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Writing Advice

Give Life

by Dave King

Set designers often create the illusion that a living room set is a real place rather than a collection of furniture and backdrops by putting a door in the back wall, facing the audience. Whenever a character opens the door, the audience gets a glimpse of a bit of wallpaper, a light fixture, perhaps an end table — just enough detail to give the impression that the living room has a hallway, and hence an entire house, behind it.

As a writer, you want to do the same thing with the fictional world you create. You can't show your characters' entire lives to your readers any more than a set designer can put an entire house on stage. Yet you want your readers to feel your characters are real people with lives that extend beyond the boiled-down version you've shown them.

How do you do it? How do you create the sense that there are unwritten details just out of sight around the corners of your story? How do you get your readers to assume that your characters go on living even when you're not writing about them? In short, how do you give your stories texture?

Set Your Scenes

One way is to create settings that are as individual as your characters. Real places endure — they are still there even when no one is in them. So if your settings feel like real places, your readers will assume they still exist even when you're not writing about them.

Of course, you can't capture a setting by describing it in minute detail. Attention spans are not what they once were, and the days when an author could take two pages to describe a single room are long since gone. Besides, you want to leave your readers enough slack so they can use their own imaginations to fill in the missing details. If you give them room to customize your settings based on their own experience, your settings will seem that much more real.

But you also can't ignore descriptive detail entirely, as more and more authors are doing in an age of minimalism. You don't want sterile, featureless, anonymous locations; you want real places. If you set a scene in a restaurant, for instance, without giving a feel for what kind of restaurant it is — haute cuisine, yuppie fern bar, or shopping mall cafeteria — your readers are either adrift with no sense of place at all, or else they have to create your entire restaurant in their minds from scratch, which is asking them to do too much.

What you need to do is prime your readers' imaginations with a few idiosyncratic details. A caricaturist captures a famous face in just a few lines by concentrating on the feature that stands out most — Jay Leno's jaw, Barbara Streisand's nose, Sinead O'Conner's scalp. In the same way, pick out the one or two details that most make your setting what it is, and let your readers fill in the rest.

If you set a scene in a used-book store, for instance, show your readers the green leather armchair with the stuffing dribbling out and the store cat who naps on the window display. If it's an inner-city McDonalds drive through, show them the speaker grill hanging by one screw and the dead geraniums under the menu board. If I were to tell you that my favorite local restaurant displays a license plate collection on one wall and lets patrons bring their dogs, you would know what kind of place it is.

One way to train yourself to choose the right details is to practice on the real places you visit every day. Whenever you walk into a room, get into a cab or stare out a window, pick the two details — no more than two — that most make that place what it is. And remember to use all five senses. The telling detail might be the Vivaldi playing on a tape deck on the cab's front seat, the smell of an impending thunderstorm, or the hard slippery feel of cheap polyester carpeting under your feet.

If you choose the right details, you can sometimes capture not only a place but the culture that created it. This paragraph from Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, set in London after a nuclear holocaust, is a good example:

The kitchen was small. Along one wall was apparatus for the cafe: the frying machine for the fish and the chips; and an electric stove which Jimmy had filched from the ruins down the road after the bomb had fallen. There was also an old-fashioned wood stove, which was used as a cupboard, or larder.

Notice how much you can tell about life in post-apocalypse London from this kitchen. The mundane fish-and-chips fryer next to the modern stove salvaged from a ruined building show you ordinary life gone badly wrong. And the old wood stove used as a cupboard means that people are coping as best they can. It's all there in a few carefully chosen details.

Forget "Write Tight"

Many books for authors suggest that you can add depth to your main characters by writing detailed biographies for them. Even when these biographies don't end up in your final draft (and they shouldn't, unless they have a direct bearing on the plot), they help you know your characters better and so help you make your characters more real.

Writing out offstage details can add depth to more than your characters. If you're trying to understand the relationship between two characters, for instance, write a scene from their childhood friendship. If you want to give a feel for life in an army platoon, write a monologue for the imperious commanding officer who trained the lieutenant. If you want to give a sense of a small town, describe Main Street fifty years ago and work out how it got to where it is today. When you know all the unseen details, it's easier to convince your readers those details are there.

This technique was taken to its extreme when J.R.R. Tolkein spent more than twenty-five years working on the background to The Lord of the Rings. Every inch of ground his characters cover has centuries of history behind it. Every shift in the alliances between his warring factions is the outcome of generations of intricate politics.

At one point, after Gandalf leads his followers into an ancient mine, Aragorn tells them not to worry because Gandalf "is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Beruthiel." For most authors, this would have been a throwaway line, with Beruthiel a made-up name. When Tolkein wrote this line, he knew who Queen Beruthiel and her cats were, whom she'd fought and why, how long before Aragorn's time she'd lived, and probably how much her story was distorted as it passed from generation to generation. All of that history was behind one throwaway line. This astonishing attention to unwritten detail is what leaves you with the impression that, as one reviewer put it, if Middle Earth doesn't exist, it ought to.

Move Some Action Offstage

It's not enough simply to create the impression that your stage set is connected to a real, offstage world. You want your readers to feel your characters live in that world even when you're not writing about them. You want to move some of your action offstage.

I recently edited a promising mystery in which the detective was a reporter covering a child custody case in which the mother had been murdered. The problem was, the author told the story almost entirely through the reporter's interviews with various suspects. As a result, you got the impression that the characters came on stage, said their lines, then retired to the wings and had coffee. There were no hints that they had lives when the reporter wasn't talking to them.

I suggested that the author add some offstage action by having the foster father start a custody battle with the natural mother. This fight implied offstage meetings between the characters and various lawyers, phone calls to a certain crooked judge, attempts to get the reporter fired, all sorts of background machinations the readers only became aware of from their results. The story the readers saw became the surface of a much larger story, and the manuscript gained texture.

Of course, you have to make sure your offstage action is as coherent as what happens on stage — to make sure, for instance, that your characters always have good motives for what they do when your readers aren't looking. This is especially true in mysteries where the single most important event, the murder, usually happens offstage. I've worked on too many mysteries in which, when the detective finally reveals all, the murder doesn't make sense in retrospect. The killer acted in a fit of passion then appeared calm ten minutes later. Or the killer stabbed the victim then walked away in broad daylight on a crowded street with blood all over his clothes.

It's important to catch these inconsistencies, because even when readers don't consciously notice them, they are still aware on some level that something is wrong. The hallway door in the stage set has windows on either side of it.

Use Subplots

In real life, people are involved — sometimes as the main character, sometimes as a walk-on — in any number of overlapping stories all going on at once. So if your novel consists of a single, self-contained plot with no loose ends or extraneous material, it will seem artificial. If you want to create a world that seems real, you need to complicate your characters' lives with subplots.

Since everyone is always involved in innumerable subplots, you face the same questions as when you're setting a scene: how much do you include and what do you leave out? When your subplot has some direct impact on your main plot — if, for instance, your heroine's depression over the death of her dog leads her to break up with her lover — then the choice is easy. Yet the subplots that create texture most effectively are the ones that aren't related to the main plot, the ones that seem to "just happen."

But you can't afford dead wood, and even unrelated subplots should resonate with the main plot. In A. S. Byatt's Possession, Roland Michell, a graduate student trying to find himself through his researches into the work of a nineteenth-century poet, lives in a basement apartment beneath a landlady who owns fifteen cats. The landlady refuses to allow the cats (or Roland) into the garden behind the building, and the cats urinate all over the floors above his apartment, with predictable results. By the end of the book, the landlady dies, and Roland finally lets the cats (and himself) into the garden.

In one sense the cats are just cats, one of the odd details of landlord/tenant relationships familiar to any apartment dweller. But in another sense, the cats are a metaphor for Roland's long-suppressed creativity, a creativity that begins to emerge by the end of the book. The use of subplots, like this one, that work on several different levels is one way Ms. Byatt creates Possession's rich texture.

Move Beyond Your Covers

Another way to convince your readers there is more to your story than what you've written is to start with the action already underway. If an old grudge is driving someone to try to kill your hero, for instance, open the story with the scene in which the first shots are fired and let your readers find out about the grudge afterwards. This not only gets your readers into the meat of the story quickly, it also creates the sense that things started happening before you started writing about them. Again, you move some of your action offstage.

This effect is often easier to accomplish with a subplot than with your main plot. For instance, in one of the subplots in Lawrence Sanders' The First Deadly Sin, Captain Delaney's wife Barbara dies a slow death from a raging infection. Sanders introduces this subplot with Barbara already in the hospital and delirious, and she recovers and relapses over the course of the book. By starting this subplot in the middle, Sanders manages to create a sense of the Delaneys' entire marriage — decades of backstory — through a few quick scenes of the marriage at its end.

It's more difficult to extend your story beyond the back cover of your book, since by definition your story ends when the main plot question is resolved. But even when you wrap up your main plot completely — when the murderer is revealed and carted off to justice, for instance — you can often use subplots to show that your characters go on living when the story is over.

In the main subplot of Francis Fyfield's Not That Kind of Place, Helen and Bailey are trying to decide whether or not they want to live in the suburb of the title. At the end of the book, they both discover that neither of them likes the place, and they decide to move back to London. By ending the subplot with the decision, Fyfield implies all sorts of action — arranging for an apartment, hiring movers, perhaps some redecorating — that will take place after the book is over. The plot is over, but her characters' lives continue.

Do Everything at Once

The most effective — and challenging — way to create texture is to have all the elements of your story perform several functions at once. After all, the neat little distinctions between plot and subplot, plot and texture, even plot and character exist only in literary theory. Real life is much messier. So when you write a scene whose sole purpose is to, say, establish a character trait, the scene will feel artificial. But if the same scene sets up a plot twist, reveals a character in a new way and perhaps fills in some backstory, then the scene will start to feel like real life.

For instance, the scenes of Barbara's slow death in The First Deadly Sin do more than give the sense of Delaney's marriage. Sanders also uses these scenes to soften Delaney's character — at one point Delaney takes a break from his search for a vicious serial killer to read a children's book to Barbara while she's delirious. The subplot also let Sanders vary the pace of the story, which could otherwise easily become relentless. And Delaney's lack of control over his wife's health — and the chaos and confusion inherent in the death of a loved one — resonate beautifully with his methodical and controlled search for the killer. This one subplot performs at least four different functions in Sanders's story.

If you can learn to create scenes that advance your plot while bringing a deeper understanding of your characters while showing more of your settings while giving hints of backstory while resonating with other scenes in ways you may not even be consciously aware of — in short, if you can create scenes that feel as messy and exuberant as real life but still are part of a story — then you will be creating a story with texture.

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