Ninja fan Olivia B. asks:

“What are the most common errors in writing descriptions? How do we avoid them?”

Excellent question! In fact, this subject is one of the major areas that an amateur author struggles with, because it goes right to the heart of the actual act of storytelling itself. Plot and characters and research and twists are all quite important, but in many ways those are easier to teach simply because they can be abstracted with only a little work. Pick up any novel and you can outline it without much difficulty. You can analyze characters like they’re real people. You can check someone’s work and marvel over their surprises.

What’s harder is to figure out is the way an author crafts his or her prose. It’s not just that you can’t see the multitude of edits that lead up to this point, changing words here and there until they “sound” right. You simply can’t easily strip a sentence in a book from its own context.

So . . . don’t.

Instead, the best way to learn from good prose is to compare it to how people actually speak. We don’t write and speak the same way, and not just because we use lots of umserrs, hmms, and various cavemanlike-grunts to convey informational cues (not to mention fill up the air while you’re thinking through what you’re trying to say). In speech, you often have to give some lead time, to allow both yourself and your audience to process what’s been said and what to say next. In text, you don’t need to do that — which means that you often end up with unnecessary words, too many words, or words that lack context on a page that they might possess in a live performance.

Shakespeare is an excellent author to study for this; mind you, you have to actually know what he references and what those old-fashioned words mean, because our modern culture hasn’t got quite the same context that even an illiterate London dockworker would have known. Some of those dockworkers know more about allusions to Classical mythology than most American high schoolers, because those were the superheroes of their day, and a popular source of material for plays. Today, we rarely encounter any playwright from that period besides Shakespeare, which means many students become quite surprised indeed when they find out where Shakespeare got much of his material — some things even taken from other popular London plays! (If you want a particular source for Shakespeare, I highly recommend the Folger Library’s editions; they provide excellent reference guides to Shakespeare’s words and allusions printed on the opposite page from the text.)

Where Shakespeare’s genius comes in is his word choice. He’d been a poor man and knew what it was like to be a “groundling,” as it was called; groundling tickets were cheap, but you had to stand for the whole play. If it was engaging and fast-paced, the groundlings could take it. If not, they were bored and their feet were hurting . . . oh, and back then, there were no rules about not shouting during a performance. And an unabridged Shakespeare play is long. You did not want the groundlings to get bored!

So Shakespeare didn’t write his plays for the rich patrons in the box seats, which you might think should be the obvious thing. He wrote his plays for the masses. He was the sort of popular fiction author that the New York Times would call trite and uninteresting, and university professors would scoff at the idea that there was anything to learn from him. Ivory Tower Critics are basically hipsters: something popular can’t be worth anything.

Funny how nearly all Ivory Tower Critic-approved book or movie tends to be far less successful and more easily forgotten than the popular ones.

Funny how nearly all Ivory Tower Critic-approved books or movies tend to be far less successful and more easily forgotten than the popular ones.

And Shakespeare was popular. But he was also skilled, and popular because of his skill. Sure, he catered to the silly at times — but name me a successful and enduring fiction author who didn’t understand the value of humor.

So what did Shakespeare do that was so successful, and how can a prose author learn anything from a playwright? The secret lies in comparison. As I said, normal speech patterns have us inserting unnecessary words to let people catch up; and we often go slowly to boot. Shakespeare couldn’t afford that, so we have an apparently odd habit of referencing multiple ideas and making allusions to other works of literature and myth, things that seem unnecessary to the modern ear and make the play far too long when we just read it.

And yet those serve an important purpose: even though the words are meant to be delivered at a fast clip, those extra allusions let us mentally catch up if we lose track. So Shakespeare is an excellent way to study pacing — just strip out the “extra” material and see how it goes. In a stage play, it would need to go at a slower pace. In a novel, it would be nearly perfect pacing. Pacing varies for different genres and even different scenes, but if you want a quick source to study, you simply can’t beat Shakespeare.

But that’s just pacing; how do you manage description? How do you keep from using too little or too much? How do you show emotion and action? For that, we’ll need to come back to each one in turn. Stay tuned for future blog posts on these subjects! And remember to tell your friends about this site, and “like” it on Facebook.