kids are going to be bored.

Tom Mulroy said...

Thanks, Joanne. I'll also dig out older Newbery favorites occasionally, just to bask in their greatness. I've always been particularly impressed by how perfectly JACOB HAVE I LOVED captures a sense of location.